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How To Hire An Attorney

Overview

Whether you want to litigate an issue, draft a contract, or are just looking for legal advice about your situation, it is a good idea to speak with a lawyer. An attorney can identify important legal consequences that may affect you, provide you with options, and give you advice about your next course of action. In many cases, even a brief meeting with an attorney can set your mind at ease and move you towards a positive resolution. Choosing an attorney may seem like a daunting task, but this guide outlines steps to make the process manageable.

Things to Remember When Hiring an Attorney

There are some key issues you may want to consider as you begin your search for an attorney. First, it is to your benefit to contact an attorney as soon as possible after your legal issue arises. If you wait to contact attorney, you could miss important deadlines. Next, develop a clear understanding about what you hope to accomplish by meeting with the attorney—take a moment to identify and write down your goals. Finally, you will want to become familiar with different billing methods that attorneys use. Hiring an attorney can be expensive, and understanding the ways that attorneys may charge for their services is good way to keep your costs down. This guide will help educate you on these and other important factors when it comes time to making a final decision on who to hire.

Identify Your Goals

It will be helpful for you to keep specific goals in mind as you begin your search for an attorney. Knowing what you are looking to achieve will help to narrow your search for an attorney and enable both you and the attorney to focus on the most important issues. You will avoid spending time (and money) on extraneous issues, concentrate your attorney's efforts on what is important to you, and clearly discuss a strategy for meeting the goals. Depending on your situation, some goals you might want to accomplish by meeting with an attorney are:

  • Review of a contract
  • Evaluation of a legal claim against you
  • Evaluation of your legal claim against another
  • Legal advice about the consequences of a particular course of action
  • Creation of a will or trust document
  • Formation of a business

Remember that you are visiting an attorney to get an expert's impression of your matter – be open to the attorney's suggestions regarding your potential course of action.

WHO TO HIRE? – THE SIZE OF FIRM

As you think about working with an attorney, consider the size of the firm you might work with. There are advantages (and disadvantages) of working with different types of law firms, from a solo practitioner to the firm with hundreds of attorneys.

Solo Practitioners are lawyers who practice on their own and are probably the largest single category of practicing lawyers. In almost every town or city across the country there is at least one solo practitioner who handles a variety of legal issues usually with no specialization in any one practice area. It is common for solo practitioners to handle several types of legal issues – though some are in highly specialized fields. Some benefits of hiring a solo practitioner to help you with your legal issue might include:

  • Lower fees and costs. Generally, a solo practitioner has a much lower overhead than a larger law firm, which enables him or her to charge considerably less than a larger law firm might for the same work.
  • Often, solo practitioners are more willing or able to take smaller cases where as a larger law firm might not.
  • You will likely have a personal, one-on-one relationship with a solo practitioner and his or her office staff. This may mean that the intimate details of your case are understood better and you'll have the comfort knowing that your case will not be handed off to another attorney within the firm.

Small Law Firms are generally law firms that have between two and ten lawyers. Small firms have many of the benefits listed above for solo practitioners -- lower fees and more personal interaction. In addition, the small law firm may offer some of the following benefits:

  • Some small offices may specialize in a very specific area of law. These firms are often called "boutique firms."
  • There is usually another lawyer available to cover for your attorney if your attorney is unexpectedly unavailable.
  • Knowledge sharing between attorneys in the firm can help improve firm effectiveness.

Mid-Sized Law Firms usually have between ten and fifty lawyers. Some benefits of working with a mid-sized firm might be:

  • Many have the warm characteristics of a smaller firm, and at the same time some of the legal resources available in a large firm.
  • Access to additional resources within the firm may mean that many, if not all, of your legal needs can be addressed from one office.
  • Often the more lawyers a firm has, the more contacts it has within the legal community allowing it to draw from a larger network and knowledge base.

Large Law Firms generally employ fifty or more lawyers. Because of the number of lawyers in the office they tend to handle large, complex legal problems. Some potential benefits of working with a large firm might include:

  • Most have the legal resources to handle issues for large public companies, governments, and other larger organizations.
  • They generally have several metropolitan locations, often across the country or even worldwide.
  • Because of their size and the nature of cases they handle, as well as the high levels of expertise, large law firms tend to come with considerable reputation and name recognition within the legal community.

The following chart may help you evaluate which size law firm will work best for your situation.

 
Sole Practitioner
Small Firm
Medium Firm
Large Firm
Number of Attorneys
1
2-10
10-50
50+
Cost to Client Low overhead generally enables lower fees Lower overhead can mean lower fees More overhead and diverse resources may mean higher cost to clients High overhead, high levels of expertise in many fields generally means higher costs to clients
Types of Cases Handled
  • Often willing to take on smaller cases
  • May not have in-house resources to tackle larger cases
  • Generally willing to take on smaller cases
  • May not have in-house resources to take on larger cases
  • Maybe less willing to take on smaller cases
  • Generally have in-house resources to take on larger cases
Generally handle larger cases, often for big, public companies, government and/or other large organizations
Attorney/Client Relationship One-on-one relationship One-on-one relationship May work with more than one attorney on a particular project Work with several attorney’s on a project
Specialty? May specialize in a particular area of law May specialize in particular area of law—often called “boutique firms” May specialize, but often able to provide expertise in many different areas of law Have high levels of expertise in many different areas of law
Resources Available w/in Firm Often rely on outside sources if don’t have in-house expertise required
  • Additional attorneys in office may provide additional expertise
  • May need to rely on outside sources if don’t have in-house expertise
May be able to address all legal needs from a single firm Significant resources within the firm mean all legal needs can be addressed by a single firm
Other Considerations Given the personal nature of your relationship with the attorney, the details of your case are less likely to slip through the cracks Highly personal relationship with your attorney, but have others who can cover if your attorney is unavailable The more lawyers in a firm, the more contacts the firm has with the legal community—can be a big benefit to a client
  • Individual lawyers within the firm have very high levels of expertise and have been educated in the most prestigious law schools
  • Prestige and name recognition
  • May have offices in many metropolitan areas, both domestically and internationally

How Much Will It Cost? – Attorneys Fees & Schedules

There are a number of different ways Attorneys bill for their services in different ways. You will want to become familiar with the different methods before you meet with an attorney, so you can better evaluate the estimated time and cost of the services a particular attorney offers you. With all fee structures, confirm with the attorney what will and will not be included. In most cases, under most fee structures, you will be responsible for the costs associated with your case – things like copies, filing fees, travel, hiring experts, or long distance phone calls.

  • Consultation Fee

    Some lawyers charge a fixed or hourly fee for an "initial consultation" — this is the first meeting where you and the attorney determine if he or she can assist you. Others offer a free initial consultation. Consultations can be in-person or over the phone. Be sure to ask whether you will be charged for this initial meeting or not the first time you make contact with the lawyer.

  • Retainer Fee

    Think of a retainer fee as a "down payment" against which future costs are billed. The cost of services is deducted from that account as they accrue. In some states, retainer fees can be non-refundable, even if the lawyer doesn't deduct the complete cost of his or her services. Some states, however, require refund of any amount of the unused retainer. Some clients maintain a monthly retainer fee, so that the attorney will always be "on call" to handle legal problems. Be sure to ask the attorney to clarify the details of any retainer fee he or she may require you to pay. If have concerns about whether or not the retainer fee should be refundable, you should call your state's bar association for more information.

    Some attorneys will also request a deposit for costs. This is most common in a situation where a lawyer is handling a matter on a contingency fee basis but expects the costs to be unusually excessive and cannot fund them through the firm. When a deposit for costs is made, it will be deposited into the attorney's trust account and when a cost accrues, the amount will be deducted from your balance to pay for it. All amounts not used for costs are fully refundable to the client.

  • Contingency Fee

    When working on a "contingency" basis, a lawyer's fee is based on a percentage of the money that you receive if you win the case or settle the matter before trial. If you lose the case, the lawyer does not get a fee. However, even if you don't pay the lawyer a fee, you will likely be responsible for additional expenses he or she incurred when representing you, such as court costs or document preparation and copying costs. The percentage a lawyer will take as his or her fee varies according to the attorney, and the type of law suit involved. Contingency fees are most common in cases such as personal injury, property damage, or social security cases, where someone is being sued for money. Lawyers may be prohibited from making contingency fee arrangements in certain kinds of cases such as criminal and child custody matters and their fee may be capped in some states.

  • Flat Fee

    A flat fee is a specific, total fee that is decided up front, before the attorney provides any service. A flat fee is usually offered only if your case is simple or routine, such as drafting a straightforward will, bankruptcy filing or representation for an uncontested divorce. Flat fees often limit attorney's services, so be sure to confirm what services are included in your flat fee arrangement.

  • Hourly Rate

    When charging an hourly rate, a lawyer will bill for each hour (or portion of an hour) that he or she works on your case. An attorney with more experience in a field may charge more for his or her services, but that attorney may need to spend less time on an issue than an attorney less familiar with the field. Different attorneys within a firm may also charge more or less according to their expertise level and years of experience. In addition to in-person meetings, and all work on your case, hourly rates typically will apply to phone conversations with your attorney or staff regarding your case. It's a good idea to find out ahead of time how the hourly rate will be calculated and what is included.

  • Statutory Fee

    In certain situations, a statute or a court may set the fee that you pay your attorney. Typical proceedings involving a statutory fee might include probate or bankruptcy proceedings.

Tips For Interviewing Lawyers - What to Expect

Regardless of the issues you plan to discuss, when you meet with an attorney you should be prepared to answer questions that may seem extremely personal. You may feel uncomfortable disclosing the answers to some of these questions (for example, about your income or past criminal history.) However, it is important that you answer truthfully and completely. The answers will enable your attorney to better address all issues surrounding your case.

Preparing for an Initial Consultation - What to Bring

In order to make the most out of your initial consultation, it's a good idea to gather material that would be helpful to the lawyer before your meeting. Spend some time thinking about the kind of information and documentation that might be helpful, and about how you can logically explain your situation to an attorney. If your situation involves many facts that are best presented in chronological order, you may want to get a calendar and mark down dates of when things happened, when you participated in various correspondence, or received particular documents. If your situation involves the drafting of a general document, for example, a will, consider creating a flow chart explaining the way you would like your assets distributed. Here are some suggestions about what to bring with you, however you may need to tailor the list to your particular situation:

Contact Information:

Be prepared to provide you attorney with all of your contact information, including an email address if available. If you are uncomfortable with your attorney contacting you at a particular location, make sure to inform your attorney of that concern and try to work out an alternative way to reach you.

Important Facts Leading Up to Your Decision to Contact a Lawyer:

  • The names of important people involved in your situation and their contact information
  • Important background facts
  • The time frame and any important dates pertaining to your situation
  • Important events surrounding your situation (who, what, where, when, why, how?)
  • The current status of your situation

All Documents That Pertain to Your Situation:

  • Documents (for example contracts, lease agreements, insurance information, accident reports)
  • All correspondence, including letters, faxes, phone notes, emails
  • Employment materials (for example, an employee handbook, employee contract)

Organizing Your Thoughts - What to Ask

The worksheet below may help you figure out which questions to ask and how organize the information you gather from each attorney. It is an easy way to compare their answers to your questions, as well as your initial impressions of the services they will provide for you. Again, you may need to tailor this general list to fit your specific situation.

Questions
Attorney's Response
Notes and Impressions
What kind of cases do you normally handle?    
Do you specialize in a particular area of law?    
What percentage of your practice is devoted to this area of law?    
How many situations similar to mine do you handle in a year?    
How often you do work on conflicts that end up in a courtroom? That are resolved by an arbitrator? Through mediation?    
How much time does it usually take to resolve a case like mine?    
What methods do you use to inform clients about the status of their case?    
Are you available after hours?    
Would you be working on my case with other attorneys?  If so, can I meet them?    
How do you bill your clients?    
Do you require a retainer fee?    
Are there expenses, outside of your fee which I will be responsible for? (Copying costs, expert witnesses, etc.)    
How much will it cost to represent me in this matter?    
Based on what you know about my case, what are the strengths and weaknesses of my case?    

Helpful Links and Resources

American Bar Association
The official website of the ABA. Provides comprehensive and thorough education materials, links to attorneys and many other legal resources.
http://www.abanet.org

Findlaw
The leading free online index of legal materials. Provides extensive educational materials, court links, links to attorneys, and other helpful information on legal issues.
http://www.findlaw.com

LegalConnection
An online legal matching site that helps you quickly and easily match your case to attorneys in your local area. This tool is powered by FindLaw the most popular legal portal on the web.
http://www.legalconnection.com

The Law Review Project
The Coalition of Online Journals provides free full text search of online law journals. Significant resource for educational materials and resources.
http://www.lawreview.org

Legal Information Institute
This library is hosted by Cornell University's School of Law and contains a variety of legal educational information and provides links to other legal resources.
http://www.law.cornell.edu

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