By now you’ve probably read about the Pennsylvania woman who was recently sentenced to prison for various crimes stemming from her decades-long scam of posing as a lawyer. She had no law license and had never gone to law school, yet she practiced tax and estate law for 10 years, even becoming a partner of her small firm in rural Pennsylvania and president of her local bar association. Which, of course, begs the question, “How was this possible?”
Apparently, no one during that 10-year period—not her clients, not fellow attorneys or judges, not her employers—had taken the time to verify that she was a licensed attorney or that the bar number she applied to court documents really belonged to her (it did not).
While this type of fraud is very unusual, it does remind us that those seeking to hire the services of an attorney should conduct some due diligence. And the most basic due diligence is now quite simple. Most states maintain online, publically-available databases listing information about their attorneys. While the information readily available varies from state-to-state, most states’ databases allow the public to verify that an attorney is licensed to practice and that his or her license is in good standing. Many states also list additional information such as the number of years of practice and any disciplinary actions that have been taken against the attorney. While this cursory check does not guarantee that an attorney is competent, it is a key first step.
Following are links to attorney databases for Iowa and its surrounding states:
South Dakota: South Dakota does not appear to maintain an online database of all attorneys licensed to practice in the state (it does maintain a referral database for attorneys wishing to be listed). The Clerk of the Supreme Court, however, is required to maintain a roll of all attorneys admitted to practice in the State. For questions about the licensure status of a South Dakota attorney, call 605-773-4898.
Again, verifying that an attorney is licensed to practice in your state is just a small first step in the process of finding an attorney. It is, however, a step that all potential clients should take.
How do you go about finding a trusted attorney?
One of the best ways is to seek referrals from people you trust who have had a legal issue similar to yours. State bar associations also maintain a number of helpful resources, such as searchable databases by area of practice and location. Iowa’s Find-a-Lawyer resource, for example, is found here.
Private companies can also be quite helpful in providing subjective information about the quality of an attorney's work. Websites such as www.lawyers.com or www.martindale.com, for example, allow attorneys to submit to a peer-review process through which they receive a rating. Evolving from a hard-cover print directory existing since the 19th century, these services allow basic searches that are free to the public.
CALT does not provide legal advice. Any information provided on this website is not intended to be a substitute for legal services from a competent professional. CALT's work is supported by fee-based seminars and generous private gifts. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in the material contained on this website do not necessarily reflect the views of Iowa State University.