You’ve thought about it carefully, you’ve spoken to friends, and you’ve decided that you need to contact a lawyer. The big problem is—how to find one? This section will give you some tips on what to look for when choosing a lawyer, and lead you through some questions you can ask a lawyer when you first meet. If you do your homework, you can hire the lawyer who has the experience and expertise to help you with your problem.

Most people don’t have a “regular” lawyer, in the sense that they have one or more doctors that they see at least annually. So how do you find the lawyer who’s right for you? Where do you turn for recommendations? 

Q.  What should I look for when choosing a lawyer?
A.  The lawyer will be helping you solve your problems, so the first qualification is that you must feel comfortable enough to tell him or her, honestly and completely, all the facts necessary to resolve your problem. No one you listen to and nothing you read will be able to guarantee that a particular lawyer will be the best for you; you must judge that for yourself.

Q.  Are there any practical considerations to keep in mind when choosing a lawyer?
A.  Yes, the lawyer’s area of expertise and prior experience are important. Many states have specialization programs that certify lawyers as specialists in certain types of law. Some legal specialties also have created their own certification programs, such as the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils, and the National Elder Law Foundation. You may also wish to ask about the type of cases your lawyer generally handles. WHat is the breakdown of that lawyer’s practice (e.g. 50 percent personal injury cases, 25 percent divorce cases and 25 percent “other.”) Keep in mind that most lawyers are not certified in a specialty, but that does not necessarily mean that a specific lawyer is not an expert in a specific field, particularly where a lawyer handles a high volume of cases in a particular practice area.

Other considerations are the convenience of the lawyer’s office location, fees charged, and the length of time a case may take.

Q.  Where should I start to look for a lawyer?
A.  There are many ways to find a reliable lawyer. One of the best is a recommendation from a trusted friend, relative, or business associate. Be aware, however, that each legal case is different and that a lawyer who is right for someone else may not suit you or your legal problem.

Q.  Are advertisements a good place to look for a lawyer?
A. In some ways, yes, ads are useful. However, always be careful about believing everything you read and hearand nowhere is this truer than with advertisements. Newspaper, telephone directory, radio, television, and Internet ads, along with direct mail, can make you familiar with the names of lawyers who may be appropriate for your legal needs. Some ads also will help you determine a lawyer’s area of expertise. Other ads will quote a fee or price range for handling a specific type of “simple” case. Keep in mind that your case may not have a simple solution. If a lawyer quotes a fee, be certain you know exactly what services and expenses the charge does and does not include.

Q.  What about a local referral service?
A.  Most communities have referral services to help people find lawyers. You might be able to find them under “Lawyer Referral Service” or something similar in your yellow pages. These services usually recommend a lawyer in the area to evaluate a situation. Several services offer help to groups with unique characteristics, such as the elderly, immigrants, victims of domestic violence, or persons with a disability.

Bar associations in most communities make referrals according to specific areas of law, helping you find a lawyer with the right experience and practice concentration. Many referral services also have competency requirements for lawyers who wish to have referrals in a particular area of law. You can find your local bar association in the phone book’s white pages either under your community’s name (“Centerville Bar Association”) or under your county’s name (“Cass County Bar Association”). You can also find your bar’s website through your favorite search engine, or through the ABA’s interactive state-by-state lawyer-referral directory.

Still, these services are not a surefire way to find the best lawyer or the right lawyer for you. Some services make referrals without concern for the lawyer’s type or level of experience. You may want to seek out a lawyer referral service that participates in the American Bar Association-sponsored certification program, which uses a logo to identify lawyer referral programs that comply with certain quality standards developed by the ABA.

Q.  My new job offers a prepaid legal services plan. What can I expect?
A.  Legal services, like many other things, are often less expensive when bought in bulk. Some employers, labor and credit unions, and other groups have formed “legal insurance” plans. These plans vary. Many cover most, if not all, of the cost of legal consultations, document preparation, and court representation in routine legal matters. Other programs cover only advice and consultation with a lawyer. Before joining a legal plan, make sure you are familiar with its coverage and know whether you will be required to make outofpocket contributions. These group plans follow the same pattern as group or cooperative medical insurance plans. Employers or unions set up a fund to pay the employees’ legal fees, with the employee sometimes contributing a small co-payment. Legal group plans have become much more widespread in recent years. Some retail department stores and credit card companies even offer such plans to their customers.

Q.  I want to hire a lawyer, but I do not have much money. Where can I find low-cost legal help?
A.  Several legal assistance programs offer inexpensive or free legal services to those in need. Look in the yellow pages under topics such as “legal clinics,” “legal aid,” or “legal advice,” or search online. Most legal aid programs have special guidelines for eligibility, often based on where you live, the size of your family, and your income. Some legal aid offices have their own staff lawyers, and others operate with volunteer lawyers. Note that people do not have a right to a free lawyer in civil legal matters.

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Q.  I have been accused of a crime, and I cannot afford a lawyer. What can I do?
A.  If you are accused of a crime, the U.S. Constitution guarantees you the right to be represented by a lawyer in any case in which you could be incarcerated for six months or more. State constitutions may guarantee your right to a lawyer for lesser crimes. If you cannot afford a lawyer, either the judge hearing the case will appoint a private lawyer to represent you free of charge or the government’s public defender will handle your case, also at no charge.

Q.  Besides court-appointed defenders, is there any other form of government assistance available?
A.  Departments and agencies of both the state and federal governments often have staff lawyers who can help the general public in limited situations, without charge. Consider contacting the relevant federal agency if you have specific concerns, such as environmental protection problems or discrimination in employment or housing.

Your State’s Attorney General also may provide guidance to the public on state laws, without charge. Some states, for example, maintain consumer protection departments as a function of the Attorney General’s office.

Similarly, through their law departments, counties, cities, and townships often have government lawyers who may provide the public with guidance about local laws. Some of these local offices also offer consumer protection assistance.

To find such agencies, check the government listings in your phone book or using your favorite search engine on the Internet.

How Do I Know if a Lawyer is Right for Me?

Choosing a lawyer can seem daunting if you have never done so before. The following are few helpful questions to guide your interactions in a lawyer search.

Q. Can I meet with a lawyer before deciding to hire him or her?
A. A lawyer will usually meet with you briefly or talk with you by phone so the two of you can get acquainted. This meeting is a chance to talk with the lawyer before making a final hiring decision. In many cases, there is no fee charged for an initial consultation. However, to be on the safe side, ask about fees before setting up your first appointment.

During this meeting, you can decide whether you want to hire that lawyer. Many people feel nervous or intimidated when meeting lawyers, but remember that you’re the one doing the hiring, and what’s most important is that you’re satisfied with what you’re getting for your money. Before you make any hiring decisions, you might want to ask certain questions to aid in your evaluation.

Q.  What sort of questions should I ask a lawyer?
A.  Ask about the lawyer’s experience and areas of practice. How long has the lawyer been practicing law? What kinds of legal problems does the lawyer handle most often? Are most clients individuals or businesses?

Q.  Is it proper to ask the lawyer if anyone else will be working on my case?
A.  Since you are the one paying the bill, it is well within your rights. Ask if staff such as paralegals or law clerks will be used in researching or preparing the case. If so, will there be separate charges for their services? Who will be consulted if the lawyer is unsure about some aspects of your case? Will the lawyer recommend another lawyer or firm if he or she is unable to handle your case?

Q.  I met with a lawyer who referred me to another lawyer. Should I be angry?
A.  Probably not. Occasionally, a lawyer will suggest that someone else in the same firm or an outside lawyer handle your problem. Perhaps the original lawyer is too busy to give your case the full attention it deserves. Maybe your problem requires another’s expertise. No one likes to feel that a lawyer is shifting him or her to another lawyer. However, most reassignments and referrals occur for a good reason. Do not hesitate to request a meeting with the new lawyer to make sure you are comfortable with him or her.

Q.  What, in particular, should I ask about fees and costs?
A. How are fees chargedby the hour, by the case, or by the amount won? About how much money will be required to handle the case from start to finish? When must you pay the bill? Can you pay it in installments? Ask for a written statement explaining how and what fees will be charged, and a monthly statement showing specific services rendered and the charge for each.

Q.  When I first meet with my prospective lawyer, should I ask about the possible outcome of the case?
A. Certainly, but beware of any lawyer who guarantees a big settlement or assures a victory in court. Remember that there are at least two sides to every legal issue and that many factors can affect its resolution. Ask for the lawyer’s opinion of your case’s strengths and weaknesses. Will the lawyer most likely settle your case out of court or is it likely that the case will go to trial? What are the advantages and disadvantages of settlement? Of going to trial? What kind of experience does the lawyer have in trial work? If you lose at the trial, will the lawyer be willing to appeal the decision?

Q.  Should I ask if and how I can help with my case?
A.  Yes. It is often in your interests to participate actively in your case. When you hire a lawyer, you are paying for legal advice. Your lawyer should make no major decision about whether and how to go on with the case without your permission. Pay special attention to whether the lawyer seems willing and able to explain the case to you and answers your questions clearly and completely. Also ask what information will be supplied to you. How, and how often, will the lawyer keep you informed about the progress of your case? Will the lawyer send you copies of any of the documents that have to do with your case? Can you help keep fees down by gathering documents or otherwise assisting the effort?

Q.  During our first meeting, should I ask what will happen if the lawyer and I disagree?
A. Yes, your first meeting is the best time to ask about resolving potential problems. You should consider getting any decisions about disagreements in writing.

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Q.  Should I interview several lawyers before settling on one?
A.  Yes. Your decision will be more informed if you consider several lawyers. Even if you think that you will be satisfied with the first lawyer you interview, you will feel better about your choice if you talk to several lawyers.

Q. Can I find out problems or complaints that previous clients have had with a given lawyer?
A. Sometimes yes.  Some states make reports of lawyer grievances available to the general public, especially if these resulted in a disciplinary action being taken against the lawyer. If you are worried, contact the organization that licenses attorneys in your state to see if this is available.

How Do I Settle on a Fee with a Lawyer?

Lawyers can be expensive. We all know that. But you can take a few steps to ensure that you avoid any surprises when the bill arrives in the mail. Talk to your lawyer about fees and expenses, and make sure that you understand all the information on fees and costs that your lawyer gives you. It’s best to ask for it in writing before legal work starts.

Q.  What billing method do most lawyers use?
A.  The most common billing method is to charge a set amount for each hour or fraction of an hour the lawyer works on your case. The method for determining what is a “reasonable” hourly fee depends on several things. More experienced lawyers tend to charge more per hour than those with less experiencebut they also may take less time to do the same legal work. In addition, the same lawyer will sometimes charge more for time spent in the courtroom than for hours spent in the office or library.

Q.  How can I be sure that my lawyer will not overcharge me?
A.  The fee charged by a lawyer should be reasonable from an objective point of view. The fee should be tied to specific services rendered, time invested, the level of expertise provided, and the difficulty of the matter. This fee, however, may also be a percentage of recovery, called a contingency fee, which is discussed below.

Here are some broad guidelines to help you in evaluating whether a particular fee is reasonable:

  • The time and work required by the lawyer and any assistants
  • The difficulty of the legal issues presented
  • How much other lawyers in the area charge for similar work
  • The total value of the claim or settlement and the results of the case
  • Whether the lawyer has worked for that client before
  • The lawyer’s experience, reputation, and ability
  • The amount of other work the lawyer had to turn down to take on a particular case.

Q.  Someone said that I should ask my lawyer to represent me on a “contingent fee” basis. What does this mean?
A.  A contingent fee is a fee that is payable only if your case is successful. Lawyers and clients use this arrangement only in cases where money is being claimedmost often in cases involving personal injury or workers’ compensation. Many states strictly forbid this billing method in criminal cases and in most cases involving domestic relations.

In a contingent fee arrangement, the lawyer agrees to accept a fixed percentage (often one-third to forty percent) of the amount recovered. If you win the case, the lawyer’s fee comes out of the money awarded to you. If you lose, neither you nor the lawyer will get any money.

On the other hand, win or lose, you probably will have to pay court filing charges, the costs related to deposing witnesses, and similar expenses. By entering into a contingent fee agreement, both you and your lawyer expect to collect some unknown amount of money. Because many personal injury actions involve considerable and often complicated investigation and work by a lawyer, this may be less expensive than paying an hourly rate. It also gives the client the option of defraying the upfront costs of litigation unless, and until, there is a settlement or money award. You should clearly understand your options before entering into a contingent fee agreement.

Q.  Are all contingent fee arrangements the same?
A.  No. An important consideration is whether the lawyer deducts the costs and expenses from the amount won before or after you pay the lawyer’s percentage.

Example: Joe hires Ernie Attorney to represent him, agreeing that Ernie will receive one-third of the final amountin this case, $12,000.

If Joe pays Ernie his fee before expenses, the fee will be calculated as follows:

  • $12,000             Total amount recovered in case
  • –4,000               One-third for Ernie Attorney
  • $8,000               Balance
  • –2,100               Payment for expenses and costs
  • $5,900               Amount that Joe recovers
  • If Joe pays Ernie after other legal expenses and costs, the fee will be calculated as follows:
  • $12,000             Total amount recovered in case
  • –2,100               Payment for expenses and costs
  • $9,900               Balance
  • –3,300               Onethird for Ernie Attorney
  • $6,600               Amount that Joe recovers

The above figures show that Joe will collect an additional $700 if the agreement provides that Ernie Attorney collects his share after Joe pays the other legal expenses.

Many lawyers prefer to be paid before they subtract the expenses, but the point is often negotiable. Of course, these matters should be settled before you hire a lawyer. If you agree to pay a contingent fee, your lawyer should provide a written explanation of the agreement, clearly stating how he or she will deduct costs.

Q. Why do some lawyers use contingent fee arrangements? Isn’t there a chance they won’t get paid at all?
A. There is a chance that under a contingent arrangement, the lawyer won’t get paid at all. However, this is also a chance that, if you end up with a large amount being recovered, the lawyer may end up earning more than under a traditional fee arrangement. The legal field has approved of contingent fees in most cases because they allow clients without much money to access the legal system. However, most states restrict the types of cases for which payment is done on a contingent basis, and limit the attorney’s fee to a “reasonable” percentage of the total amount recovered.

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Q.  If my lawyer and I agree to a contingent fee arrangement, should the method of settling my case affect the amount of my lawyer’s fee?
A.  Yes, but only if both of you agree beforehand. If the lawyer settles the case before going to trial, less legal work may be required. On the other hand, the lawyer may have to prepare for trial, with all its costs and expenses, before a settlement can be negotiated.

You can try to negotiate an agreement in which the lawyer accepts a lower percentage if he or she settles the case easily and quickly or before a lawsuit is filed in court. However, many lawyers might not agree to those terms.

Q.  A friend suggested that I might want to have a lawyer “on retainer.” What does this mean?
A.  If you pay a set amount of money regularly to make sure that a lawyer will be available for any necessary legal service you might require, then you have a lawyer on retainer. Businesses and people who routinely have a lot of legal work use retainers. By paying a retainer, a client receives routine consultations and general legal advice whenever needed. If a legal matter requires courtroom time or many hours of work, the client may need to pay more than the retainer amount. Retainer agreements should always be in writing.

Prepaid legal services plans, which were discussed earlier, are similar in effect to retainer agreements: a small fee paid periodically ensures that a lawyer will be available to provide legal services at any time.

Most people do not see a lawyer regularly enough to need a lawyer on retainer.

Q.  Is having a lawyer “on retainer” the same thing as paying a “retainer fee”?
A.  No. A retainer fee is something quite different. Sometimes a lawyer will ask the client to pay some money in advance before any legal work will be done. This money is referred to as a retainer fee, and is in effect a down payment that will be applied toward the total fee billed.

Q.  I saw an advertisement from a law firm that charges fixed fees for specific types of work. What does this involve?
A. A fixed fee is the amount that will be charged for routine legal work. In a few situations, this amount may be set by law or by the judge handling the case. Since advertising by lawyers is becoming more popular, you are likely to see ads offering “Simple Divorce$150” or “Bank­ruptcyfrom $250.” Do not assume that these prices will be

the amount of your final bill. The advertised price often does not include court costs and other

Q.  Does the lawyer’s billing method influence the other costs and expenses that I might have to pay?
A.  No. Some costs and expenses will be charged regardless of the billing method. The court clerk’s office charges a fee for filing the complaint or petition that begins a legal action. The sheriff’s office charges a fee for serving a legal summons. Your lawyer must pay for postage, copying documents, telephone calls, and the advice or testimony of some expert witnesses, such as doctors. These expenses may not be part of a legal fee, and you may have to pay them regardless of the fee arrangement you use. Your lawyer will usually pay these costs as needed, billing you at regular intervals or at the close of your case.

Q.  What are referral fees?
A.  If you go to Lawyer A, he or she may be unable to help, but might refer you instead to Lawyer B, at another law firm, who has more experience in handling your kind of case. In return for the referral, Lawyer A will sometimes be paid part of the total fee you pay to Lawyer B. The law may prohibit this type of fee, especially if it increases the final amount to be paid by a client. The ethics rules for lawyers in most states specify that lawyers in different firms may not divide a client’s fee unless:

  1. the client knows about and agrees to the arrangement;
  2. they divide the fee in a way that reflects how much work each lawyer did, or both lawyers are fully responsible for the case; and
  3. the total bill is reasonable.

If one lawyer refers you to another, you have a right to know if there will be a referral fee. If there is, then ask about the specifics of the agreement between the lawyers.

Q.  Is there anything I can do to reduce my legal costs?
A.  Yes, there are several costcutting methods available to you. First, answer all your lawyer’s questions fully and honestly. Not only will you feel better, but you also will save on legal fees. If you tell your lawyer all the facts as you know them, you will save time that might be spent on the case and will help your lawyer do a better job.

Remember that the ethics of the profession require your lawyer to maintain in the strictest confidence almost anything you reveal during your private discussions. You should feel free to tell your lawyer the complete details in your case, even those that embarrass you. It is particularly important to tell your lawyer facts about your case that reflect poorly on you. These will almost certainly come out if your case goes to trial.

Q.  Can I reduce my legal costs if I get more involved in my case?
A.  Sometimes. Stay informed and ask for copies of important documents related to your case. Let your lawyer know if you are willing to help out, such as picking up or delivering documents or making a few phone calls.

You should not interfere with your lawyer’s work. However, you might be able to move your case more quickly, reduce your legal costs, and keep yourself better informed by doing some of the work yourself. Discuss this with your lawyer.

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