There's more to selecting a lawyer than picking a name in the phone book or "Googling" for one in your area. This is a major decision and you want to spend some time making sure you select the right lawyer for your needs.
Your Aunt Anne may have used a lawyer once and told you he was excellent, but maybe Aunt Anne had different needs from you and not every case is the same. A personal recommendation is an excellent place to start, but it's only a place to start.
When selecting a lawyer, you'll want to:
- Learn about your legal problem. Search the Internet for FAQs, start by reading articles or discussing it with others who may have been in a similar situation
- Call your local attorney referral service, typically provided by your state or city bar association
- Use Lawyers.com.
- Find a Lawyer. Search for lawyers in your city and state in the type of problem you have
- Peer Review and Client Review Ratings to find out more about your potential lawyers. These resources provide unbiased ratings from other lawyers, and other people who have used their services.
- Consult your family lawyer, or an attorney who you know through sports or church, or an accountant, realtor or other professional. Many attorneys tend to specialize, and the good ones usually have an established reputation in the community.
Once you've narrowed the list down to several names, use the following checklist to screen them:
- Look at biographical information, including whatever you can find on lawyer and law firm Web sites. Do they appear to have expertise in the area of law you need?
- What kind of clients does the attorney represent? Check the lawyer's profile and client list. If you can't tell, call the lawyer's office and find out
- Click on the law firm Web site to find out more about individual lawyers and firms
- Use search engines to find articles, white papers or other informational pieces the lawyer has written? Does the attorney participate in any online chats or blog? A discussion board?
- Ask people in your area if they've heard of the attorneys and what they think about them
- Check out the online archives of your local newspaper. Has there been any publicity about the lawyer or the cases that he or she has handled?
- Do you have any special needs to consider such as requiring an attorney who speaks a language other than English?
At this point, you'll have a "short list" of two or three names. Contact the attorney's firm and schedule a consultation. Some firms will charge a consultation fee to meet with you, so expect to pay anywhere from $75 to $250 for an initial consultation. Many firms do offer free first meetings.
Finally, use your common sense and gut instincts in deciding who to hire. Your relationship can last several years and require a good working relationship and trust. You want to choose the best lawyer to do the best job for you.
Don't be surprised if the attorney cannot meet with you on short notice. 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.
The consultation with the lawyer is the most important factor in your decision to hire an attorney. 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 research to answer your questions?
- 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. 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. You can also check with other lawyers.
- Ask for a copy of a firm brochure and promotional materials. Crosscheck these materials against other sources and references.
Ask for a copy of the lawyer's retainer agreement and review it with the lawyer beforehand. Generally speaking, attorneys will charge for their services in one or more of the following ways:
- By the hour
- With a fee retainer of as much as $5,000 or more
- 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
Paying by the hour is the fairest arrangement for both the attorney and the client, since a contingency fee always benefits one side or the other. But most individuals cannot afford the $30,000 to $50,000 in attorney time that even a moderately difficult matter requires for preparation and trial. So a contingency fee is often the only alternative.
You'll want to ask if 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 they begin 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.
Discuss the costs of your suit as well as the attorney's fees. Costs include:
- Payments for court reporters
- Computerized research
- Trial exhibits
- Expert witness fees
Few attorneys will "front" or cover costs for the client. So find out what the costs will be and make arrangements from the outset for setting aside funds to cover them.
Finally, use your common sense and gut instincts in deciding who to hire. Your relationship can last several years, so it's important to select a lawyer you feel comfortable with and can trust.