As with most things in life, the best way to start is to get a recommendation from someone you trust, whether it is a family member, friend or other professional, such as your accountant. You should get more than one name. You should also try to find an attorney who is familiar with the type of law you need. For example, I am a business lawyer and would not be the best choice to handle a divorce (even though I could provide you with names of divorce lawyers).
If you do not know of anyone who has used a lawyer, you can contact the local bar association for assistance. The Internet is also a good resource. However, as with anything else on the Internet, you have to ferret through a lot of information. Among the more useful Web sites are www.findlaw.com, www.martindale.com and www.lawyers.com. Be aware that with most web sites, attorneys pay to be there. While that should not be a disqualifying factor, you should just be aware of it.
Once you have the name or names, meet with the lawyer. Be prepared to ask questions regarding both your particular matter and the lawyer’s practice. Among the questions you should ask are: (1) how many similar matters has the attorney handled; (2) what happened in those cases; (3) how will this case be handled; (4) how would other lawyers handle the case; (5) based on experience, what can be expected; (6) which lawyer in the firm will be working on the matter; and (7) will there be any limitations on the scope of the representation.
You are interviewing this person for something very important. As I say to people, I am in the relationship business. You have to be very comfortable with your lawyer because you are going to need to trust that person. This is particularly true if you are hiring a lawyer for something where you will have to reveal things that you may not otherwise reveal (such as mistakes you made in a business transaction). Be aware that the lawyer may charge you for this consultation. This is not so much because lawyers are always trying to make money, but because many potential clients are simply trying to receive free legal advice.
Remember, a lawyer sells time for a living. If you own a grocery store, you wouldn’t let someone try a brand of paper towels to see how they work and then, maybe pay for them.
Lawyers generally charge in one of three ways for their services, hourly, flat fee or contingency (percentage). Not every type is permitted for every legal situation. For personal injury cases, most lawyers charge a percentage of the recovery (contingency). For certain business transactions, such as incorporation, most lawyers will charge a flat fee. For most other matters, lawyers charge hourly. You need to understand how the lawyer will charge you, both in terms of the minimum billing increment, as well as the expenses. There is an extremely wide range of hourly rates, from $100 to $1,000 per hour (I am told there is an attorney in Washington, D.C. charging this much). Generally speaking, you get what you pay for. Also, bear in mind that an attorney who charges $200 per hour may take twice as long to do the same thing as an attorney who charges $300 per hour.
Once you have selected your lawyer, you will enter into a fee agreement. This is something all lawyers are required to provide you and have you sign. This protects both you and the lawyer. It is supposed to spell out exactly what you are (and, in some cases, are not) hiring the lawyer to do, as well as your obligations to pay the lawyer and under what circumstances the lawyer can terminate the relationship (you always have the right to terminate the relationship). If you do not understand something in the engagement letter, be proactive. You must ask questions. While your lawyer is your advocate, he or she cannot read your mind.
There are also questions you should ask depending on the type of fee structure. If the engagement is on an hourly fee basis, you will want to know: (1) the hourly rate; (2) what are the minimum billing increments; (3) is there a charge for every phone call, letter and email; (4) an estimate of the number of hours the case will take (I find this question very difficult to answer); (5) what expenses might be required; and (6) what happens if the case takes longer than anticipated.
If the engagement is for a flat fee, you will want to know: (1) how much time do these types of matters typically take; (2) what expenses are typically required; and (3) what happens if the matter takes significantly less/more time.
If the engagement is on a contingency, you will want to know: (1) the likelihood of recovery (remember, there are no guarantees in the law); (2) an estimate of the recovery (same warning); (3) what is the percentage that is being charged; (4) what percentage do most lawyers in town charge for the same type of case; (5) what expenses might be required; and (6) what happens if the case settles immediately.
Once the relationship has commenced, you need to remain proactive to make sure the lawyer continues to properly handle your matter. Ask your lawyer to provide you with copies of everything that goes out relating to your case (the cost of the copies will most likely be passed on to you) I find that providing too much information is better than not providing enough. I would much rather have a client tell me to stop sending things than the opposite.
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