How To Hire An Attorney


Why do I need an attorney?

The courts of our nation have become very complex, and it can be very difficult for people to find their way through the system without special training. Even when judges are understanding, trying to represent yourself can cause undue delay in the resolution of your case, and even small procedural errors can be very damaging to the outcome of a case. In most cases, the best way to protect your rights is to hire an attorney.

How much does an attorney cost?

The cost of an attorney can vary substantially. Some types of cases are more costly to litigate than others. For example, hiring a lawyer to fight a traffic ticket will cost a lot less than hiring a lawyer to fight a felony criminal charge. Also, different lawyers charge different rates. It is not always true that the best lawyer costs the most, but the best lawyers usually do not charge the lowest rates.

Meet With The Attorney

The only way to determine how much your attorney will cost is to ask. Most attorneys will not quote a price before scheduling a consultation, where they can learn the facts of your case. The most important thing is that you feel comfortable with the attorney, and ideally with the fee. Please remember that a "retainer" is not the total fee. Some lawyers quote a retainer that reflects what they believe the case will cost. Other attorneys quote a very low retainer in order to get the client to hire them, and then bill the client for additional work.

Negotiate

Don't be afraid to a lower hourly rate - although please be aware that good attorneys tend to have the opportunity to take more work than they can handle, and thus may not be willing to reduce their fees. You can also challenge how you will be billed -- if the lawyer bills in 15 minute increments, you can ask to be billed in 5 minute increments.

At times, you may wish to negotiate a "flat fee." The purpose of a flat fee is not to save money -- most "flat fee" arrangements will end up costing you more than an hourly agreement. The purpose is to provide peace of mind.

If appropriate, you may ask the attorney to quote a maximum fee for the case that is being billed by the hour. This can be a good way to test the reasonableness of an attorney's retainer -- unless the attorney is working with you because you are unable to pay more, if an attorney quotes you a $500 retainer but refuses to quote a maximum fee, you probably should go elsewhere. While a case may have complexities which render it impossible to quote a maximum fee, such complexities should also be reflected in the retainer -- a $500 retainer ordinarily indicates that the attorney views the case as simple.

Contingent Fees

Many attorneys take certain types of civil suits, particularly personal injury cases, on a "contingent fee" (or "contingency fee") basis, where they do not charge an attorney fee unless they recover money for you. Please note that there are legal costs involved in litigation, and that ordinarily you will be required to repay those costs even if you lose. Almost every state limits contingent fees for personal injury and workers' compensation cases. If your case is potentially worth a lot of money, you may be able to negotiate a reduction of the attorney's contingent fee -- however, the best personal injury attorneys are sometimes able to recover substantially more money for their clients than attorneys with lesser skills, resulting in a greater award to you regardless of the percentage taken by the attorney.

Legal Services and Law School Clinics

If you do not have a lot of money, you may be able to obtain free or low-cost legal services through a "legal services" office, or through a clinical program at a law school in your state. Often, even if you do not qualify for those programs, they can refer you to attorneys who take cases like yours at a reduced rate.

Private Legal Services and Insurance

Many large employers provide legal assistance for their employees. Additionally, "legal insurance" programs have developed, where in return for your insurance premium you are offered free or reduced fee legal services in a variety of areas. If you are thinking about buying legal insurance, read the policy carefully to see what kinds of legal matters are covered or excluded, what co-payments are required, and whether you are able to select your own attorney.

Pro Bono

Most attorneys periodically take cases on a pro bono or "no fee" basis. This is usually done where the case is of particular interest to the attorney, and the issue involved in the case is significant to the public interest. Please note that attorneys receive many requests for pro bono work, and can at best take only a few of those cases.

(It should be noted that pro bono is an abbreviation for pro bono publico, meaning "for the public good." While it is customary for attorneys to do their pro bono work without charging a fee to the client, pro bono work may nevertheless result in fees, for example if the representation allows the attorney to ask for attorney fees as part of the judgment.)

Where Can I Find An Attorney?

You can find the names of attorneys from a variety of sources. You may seek advice from friends, or from your doctor, accountant, or another professional. You may look in the Yellow Pages. You may contact a State Bar lawyer referral service. You may look in an on-line legal directory. There are many ways to seek a lawyer, but there are no magic answers to finding a good lawyer.

Go To An Attorney You Trust, And Seek A Referral

One of the best ways to find an attorney is to consult an attorney you trust. If you do not know any attorneys, ask your friends for names of attorneys they trust. It is not important that the attorney can handle your case -- what is important is that the attorney is likely to comprehend the issues of your case, and is well-positioned to know which attorneys in your community have the skills to handle your case. Even if the attorney cannot personally take your case, he will often be able to refer you to an attorney who can.

Referral Services & Membership Organizations

Many state bar organizations offer referral services, to help people find attorneys. Usually, any member of the organization can list with its referral service, and you can't know just from the referral that the lawyer is truly qualified to handle your case. There are also a number of specialty organizations, such as the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, that may have high standards for membership, and whose members generally are highly skilled within their practice area. However, most legal organizations are open to all attorneys, and membership may mean only that the attorney has paid the membership fee.

On-Line Directories

A number of commercial on-line directories claim to screen their attorneys, or claim to list only highly qualified attorneys. Most are not being completely honest. Regardless of their promises, most on-line directories will list any attorney who pays the required fee, and there is absolutely no guarantee that the listed attorneys are qualified to handle your case. Some sites offer lawyer ratings or rankings, but those ratings and numbers can be arbitrary and misleading. A high rating may reflect that the lawyer has paid the company for an impressive ranking, or that the attorney has figured out how to game an algorithm. A low rating may mean that an attorney has not registered with the site, paid membership fees, or posted material on the website. Some ranking sites collect customer reviews, which can be gamed by lawyers who rate themselves or have friends enter ratings, and by disgruntled former clients who post multiple reviews.

You will find comprehensive directories of lawyers on sites including FindLaw and Lawyers.com.

Advertising

The issue of attorney advertising is addressed in the next three questions:

Should I hire the lawyer with billboards, and lots of TV ads?

Should I hire the lawyer with the big "yellow pages" ad?

Should I hire the lawyer whose name keeps coming up on Internet search results?

Should I hire the lawyer with billboards, and lots of TV ads

Generally speaking, television and radio advertisements are a bad way to find an attorney. Many advertisements are paid for by referral agencies, which collect large numbers of calls and then divide them up between member attorneys. Even when the advertisements are paid for by a law firm, often many of the cases are referred out to other firms who share the enormous cost of advertising. Most of the time, the attorney with the big advertising campaign will not have an office near you. Unless your case is worth a lot of money, you may well find that you are quickly referred to a different firm or that you can't get much attention for your case.

There is something very important to remember, when it comes to hiring a personal injury lawyer -- some of the best personal injury attorneys do little or no advertising. They get their cases through "referrals" from other attorneys, due to their reputations for doing good work and getting good results.

Should I hire the lawyer with the big "yellow pages" ad?

If you look at the "full page" ads in the yellow pages, you will likely find that there are two types. The first type is an ad for a local attorney, who has chosen to pay for the full page. The second type is an ad for an attorney from outside the area, sometimes from the same attorney who runs the huge television ad campaigns.

Typically, the biggest ads are from "personal injury" firms, who hope that their large advertisements will bring them large numbers of injury cases. The better personal injury attorneys and firms typically do pay for full-page ads. However, as was previously noted, some of the best personal injury attorneys do little or no advertising at all. Also, there are many attorneys who buy the largest ad that they can afford, in order to make their practices appear better than they really are.

If you look through the yellow pages, you will see that most attorneys claim to specialize in "personal injury" cases. Many of these attorneys have handled very few personal injury cases, and some have never had even a single personal injury case. The yellow pages can provide some degree of confirmation that a particular law firm is established, but even a big advertisement does not certify that a firm is qualified to handle your case.

Should I hire the lawyer whose name keeps coming up on Internet search results?

Yellow pages advertising is expensive, and with the rise of the Internet fewer people are using the yellow pages to find lawyers. Many lawyers have developed web marketing programs as a supplement to traditional advertising, and some rely almost exclusively on the Internet for client generation.

If you see a lawyer's webpage come up in response to a search, and when you click through to the site you find that it is full of well-written, useful information that demonstrates expertise in the field of law for which you need assistance, that is generally a sign that you've found a qualified attorney. You do need to exercise some caution, as sometimes that great content is boilerplate material provided by a marketing company, or was written for the site by somebody other than the lawyers who work for the firm. On the other hand, if the content you find is cursory, and is primarily intended to lead you into a sales pitch, the lawyer's search engine success does not provide any assurance that the attorney is skilled in that field of law.

Recall also that some of the links generated by search engines are sponsored links, reflecting that the lawyer paid a fee for a prominent link. While many good attorneys engage in online marketing, the purchase of online ads is not of itself evidence that an attorney is qualified.

Are there special types of lawyers for different types of cases?

Yes. There are many specialties within the law, just as there are in medicine. There are general practitioners, who handle a wide variety of cases. There are specialists, who have developed particular skills in handing a narrow category of cases. There are also a number of attorneys who specialize in several areas. Specialties include bankruptcy, real estate, business and contracts, criminal defense, personal injury, appeals, workers' compensation, wills and estates, and family law.

If I meet with an attorney, do I have to hire him?

No. Before your meeting, you should ask if there is a fee for an initial consultation. You will be obligated to pay that fee even if you do not hire the attorney. However, even if the consultation is free, you have every right to take some time to think before you hire the attorney, and you have every right to decide not to hire the attorney. Hiring an attorney is a big step, and there is nothing wrong with shopping around.

What should I ask the attorney before I hire him?

The questions you should ask will vary with your case. Consider the following list to be a starting point:

  • What are your areas of specialization?
  • What is the cost of the intial consultation?
  • Have you handled cases like mine before? How many? What was the outcome?
  • Will you be the only attorney who works on the case? If not, who else
    will work on it?
  • How long will it take for this case to be resolved?
  • How much will my case cost? Can you take my case on a contingent fee basis?
  • Can I do some of the work on the case to keep the cost down?
  • Are there things I should do to improve my case, or to help you?
  • How will you keep me informed about the progress of my case?
  • If I contact your office with questions, how long will you take to return
    my call?
  • If you are unavailable or on vacation, who can I speak to about my case?
  • Can I reach you after hours, if I have an emergency?
  • How often do you go to trial?
  • If I am not happy with a settlement offer, and you want to settle, will
    you go to court anyway?
  • If I am happy with the offer, but you think we can win more at trial,
    will you follow my wishes?
  • Have you ever been disciplined by an ethics committee, or been suspended
    from the practice of law? If so, why?
  • What "continuing legal education" courses have you attended
    during the past few years?

Please note that, as desirable as references may be, it is not always possible for attorneys to give references from past clients due to attorney-client confidentiality. However, you may wish to ask for references from other attorneys.

Should I ask for a written retainer agreement?

Yes. A written retainer agreement is the best way to ensure that your rights are protected. Don't feel that you have to sign the agreement on the spot -- take the time to read it first, and ask questions about it. If you are looking at paying thousands of dollars in fees, you may even wish to have the agreement reviewed by another attorney before signing it. The retainer agreement should accurately describe the legal issues for which the attorney will represent you, the amount that you will pay the attorney, and any other terms you discuss.

What if I hire an attorney, and I don't like the work he does?

The attorney works for you. You have the right to terminate your relationship with an attorney. Please note, however, that you must still pay the attorney for the services he has performed for you. If the attorney was representing you on a "contingent fee" basis, the attorney may be entitled to a portion of the proceeds of your case once it has been resolved.

Usually, before you fire your attorney, you will want to first talk to a different attorney. Sometimes the new attorney will tell you to try to work out your problems with your attorney. If you choose to hire the new attorney, the new attorney should be willing to work out the details relating to any fees you may owe to your prior attorney.

If I get involved in another legal case, or if I want to appeal my case, does my attorney have to represent me?

Generally not, unless your retainer agreement requires your attorney to take on the additional matter. Your attorney will ordinarily only have to represent you on the matters specified in your retainer agreement, and has every right to charge an additional fee if new cases arise. Once a final judgment has been entered, your attorney ordinarily has no further responsibility to represent you or to appeal your case.

What if a dispute arises?

In the event that a dispute arises between you and your attorney, most state bars offer dispute resolution services. These services can be of particular benefit in the event of fee disputes. If you feel that your attorney has acted in an unethical manner, each state has a "grievance" procedure where you can file a complaint against your attorney and have your complaint investigated.

Copyright © 2003 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was first published on Jul 1, 2003, and was last reviewed or amended on Sep 12, 2014.