One of the first things I look at when I get involved in any new case is who is my opposing counsel. Though I’ve never practiced in a small town, the legal community in Southern California is smaller than you’d think when it comes to lawyers who concentrate their practice on a particular area, such as employment discrimination or product liability lawsuits. If the lawyer is someone I’ve come up against before, I generally have a pretty good idea what to expect. But if the name or the firm is unfamiliar, I like to do some research, to find out who I’m up against. Here’s what I look for, why, and where I look to find it:
1. Firm or solo practitioner. Is he or she a part of a partnership or a solo? This is usually evident from the caption of the complaint or letterhead if we’re in the presuit stage. Why do I care? If it’s a mega-firm, I expect the opponent is well-funded (by their nature, big law firms tend to be expensive, though not always) and I’m likely to encounter a “team” of lawyers on the other side. This doesn’t make the case easier or harder to win–it’s just a factor. If it’s a smaller partnership or solo, and the case is one taken on contingency (where the lawyer fronts time and expenses) the ability of my opponent to properly fund the case, through trial if necessary, may become a factor. Sometimes I will see an anomaly. If, for example, a partner from a high-powered BigLaw firm has taken a small case on contingency (a rarity), it suggests he or she may have some personal stake in the outcome. Perhaps the party is a family member or close personal friend. In either event, the lawyer may not be as objective about the case as if it was an arm’s-length representation.
2. Bar number. How seasoned is my opponent? Assuming they were not previously admitted elsewhere (a dangerous assumption), I can make an estimate based on Bar number. Whether I’m facing a new lawyer or a veteran does not, by itself, make the case harder or easier to win. But I know from experience that a sole practitioner fresh out of law school will tend to exercise different judgment than someone who has been practicing for a few years or longer.
3. Website. I access the opponent’s web site. I still sometimes encounter lawyers working by candlelight who have not invested in a website. When this is the case I picture (perhaps unfairly) a caveman (caveperson) lawyer on the other side. The problem is that some cavepersons really do know how to build and try a case (and connect surprisingly well with jurors–some of whom are also cavepersons), so it’s not any automatic comfort. Assuming there is a website, this provides a wealth of information. For example, do they focus their practice or dabble in every area under the sun. Do they have a professional picture, or are they wearing a flowered Hawaiian shirt?
In Part II of this post, I will explore additional sources of information and what kind of information I consider useful and why.