You have a business dispute and have been referred to a lawyer by someone you trust. You are meeting with him and he seems like he knows what he’s talking about. On the wall of his office he has diplomas and things attesting to the various courts in which he is privileged to practice. Before you came, you looked at his website and it was a model of opaque vagueness in its testimony to the man’s qualifications. It all sounds good, but not real specific. Obviously he is experienced, but how do you know he has the right experience for your case? What should I ask?

I assume clients are struggling with this question, or just not thinking about it, because new clients rarely ask specific questions about my experience. And they should. Picture yourself in Virginia City in 1872 looking for a trail guide to take your family to California. You might consider the health of the man’s horse and the cleanliness of his rifle as factors in your decision, but wouldn’t the key question be whether and how many times he’d been to California? Well, that’s basically what you have to ask the litigator. Here’s how: have you litigated a case with the same facts as mine before?

There are three answers to this question, none of which should rule the day, but all of which would be instructive to your choice.

Answer One: “yes, precisely, I’m an expert on that.” Commercial litigation is pretty broad and (in my opinion) includes construction litigation. There are going to be lots of areas a commercial litigator has never been in, but always a few that he has really concentrated on. There is no objective rating service out there on our expertise, so you will only be able to get that answer from the man himself, and only if you ask. If he’s been back and forth on this same trail a lot, he probably knows where the Indians like to put the ambush.

Answer Two: “yes, from time to time.” In other words, your case is not his bread and butter, but he has done it before. A good follow up question might be, “when was the last time you did?” Obviously, the more recently he has done so the better.

Answer Three: “I haven’t.” This does not mean he wouldn’t handle your case well. A good follow up would be, “how about cases similar to mine?” He may well be generally familiar with the type of case you have and that is enough. He may never have been to California, but he has gone to Texas dozens of times, and that is enough for the case you have. But you really need to know that before you start.

The lawyer should not be put off by you asking this question. If you don’t ask me, I’m going to tell you myself because I don’t want there to be a misunderstanding later. If you hire me on an Answer Three Case, I’m going to have more fundamental questions about your business than I will on an Answer One Case and I don’t want you thinking “gee this guy asks some pretty stupid questions for someone who is an expert in my business.” Understanding your lawyer’s experience level is something that should happen before you hire him.