How to Hire the Right Lawyer

If you're like the average American, it's unlikely you have an ongoing business relationship with a lawyer. You may only hire an attorney a few times in your lifetime - to write a will or help with buying a house, for instance. So, when faced with a legal need, the task of hiring an attorney can be intimidating. Here are a few steps you can take to make sure you hire the right attorney.

Do Your Research

There are several sources you can use to find an attorney. Smart consumers do some research before contacting a lawyer. Here's where to start:

  • A legal directory like is a great place to start. A few short clicks gets you a list of attorneys in your area, complete with telephone numbers, background information and more. We also have lawyer-written articles to help you understand your legal problem. And there's a message board to help you get a feel for an attorney's level of expertise and communication style
  • Contact the state and local bar associations in your area. They may be able to refer you to a lawyer. Keep in mind, these referrals aren't endorsements. The bar association usually just has a list of attorneys who've agreed to take referrals
  • The American Bar Association has tools and information to help you find an attorney
  • Talk to family, friends and co-workers. Someone you know may have hired an attorney and he can tell you what he liked or disliked about the attorney. You may not want to share why you need a lawyer, but know what kind of lawyer you need - tax, criminal, divorce, etc. - so people can give you appropriate recommendations
  • Check your local telephone book

Clearly Communicate Your Problem

Before you start getting recommendations or calling prospective lawyers, find a way to briefly describe why you need a lawyer. One or two sentences will do. For example, "I recently got married and we want to draw up a new will." Or, "I was injured in a car accident, and the other driver won't pay my medical bills."

Once you meet with a lawyer you can go into more details.

Find the Right Type of Lawyer

Not all lawyers are interchangeable. Just as you wouldn't ask your cardiologist to set a broken bone, not all lawyers practice in all areas of the law. In general, the larger the city you're in, the more likely it is you'll be able to find a lawyer who specializes in your exact legal need.

That doesn't mean you're out of luck if you live in a more rural setting. However, your choices may be a bit more limited, and the attorney you hire may be a generalist who's used to dealing with range of legal problems. If you live in a rural area and have complicated legal needs, consider looking in a larger city for a more specialized lawyer.

Also, think about the level of service and skill you need. If you have a simple legal problem, you may be able to use a more moderately priced lawyer. If your problem is a life-or-death situation, you may want to spend more money and hire a more skilled attorney.

Goals and Budget

Once you've identified several potential attorneys, call or e-mail them. Briefly describe your problem, and schedule a first meeting or initial consultation. For simpler legal needs, you may only need to talk to one attorney. But for more complex problems, talk to several lawyers before deciding who to hire.

At the first meeting, you'll be able to describe your legal problem in more detail. Ask the lawyer about her experience with your type of case. Ask her how likely it is she'll be able to solve your problem.

And don't forget about money. Many lawyers don't charge anything to talk to about a case for the first time, but some do. If the attorney you're meeting charges a fee, be ready to pay by check or credit card for her advice.

Next, talk about the costs of your case. Most lawyers charge for their work in one of three ways.

Hourly rate. This is where you're charged for every hour (and every minute) the lawyer is working on your problem. Hourly rates are often used for legal work involving unpredictable factors. For example, if your attorney is working on your employment contract, the time it takes may depend on how willing your employer is to negotiate, or how many times the contract has to be rewritten.

If your attorney charges an hourly rate, ask about estimated costs - both the hourly fee and additional expenses, like the costs of filing papers in court. Let her know how much you can afford to spend.

Flat fee. For predictable legal work - such as business incorporation or a real-estate closing - many lawyers charge a flat fee or fixed rate. They have a good idea of how long it takes to solve a problem from beginning to end. 

The advantage of a flat fee is that you know exactly how much you'll be spending. However, not every lawyer works on a flat-fee basis. And, a lawyer may not offer flat fees for all types of legal work he does.

Contingency fee. This is common in cases where someone sues another person and expects to settle the case or get a cash award (or damages) if the case goes to trial. Personal injury cases, like car accidents, are good examples.

Under a contingency-fee agreement, you give your attorney a percentage of the money you receive from the lawsuit. The attorney's expenses - court filing fees, photocopying expenses, etc. - may be billed separately. And, you may still be responsible for these expenses even if you lose the case. But, you usually don't have to pay his fees.

A contingency fee encourages your attorney to do his best to win your lawsuit. If you win, the attorney wins. Before agreeing to a contingency fee, however, ask how much it would cost if you paid an hourly rate for his services. Keep in mind, though, you'll pay the hourly fee whether or not you win.

Hire the Attorney and Sign a Retainer Agreement

Once you've picked an attorney, make it clear you want to hire him, and ask for a retainer agreement. This agreement will spell out the nature of your relationship, the work the attorney will do, and how much it costs.

Lawyers usually can't represent adversaries - two people on different sides of the same case. For example, if you hire an attorney to sue your ex-spouse, the attorney can't also give your ex-spouse legal advice. So, a retainer agreement is important because it sets out the fact that you've hired the attorney to work for you.

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