Sooner or later, everyone will need a law firm for something. Venturing into the realm of laws, lawsuits, and judgments for the first time can be a very daunting experience.
Even experienced plaintiffs and defendants can have trouble getting the best performance and value out of their law attorney. Compound this difficulty with the fact that a lot of your success rests on how you choose your lawyer and who you end up with and it’s easy to come down with a bad case of analysis paralysis. If you follow a few simple rules, though, you can have much better success-and just as importantly suffer much less aggravation-in your journey through the legal system.
Finding the Right Lawyer
The first thing you need to realize here is that you aren’t looking for a best friend, you’re looking for a lawyer. The qualities you’d want in a friend, are certainly not those you need in your lawyer. You need to always remember you are looking for a professional relationship, legal aid, and expect nothing more-or less-than professional treatment. In other words, always approach this as the business relationship that it is. The first step to finding the right professional relationship is to remember a couple of “nevers.”
The Nevers When Selecting an Attorney
Never pick a lawyer based on a television ad. The “Bulldog” and the “Strongarm” might be great if you are looking to hire a professional wrestler or a repo man, but they tend not to impress a judge. And honestly, if you’re the kind of person that is impressed by that kind of bluster and ambulance chasing, you’re probably not going to be reading this article, but just in case you’re tempted-don’t be. The only sure thing you are getting for your money from these lawyers is bad acting-another thing that usually doesn’t go over too well in court.
The second “never” is never hire a lawyer from a phonebook ad. Same general principles apply with the ad-the flashy phone book ads have about zero correlation with quality lawyering. Now, certainly, every lawyer is in the phone book, so, unlike television ads, random choices from the phonebook could very well lead you to a good lawyer. The reason you never want to proceed this way is that there are simply much better ways to go about finding a good lawyer than random chance based upon what catches your eye in the phonebook.
The first place to start when looking for a lawyer is to ask friends, relatives, and acquaintances for recommendations. Equally as beneficial is using the Internet.
As with any business, word of mouth is the best advertising. It is also the best way for you to find out who has done well-or poorly-for people whose judgement you value (or at least can evaluate). Even if no one you know has experience with a lawyer who deals with what you need, you can still get some feedback if you know where to look. For example, if you are selling a house without a real estate agent, you could check with the local title companies to see who they have had good experiences with. Similarly, if you need a lawyer for your small business, you can check with the local chamber of commerce to see who has good relations with the local business community.
Using the Search Engines
Even with all the potential resources out there, you may get stuck when it comes to finding the right lawyer for your needs. Here’s where the Internet is a godsend. Search engines can be utilized to find lawyers in your area. In addition, LegalLawHelp.com has an attorney at law that allows you to find attorneys by state or specialty.
One other important thing to think about when picking lawyer is specialty-that is, make sure the lawyer you hire is the lawyer you need. In other words, if you need a criminal defense lawyer, don’t hire an estate lawyer, even if he is an old family friend. Similarly, even in civil cases, you want to make sure you have the right specialist to meet your needs. Intellectual property law is far different from property law-make sure your lawyer regularly practices the kind of law you need.
In general there are two options when it comes to attorney fees: hourly or percentage.
If you are hiring a lawyer to handle some sort of routine legal work (like completing a house sale or putting an estate through probate) expect to pay hourly. Despite the fact that this type of arrangement has a built-in incentive for your lawyer to run up your bill, this can actually work out quite well for you if you pay close attention and spell out in advance just exactly what your lawyer will be doing for you (more on this below). You should also expect to pay hourly for criminal defense lawyer attorney. Public defenders, of course, are an exception to this, but you don’t really get a whole lot of choice when you resort to public defenders.
On the other hand, if you are suing someone, you can often arrange contingency legal fees. That means that your lawyer will take some percentage of any settlement. In terms of incentive, this kind of arrangement is the best insurance you can come by to motivate your lawyer to do his or her best for you. Simply put, they don’t get paid if you don’t win. The percentage you will have to pay them can be pretty high, but if you happen to walk away with large settlement, your lawyer will have quite a hand in that.
One thing to always think about when setting up a lawyer fee schedule for legal services in a case where you are suing someone else is your lawyer’s willingness to take a contingency fee. If you can’t find a lawyer willing to work on contingency, you might want to reevaluate your whole legal endeavor. If lawyers want hourly fees in these kinds of cases, it’s because they don’t think you can win. Don’t fool yourself for one minute thinking that lawyers will tell you in advance that your case stinks. While some-maybe even most-will, you can always find some lawyer that will take any case if you are willing to pay win or lose. If that’s the only arrangement you can come up with take the hint from the professionals. They don’t think you can win (or that you won’t win enough to make it worth their while). If the people with the experience feel that way, you should probably reconsider why it is you are suing and what you really expect to get out of it.
When you are paying hourly, you generally have to pay some portion of your expected fee up front as a retainer.
Don’t be intimidated here by a lack of knowledge. Never give more for a retainer than your legal attorney can demonstrate is usual and customary for your kind of case. A retainer can potentially be very expensive. Ask your lawyer to show you an itemized statement of what you can expect him or her to do and negotiate an appropriate retainer accordingly. The best advice I can give you about what to aim for here is try to work out a schedule similar to how you’d pay a contractor. In other words, don’t pay out a retainer for the full amount of the expected lawyer fees for your case up front. All this does is give your lawyer an incentive to ignore you and your case. Remember, there are plenty of lawyers out there, and it is generally easier for you to find a capable lawyer than it is for them to find more clients. They don’t want you to go away, so you have a little leverage when it comes to setting up a fee schedule.
Whether or not you get an itemized list of anticipated charges when you negotiate a retainer (and, again, you should request one), make absolute certain that you have your lawyer detail benchmarks to you so that you can keep tabs on your case’s progress. For example, there are a number of steps you need to follow to probate an estate. You need to file an inventory, a tax return-lots of forms. Make sure you know exactly what your lawyer plans to do, and when he or she plans to do it. Then hold them to their schedule. If you’ve paid a full retainer in advance, you don’t have too many options short of badgering them (in the last resort you can file a Bar complaint, but you should hold off on that unless things are really bad). If you haven’t paid in full, certainly don’t pay any more until your lawyer catches up on the schedule.
Paralegals and Legal Assistants
One last tip to remember when dealing with your lawyer is the usefulness of the non-lawyers that just about every law firm hires. Paralegals and legal assistants can handle much of the grunt work and legwork involved in any case-and using them 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 sure these savings get passed along to you in your bill.