Holiday Shopping For Lawyers

A handwritten letter from a person whose name was completely unfamiliar arrived at the office from an upstate New York correctional facility. It read:

Dear Mr. Greenfield,

I need a lawyer to handle my appeal. An associate suggested you. Please let me know what type of criminal law you practice, trials or appeals. Also, what is your experience? What is your won-lost record?

I look forward to hearing from you.



Letters from people in prison in need of a lawyer are nothing new. I’ve been getting them for more than 30 years. But this letter was different.  Usually, they are lengthy tomes, providing every detail a potential client wants a lawyer to know.  If nothing else, they are cathartic, sending the most personal information to lawyers they don’t know.

I cringe when I get one, as they reveal far too much and they are, well, largely incomprehensible. Their authors aren’t always competent writers.  But this letter was brief and to the point. It gave up nothing about its writer.  The content of this letter seemed to come straight off the “how to find a lawyer” link from websites written by people who have the least competency to opine.

I responded:

Dear Joe,

Thank you for your letter. I note that you neglect to mention what crime you were convicted of, the name of your “associate” who gave you my name, or whether you have the ability to retain counsel for your appeal.

I’ve been practicing criminal law for quite a while now. In fact, I’ve done trials and appeals for more than three decades, and I’ve done a lot of them over that time. Because of this, I tend to decide which cases I want to take, whether because the case interests me or because I want to work with the client. I also decide what cases I don’t care to take, for the same reasons.  Your letter fails to provide anything to suggest that I would be interested in working with you or on your case.

Your letter asks some questions that have become popular over the last few years. People who don’t know better think they are good questions to ask of a lawyer. They sound as if they should be to the unsophisticated client.  But they really aren’t good questions. This is why:

You ask if I’m experienced. If I was to tell you I am, because I want you to retain me, you wouldn’t know whether that was true or not. I could tell you I’ve done a thousand cases just like yours and you would never know. To the extent the question is intended to distinguish the competent and experienced lawyer from the others, the lawyer you are most likely to entice with that question is not merely lacking in competence and experience, but honesty.

As for my won/lost record, I could tell you that I’ve won 87.5% of my cases. Pretty impressive, right? But is it true? You wouldn’t know. And even if it was true, were those cases relevant to yours at all? You wouldn’t know.  Few things could be less meaningful to you, and yet you think that question is important enough to you to ask.

The truth is, I don’t keep track of my won/lost record and have no clue, because there is nothing less relevant to a client’s situation than what happened in another person’s case. I’ve had great wins and terrible losses, but none of them matters to you. Each case is unique, and the outcome in other cases means nothing as far as the outcome in yours.  When you ask such a question, it tells me that you are an unsophisticated client. I prefer not to work with unsophisticated clients.

I suspect that there will be other lawyers who will want your business, regardless of what you have been convicted of or how difficult a client you turn out to be.  They will respond to your questions, even though your questions are naïve and foolish, because they don’t care about anything other than getting the work and whatever money you may have to pay them.

Are those the lawyers you hope to have represent you? I suspect not, but that’s the best you can hope for when you send out such a letter.  It doesn’t make them bad lawyers, but rather lawyers who are sufficiently desperate for money that they will bite at any opportunity.  Even yours.

Whether or not this will make for a good relationship is unknown, but it has great potential for problems.  Yet, that will be the best response a letter like yours can achieve. What it will not achieve is getting a lawyer like me to take an interest in you or your case.

If you really got my name from an “associate,” an odd choice of words given your circumstances, then you should already know the answers to your questions. But since people are being told to ask questions such as yours before retaining a lawyer, you probably thought it best to ask these questions first, even though you had a far better and more trustworthy source of information about my reputation at hand.  You would have done well to rely on earned reputation rather than foolish questions passed around on the internet.

I wish you the best of luck in your search for a lawyer, your appeal and for the holiday season. I am not the right lawyer for you.

Very truly yours,


Perhaps Joe will turn out to have a very interesting case, be a wonderful human being and be flush with funds to pay for his legal representation.  I will never know.  If you end up with Joe’s case, let me know how it works out.  If it goes well, this is my holiday present to you. For your sake and Joe’s, I wish the best to both of you.


30 thoughts on “Holiday Shopping For Lawyers

  1. Karl Erich Martell

    I thought it was artfully done, with regard to the explanation of how the letter had the wrong focus. It’s the kind of answer that I’d like to think I’d take the time to write: it wasn’t especially warm and fuzzy, but it could actually help make Joe’s world (and those of his future associates) a little better by providing this information.

    Thanks for the post – I salute your patience in crafting such a detailed response.

    1. SHG Post author

      This has become a pervasive problem, and I expect it to get far worse. And while my response doesn’t mention it, I suspect my letter is one of 20 or perhaps even more, to be sent because that’s what the internet tells people to do. And then, the next step will be requests for personal interviews. Stupidity on the internet will be the death of us all.

  2. william doriss

    The problem with being a “layperson” is that we’re not trained in the “law.” We’ll that’s obvious, but often forgotten. Many of us enter the system with no prior experience or knowlege of what goes on and why.
    So why would anyone be surprised if we were to ask a stewpid question? We don’t know what questions to ask; we don’t know if a CDL is competent, concerned, interested or even “honest”!
    If we get stuck with a PD and the Office of Public Defenders, all we know is that they wear ill-fitting suits and dresses, and look funny. We don’t know that they’re “overworked” and “underpaid”, and graduated from the bottom of their respective law school classes. I mean, when was the last time you saw an Ivy League lawyer in a court of common pleas?
    Making it personal, I attempted to contact a lady CDL referred to me in CT. Left a message; she, solo operator, called me back at 3:55 p.m. She wanted to know what this was “all about”? I started to explain my situation and/or predicament. She interrupted with, “Look, I just got in and I have to pick my daughter up at 4:00 p.m. Thinking quickly on my feet, I hung up and never called back. She did not call me back either. Every single private-practice CDL in CT explained to me in no uncertain terms why he/she could not take my “very important” crimal cases. What we have here is a “failute to communicate.” Thank you, Paul Newman.

    1. SHG Post author

      I bet you’re surprised that I allowed this comment to post (though I was inclined to delete your “personal” portion, but then decided to let it remain intact). The reason is that your comment raises an interesting problem.

      You are correct, that many people don’t have sufficient knowledge of the system to make wise choices. It’s a huge problem. I hope that some of what I write will help to illuminate matters, but then, I (and other CDLs who similarly try to help) are just a drop in a very large, very stupid bucket. People don’t want to learn. They want their beliefs confirmed. For every CDL who tries to help, there are thousands of websites, message boards, writers who have no clue what they’re talking about contradicting us.

      And then, there are all the laymen explaining why CDLs are blithering idiots who know nothing about criminal law, like they do.

      But here’s another side that you, as a non-lawyer, don’t see. We only have so much time during the day to spend explaining things to people who don’t want to know or understand. If people want to disagree with us, then they will. With some experience, you come to realize that you can’t “fix” everyone and everything, and so you let it go. There is a reason why difficult clients can’t find lawyers (or at least competent lawyers). As much as we may feel badly about the fact that we can’t save everyone, the fact is we can’t, and our choice is other to let it go or go nuts. Going nuts helps no one. Look what it’s done for you.

      1. william doriss

        Will take it “under advisement”. Ha. Thanx for posting my comment, typos and all. We know you guys are overwhelmed. We, the lay public, are contrariwise underwhelmed. Or did I get it backwards? Can’t help being nuts when you’re from the Nutty State, a state in Denial. Yes, I was surprised, pleasantly so. A slow day on Wall St.?

        1. SHG Post author

          We do what we can, but if we don’t learn to stop banging our heads against walls, we end up with a badly dented head.

      2. Vidiot

        Interesting response.

        So how does one find a good defense lawyer, and what questions should one ask? How should one approach them?

        I have, thankfully, never needed a criminal defense lawyer, and would be especially clueless/naive in dealing in this area. I’ve always wondered about stories in which someone who’s talking to the police says they’ll call their lawyer. Does anyone — who isn’t a professional criminal — have a CDL on retainer? Or should I make contact with a lawyer and carry a business card in the event that I may need it at some future point?

        1. SHG Post author

          I’ve answered that question numerous times here. Short answer is that best way to find a lawyer is through another lawyer’s referral. Second best is former client referral. There are no magic questions, but there are really bad questions.

    2. Andrew

      “graduated from the bottom of their respective law school classes. I mean, when was the last time you saw an Ivy League lawyer in a court of common pleas?”

      The twin assumption that PDs are poor students and that students from prestigious schools never become PDs is not true, in my experience. Definitely not the former.

      If you’re going to ask for sympathy based on ignorance, best not to make silly little assumptions.

      1. SHG Post author

        Tread lightly with people from the Nutty State. Never take them too literally. It will just make your head hurt.

      2. william doriss

        You are misreading/misquoting me: I did not say PDs were poor students. They could be rich students, for all I know? Rich, poor, who cares? What I meant really was that PDs were “poor” lawyers (and judges run roughshod over them willy-nilly), either by design or roll of the dice. Not all of the time, of course; but more often than not in the regular course of proceedings. IMO. You are entitled to your opinion, I am entitled to mine.
        I did not just climb out of the banana boat or fall off the haywagon. Perhaps somebody should do a “scientific”, statistical study/analysis for answers? Those lawyers and CDLs who live in [transparent] glass houses should not throw stones. And those who live in big stone castles surrounded by wide moats should come out of hiding and fight fair.
        It is not a fair fight for many of us defendants in Amerika these days, as SHG and other observant blawgers have amply pointed out. These are not–excuse me!–“silly little assumptions”; they are adult, educated observations of a 1/2-way intelligent guy who was there, went to the mat, did that and suffered the consequences: The “ride”, even though we won, we lost, if you catch my drift? I say, let’s call for a scientific investigation of these matters in doubt. And thanx for tuning in.

  3. Kerry

    Mr. Greenfield, thank you for your blog. I, for one, have learned much from your time spent writing. Reading here has been enlightening. Thank you.
    I would only hope to enjoy the professional quality you exhibit in my own selection of a lawyer should I ever need one. In the meantime I continue learning much here which would inform me in such a choice and for that I thank you.

    1. SHG Post author

      If you’re ever in need (and I hope you’re not), there are plenty of us around who would be happy to direct you to excellent lawyers in the niche and location you need. I don’t know any good lawyer who isn’t happy to help.

  4. Eric L. Mayer

    I refer a good client to you, and this is how you respond? Joe’s never going to let me forget this one.

    1. SHG Post author

      He said “associate,” not “unwashed associate.” (I was gonna write something else, but it would have been vulgar.)

  5. John Barleycorn

    An Angie’s List of CDLs would not come with the pros and cons on individual CDL’s return policy or would it?

    How about snarky stars? Would one snarky star be better than five or five be better than one?

    Is there still hope for the Criminal Defense Maintenance Insurance Organization?

    I have always wondered what might happen if a few hundred “good” CDLs and a half dozen “mad” underwriters were to get together for a week long retreat with booze by the case.

    Adding a rider to the typical business or individual liability policy doesn’t do anyone any justice. Not to mention it is becoming increasingly difficult to trust ones associates in prison these days for fear of the inquiry itself being later used against you when it turns out your associate is on the prosecutors payroll.

    Are jail house informants unionized yet btw?

    Happy New Year! Expect targeted smart phone gps cookie triggered direct marketing coming to some of the larger municipalities near you in 2014. Turn your cell phone on within fifty yards of county lock up and wham you will be weeding through dozens of CDL adverts on every web page you visit for a month.

    Don’t miss this golden opportunity.

  6. Bob

    Dear Mr. Greenfield,

    I get letters from prison inmates occasionally, too…usually painstakingly handwritten in careful block lettering. Your observation of how they’re full of personal and irrelevant information is my experience too.

    I thought your reply was condescending and rude. The guy is looking for a lawyer. He may be in jail or prison, but he’s a human being…and there is no harm in being kind and polite. You should have told him you weren’t interested and suggested a bar referral service.

    1. SHG Post author

      That was certainly an option, but not one that would do him any good. He is a human being, which is why it’s far more useful to try to educate him and help him in a meaningful way than rub his tummy and let him fall into the abyss.

      People in prison don’t need kind and polite. They need help. Real help. Therein lies the difference in our respective approaches.

  7. Timothy P. Flynn

    No one with a criminal case has the time to do this, but the best way to learn about criminal defense lawyers in any given geographic area is to attend a few crowded criminal calls to observe first hand the varied styles of the defense bar. While this person will mostly see a variety of lawyers step-up to the podium to request adjournment after adjournment, every now and then some good allocution gets splashed onto the record.

    This, of course, is difficult if you are locked-up. Then you need some money, or a motivated friend or family member to sift through the, er, garbage that’s out there in our profession. Good luck with that.

    Even someone with Mr. Greenfield’s earned reputation for solid criminal defense -something he now does when taking time away from his law blog- has most of the details of that reputation hidden from view. Does any lawyer with more than a decade of real trial experience know their “won/lost record”? Is a plea agreement with a “no jail” guarantee considered a win?

    Justice depends on excellent lawyering and Greenfield is correct in his comment: getting the right lawyer on the case remains a huge problem in the system. Appeals cannot correct everything.

    1. SHG Post author

      Lots of good stuff in your comment. One aspect of particular interest is when you write (about me) that despite whatever rep I have, my blog, my website, my former clients, I still have “most of the details of that reputation hidden from view.” It’s true. I, and many other lawyers who have practices for decades, ponder what to do about this.

      There are two problems. First, we suffer from the modesty of our “age,” that the idea of shameless self-promotion is so disgraceful to us that we could never bear to do it. It’s just not conceivable to run around, whether the hallways or internet, proclaiming our greatness to score a case. But then, we wonder whether anyone can read between the lines sufficiently to know that we’re good lawyers. I often doubt it.

      But the alternative is that our business comes from client and lawyer referrals, rather than blind search, and with it comes an understanding of the type of cases we prefer to handle and the nature of our fees. After the first thousand calls from the internet asking what we charge for public urination cases, one comes to appreciate clients who call to retain us for serious matters at serious fees. Still, this leaves a broad swathe of potential clients without a good means of locating an appropriate lawyer, and instead relying on the idiocy the internet offers, the front page of Google self-promoters who will say anything to score a case and sell the client out by the second appearance.

      While there is no shortage of solutions ranging from bad to truly horrible, no one has as yet come up with an effective solution to the dilemma. And you are absolutely right that appeals cannot correct everything. The best chance for success by far is before conviction, and it’s too often squandered by poor choices.

      1. william doriss

        Brilliant. The appellate courts correct nothing. They generally rubber-stamp the trial court. Some justices, it would appear, don’t even read the briefs and come to court unprepared. Well, maybe they “speed-read.” Ha. By the time you find a good lawyer and line up the resources to pay for, you’re finished,… cooked. Heads, they win; tails, you lose. What a farce! Seriously, it’s a farce, a shameful Kabuki dance of the highest order.

        1. SHG Post author

          Don’t overstate and oversimplify the point. Cases get reversed, but not enough and the relative burden is shifted against the defense. Yes, it’s far harder to prevail on appeal. Yes, a lot of appellate decisions carry the stink of a “rubber stamp.” But no, it’s not impossible and it’s not a farce. Not entirely, anyway.

          1. Timothy P. Flynn

            Mr. Greenfield, in addition to picking-up something interesting from your frequent blog posts, one of your principal values in the law blogosphere for me is your constant clarion-call against “shameless self-promotion”. Truly, it has cheapened, if not ruined, our once noble profession.

            At 50+, I have many lawyer friends in their 60s who, like you, just don’t do it and cannot understand why the newbies seem to live for it and totally depend on it. On the other hand, I have “come-of-age” in the profession during an era when the American Dream, lawyer-style, has run its sickening course to the extent that one can now observe a lawyer hustling on just about every street corner in America. This era has coincided with the explosion of the Internet.

            With so many new lawyers carrying so much law school debt, the tendency is to differentiate oneself on-line in order to stand out and, hopefully, desperately, attract clients. What better cheaper easier way to do this than on the Internet where the truth is nothing more than a vague relative concept.

            As one of my early Big Law mentors [my boss] commented to me in disgust in the early 1990s amid the hoopla of our former law firm’s latest [pre-Internet] marketing thrust: “This is bullshit; the best way to get clients is to do good legal work on the files that you have.” Imagine that; attracting clients by being a good lawyer.

            I have never forgotten his advice as my general practice has grown over the past decade. Now, I am fortunate to have 3 associates working on many files that we bring in from the Internet. But I am always telling them to take care of the clients we have as they will be far better referral sources in the long-run than the fickle ebb and flow of the Google search.

            As our firm is considering making Simple Justice required reading, we hope, as you contemplate retirement from the courtrooms of Gotham, that you will carry on with this blog so that your readers can continue to profit from your experienced “take” on the varied legal matters of the day.

            1. SHG Post author

              Would you please stop calling me Mr. Greenfield? You make me feel like I’m wearing spats. And who said I’m contemplating retirement? At least not until I finally get rich off blawging.

              Thanks, and I’m glad that my posts are helpful. I share your concerns about young lawyers, and fully appreciate their situation. But it’s critical to remember that short term needs come at the sacrifice of long term interests. Once lawyers find themselves wallowing in the gutter, there is no way to recapture our lost dignity and integrity.

            2. tim

              Ha, will do. I hear everyone out there calls you “Greenfield” anyway. Thought I read you were retiring. Well, as long as you’re still looking to blog-away, we’re all good…

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