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Selecting the Lawyer Who's Best for You and Your Legal Needs

By Brian Farkas, Attorney
Lawyers come with all manner of specialties, interests, levels of experience, particular skill sets, and so on. Here's how to make sure you're hiring one who suits your needs.

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Selecting a lawyer is one of the most important decisions that you can make in the successful resolution of your legal matter. Not all lawyers are created equal; there's more to picking an attorney than flipping through a phone book or choosing the first name on Google's search results. Lawyers have different levels of competence and different areas of expertise. How can you be sure that you're picking the right one?

Beware of Over-Relying on Word of Mouth

People tend to hire lawyers about whom they hear good things from friends and family. In the right circumstances, this can be a smart method for finding a lawyer.

However, you should be cautious about relying too much on word of mouth. Your Aunt Annie may have used a lawyer once and told you he was excellent, but maybe Aunt Annie had different legal needs from you. Perhaps the lawyer she used was an excellent criminal defense attorney, but will be out of his depth if he tries to negotiate your employment agreement.

Not every legal case is the same. A personal recommendation is an excellent place to start, but it's only a place to start.

Finding Objective Information

Bar associations (professional membership organizations for lawyers) exist in essentially every U.S. geographic region and practice area. If you are in Chicago, for example, and need an immigration attorney or adoption attorney, chances are the local Chicago Bar Association has a relevant committee. Look at the committee's leadership, and contact one of those attorneys. If the attorney you contact is not the right person for the job, he or she will surely know many of the prominent names in the region for that particular specialty.

Virtually every city and state has a bar association (although larger cities tend to have more organized associations than smaller ones). Many also have formal lawyer-referral services, which can suggest some names of attorneys in the field. These services are specifically designed to help match prospective clients with prospective attorneys.

Finally, consider checking out third-party websites like Avvo.com and Martindale-Hubbell, which provide lawyer directories and also let you read client feedback.

Narrowing Your List of Prospective Lawyers

Bar associations, lawyer referral websites, and third-party websites are valuable resources that will allow you to gather a universe of names of attorneys who are potentially relevant. Now the question becomes: How you can narrow that list to just one lawyer? Use the following checklist to screen your prospects:

  • Look at biographical information, including whatever you can find on lawyer- and law-firm websites. Do your prospective attorneys appear to have expertise in the area of law you need?
  • What kind of clients does each attorney represent? Check the lawyer's profile and client list. If you can't tell from the website or other sources, call the lawyer's office and find out.
  • Look for articles, papers, or other informational pieces the lawyer has written. Does the attorney participate in any online chats or blogs? A discussion board?
  • Ask people in your area, including friends who are lawyers or work in the legal field, whether they've heard of the attorney and whether they have any opinions on the lawyer or the firm.
  • Check out online archives of your local newspaper. Has there been any publicity (good or bad) about the lawyer or the cases that he or she has handled?
  • Check your state bar association's website. Make sure any lawyer whom you're considering hiring is an active member of the bar and hasn't been disciplined, suspended, or disbarred.
  • Look into whether the lawyer is appropriate given your special needs, if any; such as the ability to speak in a language other than English.

After this research, you should have a "short list" of two or three names. Contact each attorney's firm and schedule a consultation. While many firms offer free first meetings, some will charge a consultation fee. If so, expect to pay anywhere from $75 to $250 for the initial consultation.

Don't be surprised if the attorney cannot meet with you on short notice. Lawyers have depositions, closings, and court appearances crowding their schedules. On the other hand, a wait of more than a week is a sign that the attorney may be too busy to give a new case such as yours the time and attention it requires.

Visiting the Prospective Lawyer for an In-Person Consultation

The consultation with the lawyer is one of the most important factors in your decision of whether to hire that individual, since personal rapport can be crucial to the attorney-client relationship. Evaluate the attorney based on the following:

  • Does the attorney listen well?
  • Does the attorney understand your problem or will he or she have to do a lot of research to answer your questions? (Yes, you'll pay for the research time.)
  • Can the attorney explain the law and how it applies to your case in a way that's easy to understand?
  • Does he or she give you confidence that your legal problem will be resolved in a cost-effective way?
  • Expect that any attorney you hire will delegate a lot of responsibility to his or her staff. So you'll want to evaluate how the lawyer's staff treats you, since they are a reflection of how the lawyer practices. At a minimum, both the lawyer and his or her staff should treat you courteously and professionally.
  • Ask about conflicts of interest. Does the lawyer represent your employer or other interested party?
  • Ask for references, and then follow up. You should talk to people who could comment on the lawyer's skills and trustworthiness. The best reference is one of the lawyer's current or former clients.
  • Ask for a copy of a firm brochure and promotional materials. Crosscheck these materials against other sources and references.

Discussing Money Matters With Your Lawyer

Ask for a copy of the lawyer's retainer agreement and review it with the lawyer before hiring him or her. Generally speaking, attorneys will charge for their services in one or more of the following ways:

  • by the hour (for instance, $200 per hour of legal work)
  • with a fee retainer ($5,000 up front, to be drawn down upon based on an hourly rate), or
  • on a contingency fee basis, where you pay the attorney from 25% to 40% of what he or she collects in a settlement, or as much as 50% of a judgment if the case goes to arbitration or trial.

Your lawyer may be willing to negotiate the billing arrangement with you. Some types of cases, like personal injury cases, traditionally use contingency arrangements. Other types of cases, like criminal defense, are more commonly charged by the hour.

You'll want to ask whether the firm requires an initial retainer. Even if the firm charges on an hourly basis, the attorney may require an initial retainer of as much as several thousand dollars, as security for payment of the firm's fees before beginning your representation. This money should go into the attorney's trust fund and be disbursed only to pay for services actually rendered. If the representation ends before the retainer is billed, the attorney should return the balance to the client.

While meeting with your attorney, you should openly discuss the additional costs and fees that will affect you along the way. Among the costs you will likely be asked to cover include:

  • payments for court reporters
  • photocopying
  • computerized legal research
  • preparation of trial exhibits, and
  • expert witness fees.

Some attorneys will "front" or cover costs for the client, but some will pass those costs along. So, find out what the costs will be and make arrangements from the outset for setting aside funds to cover them.

After Your Consultation

After all of your research and consultation meetings, the final decision on who to hire is yours. Don't underestimate your gut instinct. Rapport is important in an attorney-client relationship, and your relationship can last several years. Thus, it's important to select a lawyer you feel comfortable with and can trust.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How long will it take you to return my phone calls?
  • Have you recently handled any cases like mine?
  • Can you give me a good estimate of how much it will cost to resolve my case?
  • What additional fees, beyond the lawyer fees, will I be responsible for paying?
  • Do you have references from prior clients?
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