Not too long ago, most U.S. attorneys were jacks-of-all-trades: One lawyer could write the contracts for your business, handle your estate, and defend you against criminal charges. That’s no longer the case. The law has been split into dozens of categories—ranging from criminal law to bankruptcy to water law to civil rights—all of which demand a specialist’s knowledge. Navigating this complicated world can be overwhelming, which is why we’ve put together Denver’s Top Lawyers 2016, our second annual list of the best attorneys in the region.
We invited practicing attorneys in the seven-county metro area to vote for the colleagues, contemporaries, and counterparts they respect most in 49 legal specialties. Nearly 1,000 lawyers weighed in. Survey results in hand, we then did weeks of reporting to get an on-the-ground perspective: Who are the best litigators? The finest contract writers? Who’s been quietly building a name for herself? Who’s been coasting on an outdated reputation? Based on all of that research, we assembled the following list of the most skilled attorneys around.
To see our complete Top Lawyers list, click here for our searchable directory.
Your questions about the list, answered.
Which attorneys did you survey?
All licensed attorneys in the seven-county metro area were welcome to participate in our survey, which went live on 5280.com last May. We mailed postcards to nearly 16,000 licensed attorneys registered with the Colorado Supreme Court’s Office of Attorney Registration and reached out to local bar associations to make sure we received a strong response to the peer-review ballot.
How did you ensure that big law firms didn’t stuff the ballot box?
In order to vote, each attorney had to register with his or her work email address and his or her Colorado attorney registration number. We monitored IP addresses to make sure one person wasn’t voting for everyone in a firm. We investigated suspicious votes—and tossed them if necessary.
Were the ballot results the only data you used to make the list?
No. To supplement the online ballot results, we did what we do best: research. We made many, many phone calls, spent hours mining the Internet for standout cases, and generally did our due diligence on each name on the list.
How did you pick the specialties represented on the ballot?
We assembled last year’s list of 46 specialties based on input from the Colorado Bar Association, polled attorneys, and area law firms. This year, based upon further feedback, we’ve adjusted some categories and added marijuana law, juvenile defense, and probate litigation—which covers disputes surrounding wills, guardianships, and powers of attorney—for a total of 49 specialties. We will continue to refine the list of specialties each year.
I’ve heard the list is rigged—that only lawyers who advertise with 5280 make it. Is that the case?
Nope. The Top Lawyers list is unaffected by which attorneys advertise with 5280. Local attorneys sometimes choose to advertise regardless of whether they make the list, but how much or if and when lawyers choose to advertise are not taken into consideration.
Does 5280 check out every attorney on the list?
Our research department independently verifies every lawyer’s pertinent information (name, phone number, office address, website, etc.). We take the added step of sending the list to the Colorado Supreme Court Office of Attorney Regulation to check for disciplinary and licensing issues—meaning attorneys on the list are currently in good standing with the state.
Ever since recreational pot became legal in Colorado, it has resided in the gray area between our state’s freer guidelines and federal bans. Although President Barack Obama’s administration has proven to be cautiously welcoming to the legalization movement, that could change with the next administration, and entrenched federal regulations leave people uncertain about what’s legal and what isn’t. We asked Brian Vicente of Vicente Sederberg, a pro–marijuana legalization law firm, to clarify some disconnects. —Luc Hatlestad
5280: Can the feds arrest me for possessing pot in Colorado?
Brian Vicente: While technically possible, it’s exceedingly unlikely. The only place it might happen is on federal land, such as in a national park or forest, but we aren’t aware of any such incidents happening in recent years.
If I’m flying from Colorado, can I take my legally purchased pot past TSA?
The Transportation Security Administration’s primary mission is to prevent terrorism, so to date they’ve been very lenient about adults flying with small amounts of marijuana—as long as they’re flying to states that have legal recreational or medical marijuana. Still, it’s best to be safe and to leave the pot at home—especially if you’re flying to a foreign country or a place with draconian marijuana laws, like Utah.
Am I allowed to drive Colorado-bought marijuana to a friend in a nonlegal state or send it via U.S. mail?
It remains absolutely illegal to cross state lines with marijuana or send it via mail. Our office has been contacted by plenty of folks who didn’t understand these laws—or knowingly violated them—and faced severe law-enforcement consequences.
Couldn’t Obama fix many of these issues by removing marijuana from the Schedule I designation that places it alongside drugs like heroin?
While Obama has been the best president on marijuana policy, he hasn’t taken the step of legalizing marijuana federally. Even though the public supports reform, many politicians are still emerging from the haze of the war on drugs and are hesitant to take action to overturn these broken policies. [Rescheduling marijuana] would be a tremendous way for Obama to cement his progressive legacy by ending the century-old policy of marijuana prohibition.
What happens if an anti-pot president wins in 2016?
If an anti-marijuana zealot were to win in 2016, he or she could instruct the DEA to target dispensaries and other marijuana businesses or to crack down on individual possession. However, by the end of 2016, I predict another four states—plus D.C.—will join the four that already have legalized recreational marijuana. So a return to prohibition by a new president would be unpopular with a growing majority of voters.
Our handy guide to understanding civil and criminal law jargon. —Cassa Niedringhaus
Acquittal: a court decision saying a defendant is not guilty
Arraignment: when the defendant in a criminal court is informed of the charges and asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty
Bail: collateral provided by an arrested party in order to get out of jail and certify that he will return to appear in court; may be cash, property, or a bond
Bench Warrant: a warrant for someone’s arrest if the person has not appeared in court on a required date
Beneficiary: the person or organization that receives the benefits from a trust
Continuance: when one or both parties in a legal case ask the judge for a postponement of the court proceedings
Credibility: whether a witness’ testimony is believable
Default: when a person fails to do what the law requires (such as pay a debt on time) or when a party in a lawsuit has failed to follow procedure
Deposition: out-of-court testimony by a witness or expert being questioned under oath
Discovery: pretrial collection of legal evidence and information from parties in a lawsuit
Docket: the schedule of cases for a particular court
Motion: a written or verbal request for a judge to make an order (such as for a continuance or a new trial)
Parole: when a convicted defendant is released from prison early following good behavior; generally the person is required to meet periodically with a parole officer
Probation: when a convicted defendant’s sentence is suspended and she is released under required terms, such as good behavior and meeting with a probation officer
Retainer: a contract signed (and the related fee paid) by a client up front to secure a lawyer’s services
Tort: a negligent act and/or intentional wrongdoing that causes harm to a person or property and can lead to legal liability and the right to receive compensation
The Four Legal Documents Everyone Must Have
We spoke with David Starbuck and Bridget Sullivan, estate-planning attorneys at BakerHostetler and Sherman & Howard, to find out how to protect yourself and your family. —CN
 Will: This is a broad document that allows you to declare how you want your estate distributed after your death. It can also include a special provision that incorporates a “memorandum of disposition of tangible personal property,” which is a signed document that allows you to designate where you want specific assets to go.
 Living Will: In this document, you can state that if two doctors have certified you’re in a persistent vegetative state with no hope of recovery or are terminally ill and comatose, you would like any artificial means of keeping you alive withdrawn.
 Financial Power of Attorney: This document lets you name an “agent”—a spouse or parent or sibling or best friend—who can manage your finances and legal affairs should you be unable to do so yourself. If you do not have this document, the courts may have to appoint a conservator to get involved in paying your mortgage or even running your small business.
 Medical Power of Attorney: This document is broader than a living will and allows you to designate an agent to make health-care decisions for you in the event you become incapacitated. The designated agent can make decisions about the type of treatment you will receive and which doctors and facilities will provide your care.
Hiring an attorney—especially a trial attorney—is like hiring a contractor: Get referrals and references, take cost into consideration, and, most important, ask a lot of questions. —CN
- How long have you been practicing in the field, and how much experience do you have with this type of case?
- How much do you think this will cost overall? Do you charge a contingency fee, a flat rate, or an hourly rate? Will I be charged for any additional legal costs?
- What is the legal process my case will go through? How long will this case likely take? If it’s a trial, what do you think my chances of winning are?
- Who will work on my case/documents? Will you do any of the work yourself?
- How will we communicate and how often? Will you be my main point of contact?
- Is taking this to court the only way to address my problem?
- What kind of written agreement or contract will we have?