Choosing the right lawyer is a very important decision—whether you were in a car accident, have a medical malpractice claim, or find yourself the target of a criminal investigation. Referrals from friends or co-workers can be great, but you need to do your homework to make sure you have the right attorney for the job. Here are some basic questions you should ask potential counsel before choosing legal representation.
Ask about the lawyer's practice and familiarity with cases like yours.
One: Have you handled this type of case?
This is probably the most important question to ask. You would not want to fly with a pilot making his first transatlantic flight...why trust your case with a novice? A lawyer who has the right background can often save you time and money, all the while getting the best result possible. And don’t take a simple “Yes” for a sufficient answer. Ask follow-up questions, such as where and when any similar cases went to trial and their results, to ensure the attorney really knows the subject matter.
Two: Do you practice in the courthouse where my case is (or will be)?
Getting a lawyer with the right legal background is essential, but it is also important to know whether your attorney has experience with the judges who will likely preside over your case. If yours is a criminal matter, it is important to know if your lawyer knows the local prosecutors. This courtroom experience can greatly enhance your lawyer’s ability to evaluate the likely outcomes in your case and give you advice that you can rely on.
Three: Have you ever been sanctioned for, or accused of, attorney misconduct?
You have a right to know whether your potential lawyer has violated, or even been formally accused of violating, the rules of professional responsibility. While you may be able to locate this information on the website of a state’s legal licensing authority, you should still ask the attorney. You are entitled to an explanation of the circumstances and the outcomes of any allegations of ethical violations.
Four: Do you have any conflicts of interest?
Attorneys in every state have an ethical obligation to advise you of any conflict of interest. Still, you should ask the question. If the lawyer’s representation of prior or existing clients would limit the attorney’s ability to represent you, there is likely a conflict. For example, if you want to sue a hospital that the potential lawyer regularly represents, there would be a conflict. A conflict might also arise if the attorney you are interviewing has already been hired by a co-defendant in your case. Not all conflicts automatically disqualify potential counsel, but you must be fully aware of and understand the nature of the conflict before deciding whether to hire a lawyer in spite of it.
Ask a few questions about the lawyer's view of your case or situation.
Five: What are the likely outcomes in my case?
Lawyers are not fortune tellers. They should never guarantee a specific result. However, they should be able to give you a frank preliminary assessment of how your case is likely to play out.
Six: What will the fees and expenses be?
You need to know, upfront, exactly how your lawyer will charge for representation. In some cases it will be a fixed amount, and in others it may be an hourly rate. In cases where you are suing for monetary damages, the lawyer may represent you for a “contingency fee.” This means the attorney gets paid a portion (typically one-third) of the amount you receive after a successful trial or settlement. Make sure you discuss expenses as well as attorney fees. The lawyer’s expenses include everything from small things like photocopying to big-ticket items like expert witnesses. While your lawyer may not be able to give you a precise quote, you should have a good understanding of the potential price tag.
Seven: What strategy do you propose?
Lawyers should outline the possible ways to handle a case and then explain why they have chosen a particular strategy, including the pros and cons.
Eight: Are there alternatives to a trial?
Every lawyer should review with their clients the possibility of a negotiated resolution prior to trial. In criminal matters, for example, you may be able to get a good plea bargain. In civil cases, your lawyer might propose mediation, a settlement negotiation process involving a neutral third-party. Other times, arbitration might be an option. Arbitration— using a private service to adjudicate a dispute—is a less formal, less costly, and faster way of getting a decision in some civil matters.
Find out how the office will handle your case.
Nine: How long will this case take?
In discussing case strategy, your lawyer should give you an estimate of how much time it will take to get to a resolution. Keep in mind that your lawyer does not control the pace of the process and cannot make any promises about when it will be over.
Ten: How will we communicate?
You should feel comfortable from the beginning of your attorney-client relationship that you will be able to have regular communications with your counsel. Make sure that you exchange contact information and agree on the ways that you will stay in touch.
Eleven: What is my role in case preparation?
It is quite important to find out what you should and should not be doing to help your attorney. Often you may be able to provide documents and background information. However, your lawyer will usually tell you that you should not speak to witnesses or do any legal work. Learn how you can help, and make sure to follow your counsel’s instructions.
Twelve: Who will be doing the work?
Your lawyer will frequently be part of a law firm with junior associates and paralegals. Make sure you know who will be working on your case and in what capacity. Your lawyer can often save you money by delegating routine tasks to firm employees who charge a lower hourly rate. However, your lawyer should be involved in all key aspects and decisions of your case, or should explain to you why a colleague can handle some important part of the matter just as well.
These questions are the bare essentials. Depending on the facts and circumstances of your case, you will inevitably think of many others. Ask them. Lawyers should be as good at answering questions as they are at asking them.
If a lawyer rushes you or makes you feel that your questions are naïve, you may need to keep looking. Taking the time to ask questions at the beginning will give you a much better chance of having a solid and successful attorney-client relationship.