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 Lawyers.com 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.

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