How to Choose the Right Attorney for You
Sooner or later, everyone will need an attorney. Like all professional services, you need to make sure you select the attorney that best fits your personality and your needs. Even experienced plaintiffs and defendants can have trouble getting the best performance and value out of their law firm so it’s important that you do your homework. If you follow a few simple rules, you can increase your chances of success and reduce the stress that comes with every journey through the legal system.
Two Things You Should Never Do
Never pick a lawyer based on a radio or television ad alone. The “Bulldog” and the “Strong arm” might be great if you are looking to hire a body guard or professional wrestler, but they tend not to impress a judge.
The second “never” is never hire a lawyer from the Yellow Pages. Flashy phone book ads have about zero correlation with quality legal practice. Of course, every lawyer is listed in the phone book, so random choices from the listings may lead you to a good lawyer, however, there simply are much better ways to go about finding one.
The first place to start when looking for an attorney is to ask your friends, relatives and acquaintances for recommendations.
As with any business, word-of-mouth is the best advertising. It’s also the best way to find out who has done well or not so well for people whose judgment you value. Even if no one you know has experience with a lawyer who deals in a particular practice area, you can still get some feedback if you know where to look. If you are selling a house without a real estate agent, for example, you can check with local title companies to see with whom they have had good experiences. Similarly, if you need a lawyer for your small business, you can check with the local chamber of commerce to see who has the best reputation among other local businesses similar in size and scope to our own.
Using the Search Engines
Even with all the potential resources out there, you may still have trouble finding the right lawyer for your specific needs. In this case, the Internet can be an invaluable resource. You can find testimonials and credible recommendations by using Google, Yahoo and other search engines to enter keywords and phrases pertaining to the type of lawyer you need.
One other important thing to consider when selecting a lawyer is specialty. In other words, you need to make sure the lawyer you hire is the lawyer you need. For example, if you need a criminal defense lawyer, don’t hire an estate lawyer, even if he/she is an old family friend. Similarly, even in civil cases, you must be sure you have the right specialist to meet your needs. Intellectual property law, for example, is very different than real estate law. Make sure your lawyer regularly practices the kind of law you need.
Understanding Legal Retainers
When you are paying an attorney an hourly fee, you generally have to pay some portion of your expected fee up front as a retainer. Don’t be intimidated by a lack of knowledge and experience. Ask what is usual and customary for your kind of case, and never pay more. A retainer can potentially be very expensive. Ask your lawyer to show you an itemized statement of what services you can expect and negotiate an appropriate retainer accordingly. Try to work out a payment schedule as you would do with a construction contractor. Never pay out a retainer for the full amount of the expected legal fees up front. This may give your lawyer an incentive to ignore you and your case. Remember, there are plenty of lawyers out there, and it’s generally easier for you to find a capable lawyer than it is for him or her to find another client. Attorney’s who have given you introductory counsel don’t want you to go away, so you have a little leverage when it comes to establishing a fee schedule.
Whether or not you get an itemized list of anticipated charges when you negotiate a retainer, make absolutely sure that you and your lawyer agree on detailed benchmark reports so you can keep tabs on your case’s progress. There are, for example, a number of steps you need to follow to probate an estate. You need to file an inventory, a tax return and many other forms. Be sure you know exactly what your lawyer plans to do, and when he or she plans to do it. Then hold them accountable for sticking to the agreed-upon schedule. If you’ve paid the full retainer in advance, you have very little leverage beyond filing a complaint with the local Bar Association which should always be a last resort. If you haven’t paid in full, certainly don’t pay any more until your lawyer catches up with the schedule.
Paralegals And Legal Assistants
There’s one last tip to remember when dealing with your attorney. Consider the usefulness of the non-lawyers that just about every law firm hires. Paralegals and legal assistants can handle much of the legwork involved in any case and using their time can save you lots of money. When you are setting up your schedule with your lawyer, ask if there is any work that the firm’s paralegals and legal assistants can complete. And make absolutely sure that these savings are passed along to you in your bill.