I am a guy who likes adventure. Good, clean, responsible, wholesome adventure. My most recent adventure was my participation in the 2012 U.S. Pond Hockey Championships in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It’s a tournament where the organizers set up 26 hockey rinks on frozen Lake Nokomis for three days of competition and camaraderie in snowy sub-zero conditions.
On the first night of my trip, while I was waiting for the shuttle to take me from the lake back to my hotel, I met a team from Alabama. They were all originally from Canada and all played minor league hockey for years, one of them even enjoying a brief stint with the NHL’s Calgary Flames. They were as rowdy and non-PC as you might expect a bunch of former Canadian minor league hockey players to be.
They invited me to accompany them for the night as they planned to go out and have some fun. I declined as I suspected that the kind of adventures they had in mind that night were probably not of the “good, clean, responsible, wholesome” variety. However, once they found out I was a lawyer, they all asked me for my phone number in case they needed legal help at 3:00 in the morning. I tried to explain to them that (1) as an Estate Planning lawyer, I do not specialize in Criminal Law; and (2) I am not licensed to practice law in Minnesota. I’m not sure if these fine points ever sunk in. However, this anecdote reveals an important lesson about finding the right lawyer.
Historically, it was common for the town lawyer to practice in a variety of fields. The same lawyer could file a lawsuit on your behalf relating to a business transaction, could defend you in a criminal case, and could draft your Will. However, as society and the legal system have become more complex, the “general practitioner” lawyer is rare and is probably not the best person to handle your legal matter. “Dabbling” in a practice area can be dangerous and you want to be sure you have a lawyer who has the expertise to help you with your issue.
I have no hesitation in turning down legal projects if I feel that a particular issue is outside my scope of expertise. I firmly believe that it is important to be honest about the matters that I am able to handle well and those that would be better handled by a lawyer who specializes in a different area of the law. What should always be paramount is that a particular client’s matter will be handled well.
A good method for finding a lawyer who specializes in a particular area of the law is to look for lawyers who are certified by the State Bar of California as “Legal Specialists.” Each Certified Legal Specialist must practice in the area for a minimum number of years, have a minimum number of educational credits in the particular area, be recommended for certification by numerous peers, and take a 6.5 hour exam. The State Bar of California certifies “specialists” in 11 practice areas. For more information, please visit www.calbar.org and click on “Legal Specialists.”
Although I am a Certified Legal Specialist by the State Bar of California in Estate Planning, Trust and Probate Law, I would not have a clue about how to handle a criminal matter; likewise, a criminal attorney would likely not be able to draft an effective estate plan.