It can often seem like law is a collection of different specialities that never talk to each other. Ask a family law attorney what the possible consequences are when a spouse accuses you of drug use, and he probably won't have anything to say about criminal charges. Similarly, asking your start-up attorney about an impending divorce might get you a referral or just a blank look, even though divorces can drastically effect privately-held companies with little outside investment.
To a degree this is warranted. Different fields of law each involve specialized knowledge, and it can take time to learn. A great example is Intellectual Property law, known in the trade as IP. IP is a relatively young field, and it generates reams of new rules, laws, and decisions every week. It's a lot to keep up on, and for a start-up, IP is everything. Similarly, family law can get extremely complex when you have, for example, an untraditional family that got together in a state that, say, doesn't recognize gay marriage, or a foreign country.
However, in our opinion, most firms oversell the virtues of specialization. It is important to know how a certain field works, and we have the knowledge and experience to do that, but most law suits actually have a lot in common, and those common elements are what occupy most lawyers, most of the time.
These common factors are probably easy to guess. Negotiation is a huge part of any case that's being run properly, and negotiating retention of code based on open-source gem files is actually pretty similar to negotiating child support increases, or a plea bargain, or a discretionary expungement. In technical terms we call these issues isomorphic, but in common parlance, we say that they're all pretty much the same. Of course most lawyers avoid the common parlance, so that this won't be obvious.
A related skill is reading people and knowing when to flex or when to fight. Consider an eviction case: some tenants are willing to agree to a move-out date that the court can enforce, but some are devoted to fighting to the very end. If you get a firm that always wants to negotiate, or always fights, you'll waste a lot of time and money. Getting a firm that knows how to tell the difference saves everyone a lot of grief, and honestly, it's not that hard. We try to make a point of hiring lawyers who've done customer service work in the past, because anyone who's waited tables knows how to spot someone who's a little upset about a small issue, as opposed to someone spoiling for a fight. This isn't a complicated skill, and we're not sure why so many lawyers seem to lose it during law school.
Last but certainly not least, no lawyer will be effective unless she knows exactly what her client's goals are, and how much time and money the client is willing to spend to get there. This seems basic, but ask around. Many people who've had lawyers before feel like their lawyer never really listened to them, and didn't know what they wanted. We find this especially common in family law, and it's distressing. Your lawyer needs to be someone you trust, and someone who understands exactly what you're trying to get. Otherwise how can she help you get it?
We realize these fit into the fuzzy category of 'people skills,' but we think that there's no reason to be soft about these. In our opinion, they're critical legal skills, and a lawyer who doesn't have them can be easily spotted. There's no reason to settle for someone who can't put their legal knowledge to use for you, and your results will almost always be better with a lawyer smart enough to use the right strategy. Particularly if you've had bad experiences with a lawyer before, we urge you to give us a shot, and see if we can impress you.