Maybe you’re buying or selling real estate, trying to resolve a dispute with a neighbor, starting a business, or going through a divorce. When life gets legal, you’ll likely need access to a good attorney.
But there’s a lot to think about when hiring the services of a lawyer, especially if you’ve never retained one before.
While personal referrals can be a great place to start, it’s also important to find an attorney who has experience that is relevant to your legal situation.
Fortunately, there are a number of resources and websites that can help you hone in on a reputable lawyer that fits your needs, as well as your budget.
Knowing the right questions to ask before you sign on the dotted line is also key to getting the right fit.
Here are some beginner tips and tricks to help guide you through the process of hiring a lawyer.
Finding the Right Attorney
Most lawyers concentrate in a few legal specialties (such as family law or personal injury law), so it’s important to find a lawyer who not only has a good reputation, but also has expertise and experience in the practice area for which you require their services.
Below are some simple ways to begin your search:
Word of Mouth Referrals
One of the best ways to find a lawyer is through word of mouth. Ideally, your family and friends may have worked with someone that they can refer you to. Better still if their situation is similar to yours.
But even if a recommended lawyer doesn’t have the right expertise, you may still want to contact that attorney to see if they can recommend someone who does.
You might consider asking your accountant for a recommendation as well, since these two types of professionals often refer clients back and forth.
Local Bar Associations
Your local and state bar associations can also be a great resource for finding a lawyer in your area.
County and city bar associations often offer lawyer referral services to the public (though they don’t necessarily screen for qualifications).
The American Bar Association also maintains databases to help people looking for legal help.
Many companies offer legal services plans for their employees, so it’s worth checking with your human resources department to see if yours does.
You’ll want to understand the details, however, before you proceed. Some programs cover only advice and consultation with a lawyer, while others may be more comprehensive, and include not only advice and consultation, but also document preparation and court representation.
Legal Aid or Pro Bono Help
Those who need a lawyer, but can’t afford one, may be able to get free or low-cost help from the Legal Aid Society. You can often find out who to contact by searching online and typing “Legal Aid [your county or state]” in your computer’s search bar.
Consider reaching out to local accredited law schools as well. Many schools run pro bono legal clinics to enable law students to get real world experience in different areas of law.
Nolo, for example, offers a lawyer directory that includes profiles of attorneys that clue you in on their experience, education, fees and more. (Nolo states that all listed attorneys have a valid license and are in good standing with their bar association).
Martinedale-Hubbell also offers an online lawyer locator , which contains a database of over one million lawyers and law firms worldwide. To find a lawyer, you can search by practice area or geographic location.
Doing Some Detective Work
Once you’ve assembled a short list, it’s a good idea to do a little bit of sleuthing before you pick up the phone.
This includes checking each attorney’s website–does it look cheap or professional? Is there a lot of style but little substance?
By perusing the site, you can also get details about the lawyer or firm, such as areas of expertise, significant cases, credentials, awards, as well as the size of the firm–and, size can actually be an important consideration.
A solo practitioner may not have much bandwidth if they have a heavy caseload to give you a lot of hand holding if that matters to you. However, their prices may be more budget-friendly than a mid-sized or larger firm.
While larger firms may be more expensive, they may have more resources and expertise that makes them the better option.
You may also want to make sure the lawyers on your consideration list are in good standing with the bar, and don’t have any record of misconduct of disciplinary orders filed against them.
Your state bar, once again, is a good place to get this kind of information. Some state bar websites allow you to look up disciplinary issues. The site may also have information on whether the attorney has insurance.
You may also be able to search the state bar’s site by legal specialty, which can help you confirm the lawyers you’re looking at really do have expertise in the area of law you need council in.
The Martindale-Hubbell online directory can be helpful here as well–it offers detailed professional biographies and lawyer and law firm ratings based upon peer reviews, which may help when choosing between two equally qualified candidates.
Asking the Right Questions
Many lawyers will do a free initial consultation. If so, you may want to take advantage of this risk- and cost-free way to get a sense of the attorney’s expertise and character. This is also a good opportunity to get a sense of the costs.
Whether you’re able to arrange a face-to-face meeting, or just speak over the phone, here are some key topics and questions you may want to address:
• Do they have experience in the area of law that applies to your circumstances?
Further, you may want to get the percentage break-down of their practice areas. If you need someone to help you with setting up a business, for example, and that’s only 10 percent of what they do, that practice may not be the best fit.
• Do they work with people in your demographic? If the practice only represents high net worth clients, and you’re not in that income bracket, they could be a mismatch. You can also get a sense of their typical clientele by asking for references from clients.
• How much time can they commit to you? And, how do they like to communicate–phone calls? Email? Ideally, you want a lawyer who can make you a priority and is able to respond to your questions in a timely manner, rather than leave you dangling for days or weeks.
• What are the fees and how are they charged? For example, they may charge hourly, or they may work on a contingency basis, meaning if you successfully resolve your case they get paid. Also find out if they require a retainer (an upfront fee that functions as a downpayment on expenses and fees), as well as what is included in their fees, and what might be extra (such as, charges for copying documents and court filing fees). Ideally a lawyer will explain their fees and put them in writing.
You may also want to use this meeting or conversation to judge the lawyer’s character and personality, keeping in mind that chemistry counts.
The attorney you’re interviewing could have all the right credentials and awesome experience, but in the end, if their personality strikes you as a little prickly, or the vibe is off, even if you can’t exactly put your finger on it, you may want to trust your gut, walk away and keep searching.
Choosing an attorney is an important decision–much like choosing a financial advisor, doctor, or other professional who will have a significant impact on your life.
As much as you want to just get on with what may be a challenging or stressful situation that you need legal help with, it’s a good idea to take your time, cast a wide net for referrals, then create–and carefully vet–your short list.
Finally, you’ll want to have an open conversation with any lawyer you are considering to make sure you feel he or she is a good fit for you and that you understand, and can afford, all the fees involved.
Whether you’re looking for a lawyer to help you buy a home, start a business or facilitate any other life transition, it’s a good idea to get your finances in order as well.
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