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Real Credentials, Baloney Credentials, and Those In-Between

By Andrew Mishlove on March 23, 2015


I’m going to tell you a secret – a secret that most lawyers know, and a secret that you should know if you need to choose a lawyer: many lawyers tout baloney credentials. I’m sure that I've offended a few people, but it needed to be said. The public deserves to be protected against phony credential mills.

The best credential is a proven track-record of success over many years. I know several lawyers who have no certificates, have written no books, are named on no lists, and so on, who are fabulous attorneys. But, let’s talk about those other credentials that some lawyers tout, some of which are just hokum. There are several types of credential mills. Some are just phony. Some have a degree of validity, but also have an aspect of “pay-for-play.” Of course, some credentials are totally legitimate, even coveted.

Let’s talk about the worst of the phony-baloney credentials: best lawyers lists. There are a number of outfits out there that have high-sounding names, that will name a lawyer “one of the top 100 lawyers in the state,” “one of the top 40 lawyers in the city," or suchlike. If you see this kind of credential posted on a lawyer’s website, check into it more deeply. It may or may not be a real credential.

Often, in order to get this credential, the only thing a lawyer has to do is pay a fee of a few hundred dollars. There may be no requirement to be named to this list, other than the willingness to pay the fee. The credential mills simply surf the Internet, find the lawyers who are advertising a particular field of law, name them, and then try to sell them “memberships," advertising, plaques and trophies, etc.

how to rate a lawyer with credentialsAnother area of suspicious credentials are magazine lawyer ratings. Many of these are legitimate, some are phony, and some are in-between. There are magazines out there that will name many lawyers as “top lawyers,” “best lawyers,” and so on. The worst of these magazines name many such lawyers, sometimes hundreds per city, and then target those lawyers to sell advertising in their magazines and on their websites. Some of these magazines do not really evaluate the lawyer, other than as a potential advertiser. Other such magazines use reader polls; a cagey lawyer can easily stuff the ballot box. Again, magazines exist to sell advertising, so be wary of these. You should know that there are reputable lawyer-rating services that publish magazines, such as Martindale-Hubbell, Superlawyers, and AVVO. An example of a reputable magazine in Wisconsin would be the Wisconsin Law Journal. Even these reputable services use the lawyer ratings to sell advertising in their magazines and on their websites. So, if you see a lawyer touting a magazine-based lawyer rating, look into it more deeply. What is the magazine? Is it reputable? What are the criteria for selection? How many are selected?

Lawyer rating services need to be discussed. The major lawyer rating services are Martindale-Hubbell, Superlawyers, and AVVO. All of these services take care to properly evaluate any lawyer they rate. Although these are reputable and legitimate rating services, they can be manipulated by a cagey lawyer. For example, if the service gives “points” to the lawyer for endorsements, the lawyer can engage in endorsement-trading with other lawyers. All of these services sell advertising to the lawyers they rate, so be aware of that as well. Even though these ratings systems can be “gamed” by the lawyer, they are legitimate enterprises, doing all they can to rate lawyers properly.

Educational credentials should be examined. Of course, for a lawyer to tout an educational credential, it is necessary that the lawyer take that education. Most of these credentials involve weekend seminars. In Wisconsin, the rules for attorneys require a lawyer to attend 15 hours of continuing legal education per year and one hour of ethics education. So, all lawyers will have some continuing legal education. The seminars, however, vary in quality. Personally, I attended over 140 hours in 2014, and I typically attend or teach about 100 hours per year.

Graduation from a high-quality continuing legal education course is a significant achievement. In my field of law, the National College for DUI Defense is the absolute leader in the field of continuing legal education (disclosure: I am a Regent and faculty member of that institution). It offers many courses per year, including the annual Summer Session, presented on the premises of the Harvard Law School. I am honored to have taught at that course for many years.

I’m also proud of having graduated from the three-week Gerry Spence Trial Lawyers College (September 2014), the ACS Gas Chromatograhy Course, the ACS Solid Drug Analysis Course, etc. I have also recently been the course director for the National College for DUI Defense/Wisconsin State Public Defender training, and the new NCDD Blood Analysis and Trial Advocacy course, and many others. So, educational credentials are an area that I endorse. A lawyer who takes the time to go above and beyond what is required — who gets the very best available continuing legal education — has demonstrated a commitment to the craft of lawyering, and to his or her clients.

Another area of credential is certification. Some, but not all, certifications are highly coveted and difficult to obtain. For example, in Wisconsin, only a lawyer who is certified by a board accredited by the American Bar Association may legally use the term “specialist.”

In drunk driving defense, only one organization is accredited by the American Bar Association: the National College for DUI Defense. A lawyer who wishes to be certified by the NCDD does not need to be an NCDD member, or pay dues to the NCDD. There is no aspect of “pay-to-play.” There is only a fee to apply and take the exam.

In the last ten years of the program, more than 100 lawyers nationwide have applied to become board-certified specialists. Some had their applications rejected for the lack of required courtroom experience. More than half of the lawyers who qualified and took the examination failed it. This certification is the most coveted, difficult to obtain, and recognized credential available. As noted, it is the only credential that allows a Wisconsin lawyer to legally use the term “specialist” in drunk driving defense.

Other organizations offer certifications, and these may also be valuable. For example, the American Chemical Society (ACS) offers three analytical chemistry courses for lawyers. These courses are four days long -- or about 32 hours each. A lawyer who takes all three courses and repeats the first course will be eligible to take the ACS certification exam.

Since these courses cost $3000 apiece for a four-day seminar, the lawyer will need to spend $12,000 in tuition alone, to be eligible to take the exam. The ACS courses are excellent; and the ACS credential is valuable; it requires a substantial outlay of money to ACS, and 16 days of training.

Some of the other certifications merely require attendance at a weekend seminar. These would include SFST certification, DRE certification, etc. These are legitimate, but not difficult to obtain.

You may see a lawyer advertising that he or she “wrote the book” on a field of law. If it’s a legitimate book, that’s a great credential. As you may know, there are so-called vanity publishing companies that will produce a book for anyone who pays them a fee to do so. These “self-published” authors may still have written a great piece of work, but it’s worth looking into. If the lawyer has published a book, see if it’s from a legitimate publishing company, and read the reviews from other lawyers.

The best credential that I can think of is a lawyer who cares about his or her clients. If you are choosing a lawyer, spend time talking to that lawyer before you make a decision. Does the lawyer take the time to listen to you? Is the lawyer prepared to fight for you if the case cannot be favorably settled? All successful lawyers are busy; but is the lawyer willing to spend enough time on your case (especially if the lawyer is charging a flat fee)? Personally, I think the lawyer should be interested in you as a person. Before I ask about the case, I ask about your family, job, school, hobbies, and so on. This gives me the framework for looking at the facts of the case.

The moral of the story: look for real credentials. Even with great credentials, though, you should not care how much the lawyer knows -- until you know how much the lawyer cares!

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