How to Find a High Quality Lawyer That’s Right For You

The Florida Bar Board Certification and Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review Ratings

The Florida Bar reports there are over 98,000 licensed lawyers practicing in the state. How can you find the right lawyer for you? Like any profession, the quality of lawyers ranges wildly from “should’ve been disbarred long ago” to “that’s the lawyer other lawyers retain when they need representation.” Subpar or, even worse, incompetent legal representation is offensive to most lawyers because it smears the reputation of the entire profession and provides a disservice to clients whose best interests we lawyers are duty-bound to serve.

So the challenge for the layperson in need of legal counsel is how to find the so-called lawyers’ lawyer. Most people begin their search by asking family and friends for a referral. This approach really is hit-or-miss. Whether they recommend a lawyer will hinge largely on the success of their own case. But a truly adversarial situation, such as litigation, is a zero-sum game. There will generally be a clear winner and a loser in a particular case. But the results of that one case are not necessarily representative of the quality of the lawyers involved. Even the best lawyers can have a case go against one of their clients for a variety of reasons not directly related to their legal abilities. On the other hand, even marginal lawyers can win a case now and again that has nothing to do with their legal acumen. After all, a broken clock is right twice a day, but it would still be a mistake to rely on it.

Certifications and Ratings

This is not to suggest that no weight should be given to personal recommendations, but you should be very cautious about basing your decision entirely on someone else’s single experience with a particular lawyer. That represents too small of a sample to get an accurate sense of the lawyer’s overall competence and body of work. A more thorough means of determining the experience, professionalism, and quality of a lawyer is to check his or her certifications and ratings.

Genuinely meaningful certifications and quality ratings are based on far more data points and input than a single client’s personal experience. However, because lawyers are continually seeking ways to distinguish themselves in an increasingly competitive marketplace, legal certifications and rating services have become something of a cottage industry over the past few years. The number available has exploded, but the average person has no straightforward way of knowing whether those impressive sounding certifications and ratings that have grown ubiquitous of late are legitimate indicators of rigorous assessment and quality or simply handed out to just about any practicing lawyer with Internet access and a valid credit card.

The Florida Bar Board Certification

CivilTrialThe gold standard for certifications remains Board Certification by The Florida Bar, which describes it as follows: “Board certification recognizes attorneys’ special knowledge, skills and proficiency in various areas of law and professionalism and ethics in practice. [emphasis in the original]” The Florida Bar adds, “Certification is The Florida Bar’s highest level of evaluation of the competency and experience of attorneys in the 24 areas of law approved for certification by the Supreme Court of Florida. [emphasis in the original]”

The stated purpose of Board Certification is to help consumers identify specialists in particular practice areas. Accordingly, Board Certified lawyers are the only ones permitted to identify themselves as “Board Certified,” “Specialist,” or “Expert” on business cards, in legal directories, or in marketing collateral. However, they must make it clear that they are considered specialists only for the specific practice area in which they earned their Board Certification, and may not imply that they are legal specialists in general.

Earning Board Certification is a tremendously rigorous process involving evaluation of candidates’ subject matter expertise; thorough peer reviews; character and ethics investigations; and proof of significant involvement within the legal community. The minimum requirements just to be considered for Certification are as follows:

  • Practice law for a minimum of five years
  • Demonstrate substantial involvement in the field of law for which Certification is sought
  • Pass satisfactory peer review of competence in the specialty field as well as character, ethics and professionalism in the practice of law
  • Satisfy the Certification area’s continuing legal education requirements
  • Receive a passing grade on the examination required of all applicants or meet strict criteria to exempt the exam

The highly coveted Board Certification designation is valid for five years. During that time, lawyers must continue to practice law and meet minimum continuing legal education course requirements in order to be eligible for recertification upon expiration of each five year period. Even for recertification, applicants must meet requirements similar to those for their initial Certification.

Board Certification and Personal Injury Law

Earning and maintaining Board Certification is a demanding process that only exceptionally motivated high-achievers successfully accomplish. Of the approximately 98,000 practicing lawyers in Florida, only about 4,600 or 5% are Board Certified across all 24 practice areas in which Certification is offered. For an even more refined perspective on the numbers, out of those 4,600 Board Certified lawyers, only about 1,000 are Board Certified in Civil Trial Law, so a mere 1% of all practicing lawyers in Florida are Board Certified in civil trial law. Personal injury law per se is not one of the 24 Board Certified specialties. However, civil trial law is absolutely indispensable to the practice of personal injury law, and it is one of the 24 specialties.

The Florida Bar describes civil trial law as “the practice of law dealing with litigation of civil controversies in all areas of law before state courts, federal courts, administrative agencies and arbitrators.” In a nutshell, civil trial law is the rules of engagement for parties to a legal dispute based on civil procedure. Many of the rules of civil procedure are so esoteric and intricate that even many longtime practitioners do not fully appreciate all their nuances. When non-lawyers derisively refer to ‘legal technicalities,’ very often they are talking about some aspect of the rules of civil procedure (and rules of criminal procedure in criminal cases).

Cases can actually be won or client’s position bolstered by capable lawyers through superior knowledge of the rules of civil procedure to outmaneuver opposing counsel, having little or nothing to do with the actual substantive merits of the parties’ claims or defenses. The opposite also holds true; cases can similarly be lost or weakened by a lawyer’s lack of expertise in civil procedure. Large insurance companies have plenty of lawyers on staff who know every arcane rule of civil procedure on the books. If they can get a suit dismissed or undermine the strength of a plaintiff’s claim simply through the artful use of so-called legal technicalities without even getting to the merits, it is a tremendous victory for insurers.

Individuals who have suffered personal injury are best served by having a lawyer who can adeptly match civil procedure strategies with the insurance industry’s army of lawyers move-for-move. That is one of the critical advantages of being represented by a Board Certified lawyer in civil trial law when squaring off against the insurance industry. Keep in mind, any one of the 98,000 duly licensed lawyers in Florida is allowed to represent an injured party, but there are only about 1,000 recognized experts in civil trial law by The Florida Bar. If you were faced with financial ruin and a lifetime of medical treatments due to someone else’s actions, who would you want battling the insurance industry on behalf of you and your family when your future is literally at stake?

Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review Ratings

Bill-Bone-AV-Rated-5.0Just as Board Certification serves as the gold standard when it comes to legal certifications, Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review Ratings similarly remains the most prestigious and widely recognized lawyer directory and ratings system within the legal community. When legal decision makers were asked in a recent study if they could appear in just one legal directory (lawyer rating service) which would they select, 71% chose Martindale-Hubbell. Local chambers of commerce came in second with 8% of respondents opting for them. Most of the other lawyer directories and ratings services received less than 2% of the responses. The results prompted the authors of the study to conclude “Martindale-Hubbell is the single most prominent legal directory—in terms of awareness, usage and perceived helpfulness ….”

Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review Ratings date all the way back to 1887 and were introduced to serve as an objective means of rating a lawyer’s ability and professional ethics based on confidential surveys of fellow lawyers and judges. According to Martindale-Hubbell, the ratings are intended to:

help buyers of legal services identify, evaluate and select the most appropriate lawyer for a specific task at hand. Lawyer ratings serve as an objective indicator that a lawyer has the highest ethical standards and professional ability and are used by buyers of legal services to justify their hiring decisions.

Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review Ratings are based on “surveys of lawyers across multiple jurisdictions and geographic locations, in similar areas of practice as the lawyer being reviewed.” The two general components of a lawyer’s rating are General Ethical Standards and Legal Ability. General Ethical Standards encompasses adherence to “professional standards of conduct and ethics, reliability, diligence and other criteria relevant to the discharge of professional responsibilities.” A lawyer must first earn a ‘Very High’ overall rating from peers in order to even be eligible to proceed to the next step of the ratings process—Legal Ability.

The Legal Ability ratings component measures five critical areas that are rated on a scale from 1 to 5 (with 5 being the highest). The peer reviewed areas are:

  • Legal Knowledge—Lawyer’s familiarity with the laws governing his or her specific area of practice(s)
  • Analytical Capabilities—Lawyer’s creativity in analyzing legal issues and applying technical knowledge
  • Judgment—Lawyer’s demonstration of the salient factors that drive the outcome of a given case or issue
  • Communication Ability—Lawyer’s capability to communicate persuasively and credibly
  • Legal Experience—Lawyer’s degree of experience in his or her specific area of practice(s)

A complete Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review Rating results in a final numerical rating, which places the reviewed lawyer into one of three ratings categories as follows:

  • AV Preeminent (4.5 – 5.0)—AV Preeminent is a significant rating accomplishment, a testament to the fact that a lawyer’s peers rank him or her at the highest level of professional excellence
  • BV Distinguished (3.0 – 4.4)—BV Distinguished is an excellent rating for a lawyer with some experience. A widely respected mark of achievement; it differentiates a lawyer from his or her competition
  • Rated (1.0 – 2.9)—The Peer Review Rated designation demonstrates that the lawyer has met the very high criteria of General Ethical Standing. 

Final Thoughts

The sheer number of legal certifications and lawyer ratings services that have sprung-up in recent years can overwhelm and confuse members of the general public searching for a lawyer. Certifications and ratings were originally intended as a genuine means of distinguishing lawyers of the absolute highest ethical and professional caliber from their peers. However, with the relatively recent proliferation of new certifications and ratings services, it has become difficult for the average person to distinguish between those that signify truly stellar accomplishments from those that can best be described as savvy marketing efforts.

The good news is that even non-lawyers can fairly easily identify those lawyers whom we have been referring to as the ‘lawyers’ lawyer.’ That is, identifying them can be quite straightforward if you know what to look for. We have discussed at considerable length the prestige and rigor of earning Board Certification by The Florida Bar and an AV Preeminent rating from Martindale-Hubbell. Accordingly, it is safe to conclude that those lawyers who are both Board Certified and AV Preeminent rated are likely to appear on other lawyers’ very short list of practitioners they would hire if they needed legal representation. After all, those rare lawyers who hold both distinctions do so precisely because their peers have already rated them as the legal profession’s very best and brightest as well as most ethical.

To begin your lawyer search, click on the helpful links below.

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