The church usually begins looking for an attorney only when it is confronted with a crisis—such as being served with a lawsuit. However, the need for an attorney’s advice actually arises during the planning stages of any activity or event. Take the following quiz to test if you know when it’s time to hire an attorney. The answer key is at the end of the article.
Download a PDF version of this checklist.
How do you find the right attorney?
The key to finding a lawyer is to look for one with the specific expertise and experience you need for the task. For example, tax law is a well-known specialty among lawyers. The Internal Revenue Code covers more than 45,000 pages. Obviously, no tax lawyer has read the entire 45,000 pages. Once you add another 110,000 pages of tax regulations, it becomes impossible for any one tax lawyer to keep up with just the primary authorities. But the Internal Revenue Code sections that address tax exempt organizations cover a few dozen pages. You want the attorney that knows those pages if you have a tax question.
The same is true in real estate, contract law, employment law, copyright law, family law, bankruptcy, consumer law, insurance law, oil and gas law, probate law, etc. No lawyer can know it all. Since many attorneys charge their clients by the hour, the church is paying for the attorney to learn the law applicable to the church's particular issue. The less expertise an attorney has with that particular issue, the longer it will take him or her to learn the law. The "right lawyer" knows what to do immediately, acts effectively and with little wasted effort or wasted expenditures of the church's money.
With that in mind, once the church has defined the problem, then it should begin searching for an attorney who has substantial expertise in dealing with the problem. A church should expect the search to take several days, or even weeks. The goal is to develop a short list of potential attorneys. Begin by searching for attorneys who may have the necessary expertise. For more general issues, the church may start with local attorneys within the church, or those listed in the local phone directory. For specific or unique issues, the search may include attorneys from across the country.
All attorneys specialize to one degree or another. Many states recognize board certified specialists. If the church needs a tax lawyer, the starting point should be those attorneys who are board certified in tax law in its state. For more specific legal issues, start with a Google search about the issue.
In developing the attorney list, the church will network with many attorneys and other professionals. With each phone call, ask about their experience with the church's particular issue. Also, ask for names of other attorneys who may have a more specialized expertise in that area. The best lawyers always know who the best lawyers are in their field of expertise. I have made as many as 75 phone calls to find the right lawyer for a client.
Once the short list is created, review the attorney qualifications in a publication called Martindale Hubbell. It is available on the Internet at martindale.com. This publication asks lawyers to determine the qualifications and ethics of fellow attorneys. Every lawyer is reviewed every five years. If a lawyer is not listed in this publication, it is because they have been practicing law for less than five years or the publication did not receive sufficient responses from fellow lawyers to provide a meaningful rating. Based on their rating system, attorneys who have an "AV" rating are considered the best. In 20 years of practicing law in using this rating system, I have never been disappointed by an attorney who had an AV rating.
From the short list of AV rated attorneys, interview attorneys to determine the best fit.
Answer Key: (1) F (2) T (3) T (4) F (5) T (6) T (7) T (8) T (9) T (10) T