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/lawyers.
Word of Mouth
Ask everyone you know, everywhere you go, and make sure to ask these questions:
- Does the lawyer or his/her staff return calls?
- Does the lawyer meet deadlines?
- Does the lawyer treat clients respectfully?
- Were the fees charged fairly?
- Did the lawyer give a clear accounting of time and money?
- Did the lawyer seem knowledgeable?
- Did the lawyer seem confident in court or in negotiations?
Remember that just because the lawyer 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; a lawyer must sign up for the program to have that bar association refer cases to them. Most of the lawyers 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 lawyer-supervised law students provide legal services.
Most of these groups are staffed by very dedicated lawyers and paralegals who are often highly skilled in their area of law. Unfortunately, they are often burdened with very high caseloads, so lawyers aren’t able to spend as much time as they would like on individual cases.
Solo Lawyers vs. Firms
Solos, or sole practitioners, have no other lawyers 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 lawyer is overwhelmed and has no help.
The advantage to a law firm is depth; if your lawyer becomes ill or has a conflict, another lawyer is available to take his/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 lawyer has. Lawsuits are complex, requiring careful organization and attention to detail. If the lawyer 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 lawyers available. It’s an advantage because you are likely to find a lawyer whose experience and style work well for you. It’s a disadvantage because in order to find that lawyer, you might have to interview more than you’d like to.
Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future success. However, the law is one of those areas where experience helps develop judgment and ability. A lawyer 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 lawyer 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 lawyers 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 lawyer 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 lawyer’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 lawyer him/herself.
You can also talk to a lawyer’s previous clients. Because of lawyer-client confidentiality, the lawyer 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 lawyer to get permission from previous clients or that the lawyer 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 lawyer.
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 lawyer 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 lawyer becomes uncomfortable, that’s a warning sign.
It’s also important to make sure the person you’re planning to hire is licensed as a lawyer. The Internet makes that an easy task.
Ask if the lawyer has had any disciplinary action taken against them. Anyone can file a grievance against a lawyer, even if there’s no basis for it. If the lawyer 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 lawyer was disciplined in any way. If they were disciplined, ask whether the underlying problem has been resolved. If it was an issue of the lawyer 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 a lawyer who has never been disciplined.
Finding the right lawyer makes 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!