Lawyers (also called attorneys or counsel) serve as advocates for people and organizations. They represent clients both to the court and to opposing parties. Lawyers can represent clients in criminal cases, where a law has been broken, and in civil cases, in which one party is suing another.
Lawyers are also important partners in situations that don’t involve the courtroom, advising clients about their legal rights and obligations for personal or business issues. They are trained to interpret complicated systems of laws and navigate the court system.
What can a lawyer do for me?
First, a lawyer will advise you as to whether or not you actually need legal help. It’s not always obvious whether an issue is a legal matter or something that can be resolved without involving the court system. A lawyer will help you answer these initial questions.
Once you’ve decided to hire a lawyer, then they have the power to represent you to the court and to opposing parties. Your lawyer is your most important ally in any legal matter. They provide advice on how to proceed with your legal issue, and prepare important documents for you.
If your issue involves going to court, your lawyer will accompany you, and can speak for you. If your legal matter involves mediation or arbitration, your lawyer will negotiate with the opposing party on your behalf.
What type of lawyer do I need?
What practice area should I choose?
Many lawyers tend to focus only on one area, or several related areas of law. In your search for the right lawyer, you should look for a lawyer who understands and has experience in the specific area of law for your issue. For example, a divorce lawyer may not be able to help you if you are considering declaring bankruptcy for your business, but a bankruptcy lawyer who understands bankruptcy and business law would be a perfect match. Reputable lawyers will be upfront about their experience and specific focus, but it will save you some time by narrowing your search beforehand.
Is practice size and type something I should consider when I’m looking for a lawyer?
Practice size is definitely something you should take into account. Some firms consist of only one lawyer, while some firms retain hundreds. There are many different types of law firms, some of which focus on very specific issues, while others may be more general. For instance, a large corporate firm may not help if you only need a lawyer to review a contract or a few documents, but may be the right choice if you are filing a personal injury suit against a large company. If your legal issue involves only small sums of money, or a few documents, a small firm may be more cost-effective. The size of a practice may also determine how quickly you will be able to actually speak to your potential lawyer; larger offices may require you to schedule your initial consultation through a lawyer’s assistant or secretary.
Should location be a major factor in my search for a lawyer?
Location is an important factor in looking for a lawyer to represent you. Since your issue will likely depend on state or local laws and regulations, you will want an attorney who understands the regulations for your location. On the practical side, you will also want a lawyer who has an office that is convenient for you to travel to. Some lawyers are willing to travel to meet you, but may also charge for travel time. It’s usually a good idea to find a lawyer located in your geographical area. Besides legal knowledge of state and local laws, lawyers also have practical local knowledge. Lawyers in specific cities or towns will also have connections to helpful agencies in that city, which will expedite the process of resolving your issue.
What are other clients saying about them?
One of the best ways to know if an attorney is right for you are reviews. Read what previous clients have said about specific attorneys and their experiences. Once you choose an attorney to contact, read all the reviews about that particular lawyer to get an idea of how they may handle your case and interact with you.
What types of payment do lawyers usually accept?
Most lawyers accept standard payment methods, such as cash, check, and credit cards. Sometimes the method of payment will involve part of the amount of a settlement, so be sure to discuss payment options with your lawyer before signing a fee agreement. Most lawyers are also willing to set up a payment plan, if necessary.
What is a fee agreement?
A fee agreement, or representation agreement, is a payment agreement between a lawyer and a client. It can consist of several pages, or simply one page outlining the agreement. This document covers key issues such as how much you will be expected to pay for services rendered, how the lawyer will be paid, the timeline of payment, and which lawyer (if a multi-lawyer firm) will work on the case. Be sure to read the fee agreement carefully before signing it, so you know exactly what is expected of you and your lawyer.
Consultation Fee: A lawyer may charge for you first consultation meeting, but be sure you know the charges before you hire a lawyer. Ask about Consultation fees before you make an appointment, and how the fee is calculated (i.e. by the hour, half-hour, or otherwise).
Contingency Fees: A contingency fee means that your lawyer only gets paid this fee if there is a favorable result in your case—a court win or a settlement in your favor. Typically, but not always, these fees consist of around 1/3 of the total settlement or judgment.
Flat Fees: A flat fee means that the lawyer charges one price for each consultation, or for an entire case, no matter how much time or work it takes. Be sure to ask other lawyers for comparable rates if offered a flat fee.
Hourly Rate: Lawyers often charge an agreed-upon hourly rate for their work, and the work of their assistants. The hourly rate applies to both face-to-face consultations and behind-the-scenes work on your case. A good lawyer will usually be able to estimate the required number of hours per case in advance.
Retainer Fee: A retainer fee is an advance payment to an attorney towards the hourly rate in a specific case. Your attorney will place the retainer fee into an account, and deduct money as work on your case progresses. These are usually non-refundable if you choose to terminate the case early.
Statutory Fee: Sometimes, state or local law determines a set amount that you owe your attorney for certain services, like bankruptcy cases and probate issues. A court may also set a statutory fee, though this isn’t standard.
Court Costs: Be sure that you know whether, and how much, you will owe in court costs for your legal issue. A good lawyer will be able to estimate court costs in a given situation, and whether or not you will be able to obtain court costs from an opposing party in a favorable settlement or judgment.
Filing Fees: Courts charge money for people to be able to file lawsuits and other court actions, like divorce and bankruptcy. Ask your potential lawyer to explain these fees before you sign a fee agreement.
Secretarial Time: Lawyers charge different hourly rates for their own work and the work of their secretaries and paralegals. Be sure to ask about the difference before you decide to hire a lawyer and sign a fee agreement.
Delivery Fees: In some cases, lawyers use courier services to deliver legal documents to opposing parties and to the court. Ask about potential delivery fees before you sign a fee agreement.
What questions should I ask before I hire a lawyer?
What percentage of their cases deal with issues like mine?
This is an important question that a reputable attorney should have no problem answering. You want to find a lawyer that has experience dealing with your specific issue, and this question will help you determine whether a lawyer is right for you. Feel free to ask for specific statistics, and for their average verdict/settlement numbers in cases similar to yours.
How much experience does this lawyer have? What is their record?
Lawyers, like all professionals, will have varying degrees of experience. Understanding a lawyer’s previous experience is essential to understanding how they can handle your case. You’ll want to ask how many years the lawyer has been practicing. A lack of experience doesn’t necessarily make for a bad lawyer, though, especially if they have experienced lawyers around them. This is why you’ll want to ask about their workload: do they handle many cases? How much of each case do they personally oversee, and how much do they delegate to assistants?
How will a lawyer contact me?
Make sure you and your attorney are on the same page about communication. Ask about their preferred communication methods, and whether they are willing to use your preferred communication methods. Does the lawyer you are considering hiring accept (and respond to) communication via email? Will they respond if you send a text? Make sure they respond promptly (within 24 hours) to your initial inquiries—you don’t want to hire a lawyer who won’t return your calls or avoids prompt communication about your case.
What is their availability, should I need to contact them?
It’s especially important to understand a potential lawyer’s availability. Will they be going on a three-week vacation in the middle of your case? Do they take phone calls after business hours? Do their legal assistants have a way to contact them if they are not in the office? You should have a good sense of how and when your lawyer will be available to communicate with you.