Got a thorny legal problem? Need estate planning advice? Facing divorce or some other life-altering situation?
You desperately need a good lawyer, and you’re not alone. More than 20 million lawsuits are filed in this country every year. So how do you find a reputable attorney at a reasonable cost? These 10 tips can help:
1. Exhaust other sources. Lots of expert assistance is available at no cost before you call an attorney. If your problem deals with local issues, start with the city council or mayor’s office, then try government agencies, law enforcement organizations or zoning boards. These offices usually will answer questions regarding certain local laws or point you to someone who can. Find their numbers in the gray or blue pages of the phone book.
2. Consider the JAG. Almost every military installation has a Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) office which handles basic legal issues such as preparation of wills or powers of attorney. JAG services are free, but you must hire a civilian lawyer if you need more than basic services. It’s worth a phone call to ask the JAG office if it can handle your legal problem.
3. Get referrals. The best referrals often come from neighbors, friends or work colleagues. Do you know attorneys through your church, golfing outings or book club? Even if they don’t practice in the specialty you need, they can refer you to someone who does. Several online resources also are available, such as http://lawyers.findlaw.com, www.lawyers.com and http://www.martindale.com.
4. Call first. Someone other than the attorney, such as a secretary or an associate trained to handle legal inquiries, may talk with you initially. Briefly describe your situation, then ask if the attorney(s) in that office handles such cases. Get information about their experience, availability and standard charges (see #8). Most attorneys offer free consultations, regardless of whether they take your case.
5. Hire a specialist. Although many lawyers practice a broad range of law, your best bet is someone with expertise – especially if your problem is complex. Could you seriously expect a real estate attorney to argue your medical malpractice suit? Would you want a corporate lawyer to handle your divorce? Ask prospective attorneys whether they practice in the area that covers your legal problem. If they don’t, ask them to refer you to an attorney who does.
6. Meet the prospective attorney. This interview is an opportunity to assess the attorney; it’s also the attorney’s opportunity to decide whether he or she wants your case. Be prepared to describe your situation and discuss whether the attorney can adequately represent you. Inquire in more detail about the attorney’s expertise. Ask if the attorney plans to use staff members like paralegals or associates, and inquire about their experience. Have the attorney outline a basic legal analysis of your problem, what steps you should expect and how long your case likely will take. Inquire about similar cases, how long they lasted and how they were resolved. You may want to ask for references (former clients).
7. Size up the attorney. At a minimum, you need someone who makes you feel comfortable. Can you work with this person? Trust your instincts. Beyond that, seek to determine the attorney’s reputation (someone with high personal standards probably displays high professional standards.), communication skills (does the attorney talk in “legalese” or can you understand his or her explanations?) and service (does the attorney understand your goals and take them seriously, or does he or she merely want to dispose of your case and collect the fee?).
8. Talk money. Some attorneys advertise fixed fees for matters such as uncontested divorces. These are set fees you pay, regardless of how much time the attorney actually spends on your case. Other attorneys charge by the hour, ranging from $100 per hour at small firms to more than $300 per hour for experienced specialists. If the attorney expects your case will involve litigation, ask whether he or she accepts cases on a contingency basis. This means you pay the attorney a percentage of your winnings but only if you win or receive a settlement. In a typical contingency arrangement, an attorney may receive as much as one-fourth to one-third of the proceeds from a lawsuit (sometimes on a sliding scale). You still pay all the court costs and filing fees, regardless of the outcome.
9. Ask for explanations. Regardless of the payment arrangement, ask the attorney to explain fully all expected costs, including court fees and other expenses. If you agree to an hourly arrangement, have the attorney estimate how many hours your case will take, then set a maximum beyond which the attorney must get your approval before clocking more time.
Most attorneys also bill their clients for direct costs, such as copying, long-distance phone calls, filing fees, etc. You will be responsible for paying these costs in addition to the attorney’s fee, unless you hire an attorney on a fixed-fee plan. Clarify which direct costs the attorney charges and how these are itemized on your bill. Ask about the hourly fees for paralegals and/or associates (both should be less than the attorney’s rate), and ask how much of your work could be handled by (cheaper) staff. Find out when you will be billed and when payments are due. Some law firms offer discounts for early payments or other premium plans, so ask if you qualify.
Any costs discussed at your first meeting are only approximate and could run somewhat higher, depending on the case, but a good attorney will establish an ongoing dialogue with you about costs. If the attorney doesn’t mention it, ask how often and by what means he or she plans to communicate during the case. If you truly cannot afford legal services, ask the attorney to refer you to a legal aid clinic or pro bono service in your area.
10. Get it in writing! Most attorneys do this anyway, but don’t hesitate to ask. Many states now require attorneys to provide written agreements with financial details spelled out in practical language. However, if you and the attorney mutually agree to representation at this first meeting – with or without a written agreement – you have entered an attorney-client relationship.
The legal issue that triggers your need for an attorney may be one of the most unpleasant inconveniences in your life, but hiring an attorney should not be equally unpleasant. Knowing what to ask and when to ask it will greatly simplify your search.
By Sarah J. Schmidt