You don’t need to hire a lawyer to go to court any more than you need to hire an electrician to install a light switch. However, the more complex the job, the better an idea it is to hire a professional. In this guide you’ll learn everything you need to know to find the right lawyer for your needs.
Ways to Find a Lawyer
There are as many ways to find a lawyer as there are cases. Of course you could use the Yellow Pages, but there are many other effective ways to find good attorneys.
Word of Mouth
Ask everyone you know, everywhere you go, and make sure to ask these questions:
- Does the attorney or her staff return calls?
- Does the attorney meet deadlines?
- Does the attorney treat clients respectfully?
- Were the fees charged fairly?
- Did the attorney give a clear accounting of time and money?
- Did the attorney seem knowledgeable?
- Did the attorney seem confident in court or in negotiations?
Remember that just because the attorney may have lost a case for someone doesn’t mean that she is incompetent. Fifty percent of all people who go to court lose their cases—it’s just the way things work.
Look online or in the Yellow Pages for bar associations where you live—there are usually several (state, county, and city, to name a few). Many of them have referral programs; an attorney must sign up for the program to have that bar association refer cases to them. Most of the attorneys who are in referral programs tend to be newer, or looking to build up their practice.
Legal aid began as assistance for people living at or below the poverty level. However, there are legal aid programs for other groups, such as the elderly, artists, or people with family law issues. There are also legal services for particular groups of people, such as union members and students. Some law schools also operate legal aid programs in which attorney-supervised law students provide legal services.
Most of these groups are staffed by very dedicated attorneys and paralegals who are often highly skilled in their area of law. Unfortunately, they are often burdened with very high caseloads so attorneys aren’t able to spend as much time as they would like on individual cases.
Solo Attorneys vs. Firms
Solos, or sole practitioners, have no other attorneys working with them. They may have secretaries or paralegals, or no one at all. This can result in lower fees and more personal attention. It can also mean the attorney is overwhelmed and has no help.
The advantage to a law firm is depth; if your attorney becomes ill or has a conflict, another attorney is available to take her place; they also tend to have more administrative support. Realistically, the number of lawyers in the firm is less important than the kind of staff support the attorney has. Lawsuits are complex, requiring careful organization and attention to detail. If the attorney doesn’t have a lot of staff support, ask how he manages detail.
Interviewing Prospective Lawyers
One of the advantages—and disadvantages—of today’s legal market is that there are so many attorneys available. It’s an advantage because you are likely to find an attorney whose experience and style work well for you. It’s a disadvantage because in order to find that attorney, you might have to interview more than you’d like to.
Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future success. However, law is one of those areas where experience helps develop judgment and ability. An attorney is legally allowed to take a case in an area in which he has no experience, as long as he works to develop expertise in that area. If your attorney has no experience with your type of case, ask him the following questions:
- How do you plan to make up for your lack of experience?
- Do you have other, more experienced attorneys you can call on for help?
- Do you have enough time to learn what you need to in order to be an effective advocate for me?
- Will I be billed for the extra time it takes for you to learn this new area?
Regardless of whether the attorney has experience in your topic, ask him these questions:
- What sorts of other cases have you handled?
- What courts have you appeared in?
- How many trials have you done?
- What sort of support services do you have to keep you on track?
- How have you handled problems with too much work and not enough time in the past?
- What kind of help will you provide in completing interrogatories?
- Do you have malpractice insurance?
It’s legitimate to ask about the attorney’s success rate, keeping in mind that batting .500 isn’t all bad. No one can have a 100 percent success rate just by the very nature of the law. Be more concerned with past experience, client recommendations, and how confident you feel with the attorney herself.
You can also talk to an attorney’s previous clients. Because of attorney-client confidentiality, the attorney must get permission from clients before referring prospective clients to them for questions. Many clients prefer not to discuss their case once it’s over, so don’t expect a long list of people to call. If you can’t get any client recommendations, it may be that it never occurred to the attorney to get permission from previous clients, or that the attorney doesn’t have any clients whom he believes would be willing to say positive things. You should be able to get some sort of client comment, even if it’s from a client survey, before hiring the attorney.
Cost and Billing Practices
Don’t be shy about talking about how much this is going to cost you, and how you’ll be billed. Remember this is a negotiation. Ask if there’s room for discussion on price and payment method. It can’t hurt, and it might help.
Who Will Be Handling Your Case?
Ask whether other lawyers will be working on your case and if the cost is different from that of the attorney you’re currently talking to. Also ask who will be “point man” or your point of contact for the case, and if there is a paralegal or legal assistant who will be doing much of the non-court-appearance work. These are legitimate questions to ask, and if the attorney becomes uncomfortable, that’s a warning sign.
It’s also important to make sure the person you’re planning to hire is licensed as an attorney. The Internet makes that an easy task.
Ask if the attorney has had any disciplinary action taken against them. Anyone can file a grievance against an attorney, even if there’s no basis for it. If the attorney has been practicing long enough, chances are excellent that at least one client has complained, usually because of fees.
The big question is whether there was a basis for the complaint and if the attorney was disciplined in any way. If they were disciplined, ask whether the underlying problem has been resolved. If it was an issue of the attorney taking a client’s money, that is serious. It indicates at the very least a problem with accounting, and at worst, a lack of basic honesty and responsibility. Your best bet is to find an attorney who has never been disciplined.
Finding the right lawyer make be a time-consuming task, but it will pay off in the end. Armed with the best ways to find a lawyer and the right questions to ask them, your search will be much easier. Happy hunting!