Picking a lawyer is a very intense and personal process. Sadly for us lawyers, people rarely come to us when everything in their lives is happy and they are in a good mood. Typically people hire lawyers when there are at a crisis point in their lives. They are scared and mad and even feeling emotions that they don’t have a name for. You end up sharing deep dark secrets with your lawyer, things you wouldn’t tell your parents. Most of the time you will be dealing with your lawyer for at least six months, often a lot longer. And on top of all of that, lawyers are expensive! So it is important that you find a lawyer with whom you feel comfortable and who you can trust to do what is best for you.
Here is the average scene: you have decided that you need a lawyer but you don’t know who to hire. Perhaps you have been trying to do it yourself and find yourself out of your depth. Perhaps you just don’t even want to try to start it yourself, but leave it to the professionals. Either way, how do you find a lawyer? Many people talk with their friends and colleagues to get a referral. This is my favorite way to get clients. If you have been referred from someone who has had a good experience then you know that the lawyer has a good reputation and will work hard for you, too. As a lawyer, I like having referrals because I know that these are people who care enough to ask their friends and contact me. These people and I also tend to start off even better than someone who found me on the internet—these clients know that they can trust me.
But if you don’t have any recommendations, where do you turn? Where most of us turn for information—the internet. Many of my clients find me through lawyers.com. This is a great site that allows you to look at attorneys, compare their experience, history, and reviews, and make a decision.
Once you’ve found someone’s website or list page, what do you look for? Every website will try to tell you that this lawyer is the very best for you, but how do you know? What you want to do is assess several aspects of the lawyer. Here are some suggestions of things to consider:
The most important part of hiring an attorney is making sure that the way that they work is the way you want things done. Most people think of lawyers as one blob with one stereotype. But that is the worst way to think about it. Like every profession there are some lawyers who are jerks. You can tell if the person you are talking to is a jerk if they do things like not listen to what you are saying, or answer e-mails during your meeting. The same is true if you are kept waiting to meet with them for more than 10 minutes, or if they do not return your communications promptly. Any of these things is a sign that you may want to find a different lawyer.
There are some lawyers who are very aggressive. They are the ones who will not give in no matter how much it looks like they are going to lose. They are the ones who believe that they are right, sometimes in the face of evidence to the contrary. These types of lawyers have their place. There are some cases where a lawyer like this will get you the best outcome. These lawyers are best for criminal defense or a civil lawsuit. This is also a good kind of lawyer if you are an all-or-nothing personality who is going gung-ho into a case and you do not want to budge one inch on your position. If this is you, don’t go looking for a lawyer whose main goal is to settle, find one who goes to trial a lot.
Some lawyers lean very much toward mediation. These lawyers are the kind who want to find what everyone will agree to. They want to avoid trial as much as possible and tend to look at the more realistic side of the situation. These lawyers are good for people who just want help settling an easy issue, or families who agree that they want a divorce but who just want someone to write up the paperwork. You can tell if you are talking to this kind of lawyer if they don’t go to trial often, or if it feels like you are in a therapist’s office. These lawyers are great if you want little argument over the case, or if you are a very peaceful person who hates confrontation.
The best kind of philosophy is one that balances these two sides. Unless there is a good reason to pick one of the extreme kind of lawyers you need to find a lawyer that is in the middle. This kind of lawyer is one who has a good track record in trial and is not afraid to go into a courtroom to defend you. But a quality lawyer knows the law and knows the limits of what a judge will give you. They will be able to work with this knowledge to get you the best possible settlement. Most cases should settle. If the parties and attorneys are all reasonable people it is better all around to come to an agreement. It saves everyone money (going to trial is very expensive) and I can guarantee that you will not be happy with the orders that the judge gives. Unless you are a very aggressive or a very passive person try to find a lawyer like this.
Price vs Experience
If money were no object think of the things we could have and the places we could go. Unfortunately, money is an issue for most of us. Lawyers are not cheap to hire, and we all have to consider the price and how much we can budget for an attorney. Much of the time price equates with experience. If you want an attorney who has been practicing for 20 years expect to pay over $300 an hour for their services. You can also expect to pay well over $5,000 in a retainer. Your case may be so complicated that you require an attorney with this kind of experience. If that is the case then it will be worth it to spend the money.
But experience doesn’t always equate with price. Many large downtown firms will charge you over $200 an hour for the assistance of an attorney who just graduated law school. If you look at smaller firms that are in the suburbs, or at attorneys who have their own private practice, you can often find much cheaper rates. These people typically have lower retainers and are much more willing to set up payment plans for you. Because they are not overloaded with hundreds of clients you will get much more personal service, and much better communication. You will usually get to talk to the lawyer instead of just the secretary. So shop around and don’t assume that the most expensive lawyer will be the best choice for you.
Conversely, don’t necessarily go for the cheapest lawyer around. In this economy there are many people who just passed the bar and are well qualified, but who can’t get a job (because there are no jobs to be had). These people, me included, start off with very low rates compared to other attorneys. They can be a great value—they will work hard for you for less money. But be sure that if you have a complicated situation that you get an attorney with enough experience. Remember that you will be working with this person for a while, and often they hold a lot of power in your life in their hands. I could have never started this business if it weren’t for people who trusted me when I was new. So please hire a young attorney, just make sure that they are able to help you as much as you need to be helped.
Hourly Rate v. Contingency v. Flat Fee
There are three ways a lawyer can get paid—hourly rate, flat rate, or contingency fee. Hourly rate is what you would expect. You pay the attorney so much an hour. This is usually the structure for any kind of case where you will not be getting a bit pay out at the end—like family, business, or criminal law. This system is the most straight forward, and arguably the most fair.
Other cases, like personal injury, malpractice, or disability, lend themselves to contingency fees. This is the motto “we don’t get paid unless you do.” The attorney gets a certain percentage of whatever it is that you make at the end—usually 33% of it. This plan is good if you qualify since you don’t owe much until the end. The only catch is that usually you will have to put a little bit down with the attorney since the attorney is not allowed to pay your court costs for you. You will not be refunded this money. Also ask about what happens if you fire them half of the way through, or if they withdraw. Often you will owe them for the work that they have done.
Other practices, like wills, trusts, or some criminal cases, work on a flat fee. They will tell you one number for the whole case. These only work if the attorney knows exactly how much work will go into the case and does not expect to do more than that. It is a nice system because you always know how much you will be paying. If you go to a lawyer with this structure make sure that you ask about a situation where the lawyer withdraws or you fire the lawyer. How much do they get paid for the work that they have done? You will not get a full refund if you have not reached the conclusion of the case, and you should know the breakdown. I like flat fees for preparing wills or planning documents, it is often to the advantage of both people.
No way of getting paid is necessarily better than the others, you should know what your options are as well as the parameters of the agreement.
While location should not be a determining factor, it does play a role. Remember that you will have to meet with the lawyer during the day at least a few times. Pick someone who either will be flexible with their schedule or who is close enough to you that you can go meet them with little trouble. And don’t forget to look in the suburbs—you will often get very good attorneys for a fraction of the cost of a down town lawyer.
Lawyers can get in trouble with the bar association. Make sure that you check your state supreme court website to see if your lawyer has ever been in any professional trouble. If they have, see if you can link to the decision from the court and what the punishment was. While a professional sanction does not mean that you should not hire the attorney, it does mean that you should be fully informed about the situation before you go to speak with him or her.
Your Gut Feeling
Always trust your instinct. I have found that if I listen when I feel uneasy about something I avoid a lot of trouble. It’s very important that you meet with your lawyer in person. You should talk to him or her, and get to know them as a person. If you don’t feel comfortable then find someone else. You will be having a long and personal relationship with your lawyer, find someone you are comfortable with.
Some questions to ask your potential lawyer:
- What is your philosophy? Do you try to settle cases or do you always go to court? Do you go to court when necessary?
- How quickly do you respond to my communications?
- How do you work with other attorneys and other parties?
- Will you always tell me the whole truth, or will you try to hide the unpleasant parts?
- What is your retainer and hourly rate? What happens when I deplete my retainer? Do you have payment plans? Do you have a sliding scale for low income clients?
- How many clients do you have on average?
- How much will I be communicating with the secretary and how much will be with you?
- How many hearings and trials have you done in the last 6 months? How did they turn out?
- What is the payment plan? What happens if you withdraw or I fire you in the middle of the case?
- Is there anything in particular about my case that you will be good at?
- Why should I choose you as my attorney instead of someone else?
Don’t just hire the first lawyer you find. Meet with many, or at least call them, and see who fits you best.
Disclaimer: Nothing on this page is intended as legal advice, and should not be taken as legal advice. If you have a question you should consult with a lawyer. Meggin is certified to practice law only in the state of Colorado. Because of Colorado’s specific and often progressive laws this information will probably not apply to any other state. If you live in another state you should consult with a lawyer near you. This post does not confer any attorney client relationship, and no such relationship is formed until you and I have entered into an express contract. If you have any questions about any information on my blog please contact me at Meggin at MRutherfordLaw.com .