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Some people really do practice law without a license, whether because they lost their license or never had one. Before shelling out money to retain an attorney, research the attorney's license to confirm it's good. You'll usually use your state's bar association, but there are other bodies that can help with an attorney-credential search.
The State Bar Website
Lawyers are licensed state by state. Find your state's bar association online, and then enter the attorney's name in the search function. If he doesn't show up, he's not a licensed attorney.
Some bar associations don't let you research lawyer licenses online. The American Bar Association, however, has a web page that links to whichever agency in a given state has the facts. For example, the Maine link takes you not to the state bar but to the Board of Overseers of the Bar.
Knowing your attorney has a current license is good, but it's only a start. There are more questions you should answer to be certain you have the right lawyer:
- Do they have any disciplinary orders filed against them?
- Do they carry malpractice insurance?
- Are they experienced in the area you need help with? A patent attorney, for example, may not be the right person to defend you in a libel suit.
Your state bar, once again, is a good place to start. Several bar websites, such as California's, let you look up disciplinary issues. The site may also have information on whether the attorney has insurance. If he messes up and you sue him, malpractice insurance may pay more than you could force out of the attorney himself. Some state bars, such as North Carolina's, may let you search by legal specialty, to confirm the lawyer you're looking at knows what he's doing.
If the bar association doesn't provide information about discipline, the state government may. The FindLaw website provides links to the right bodies in all 50 states, whether it's the state bar or a government department such as Colorado's Office of Attorney Regulation.
The Nolo legal website offers a directory of attorneys by legal specialty. The site says every lawyer listed is licensed and in good standing with the state bar.
Knowing an attorney is licensed doesn't guarantee she's good, or a good fit for you. If you want to find a lawyer who has the skills you need, as well as the credentials, ask around. Check with:
- Friends or business owners who've used a lawyer in the right area of expertise.
- A local law librarian.
- Groups with an interest in the relevant area of law. Environmental groups may have lists of lawyers who handle development cases. A divorced men's support group might know the names of good divorce lawyers.
- Lawyer referral services. Before using one, though, ask what their standards are for listing lawyers.
Even if a lawyer has good credentials and comes highly recommended, she still has to be someone you can work with. A personal interview before committing to anything is a good idea.
- Above the Law: Man Finds Practicing Law (Without a License) Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be
- American Bar Association: Consumers' Guide to Legal Help
- Fight Fraud America: Attorney License Lookup
- Maine Board of Overseers of the Bar: Attorney Directory
- American Bar Association: Malpractice Insurance
- North Carolina State Bar: Find a Certified Specialist
- Nolo: How to Find an Excellent Lawyer