Finding the Right Attorney

Making sure that you have the right professional for the job at hand is the first and one of the most important tasks that you have in getting any job done right.

When it comes to the legal profession, there's no difference. Finding the right attorney may take some time, but in the end, it's always better to have done your due diligence.

Before you start

If you are going to engage an attorney, this is a joint relationship and there are two sides to every relationship. You must make sure that you choose the right attorney, but you must also make sure that you are prepared and can assist the attorney in preparing your case. That way, you can both work on the job at hand instead of work against each other.

Understanding your own situation

In order to pick the right attorney and save yourself time and money, you need to know all of your own issues. If you aren't familiar with your own situation, it can be difficult to explain it to someone else. Likewise, there's no point in engaging an attorney to perform tasks that are useless to you.

Know your own financial limitations and the financial benefits of engaging the services of a specific attorney. In other words, only buy what you need and what you can afford. If you only want a will that names your spouse as your sole beneficiary and there are no other needs, you probably don't need an $1800 will package.

Choosing an attorney

Many people start by asking friends and relatives about attorneys that they have used. This can be a good resource so long as you ask more than how they liked the person. The attorney may have been a wonderful conversationalist and a likeable person, but you should be more interested in how the case turned out.

Whether you get a referral from a friend or try someone new, keep your opinions open to change. A friend may have had a good experience with attorney, but your case is different and you need to decide for yourself. Be sure to ask all the right questions and make doubly sure that you are getting the right answers.

Once you have a list of one or more lawyers, call their offices. Briefly explain your situation and ask:

* If the lawyer has experience with your kind of problem
* If the lawyer charges for an initial interview and, if so, how much?
* If your problem is routine, does the attorney have a standard fee? What does it cover?
* If your problem appears more complicated, ask about hourly fees.
* Does the lawyer have a written agreement describing fees and services provided for the fees?

Write down the information and compare the answers you receive. Then, call back for an appointment to interview the attorney or attorneys whose answers satisfied you the most. Most of these "initial consultations" are free or provided at a nominal cost.

Go to the first interview with an open mind. You don't have to decide to employ the lawyer you are interviewing until you have had time to think about it.

Be organized when you first meet with the lawyer. It is important to have with you a written summary or detailed notes outlining your problem; the names, addresses and phone numbers of all parties and witnesses and their lawyers and insurance companies if you know them; and all documents which may relate to your case such as receipts, contracts, medical bills, repair estimates, checks, etc.

Some lawyers may ask you to deliver photocopies of written materials in advance of your first interview so the lawyer can review them in advance.

Ask questions. Write them down before you visit the lawyer's office. Here are a few that may be helpful:

* Have you had experience with this type of problem before? How recently? How often? What was involved?
* What percentage of your practice is devoted to this kind of problem?
* Will you actually be working on my case? In what way? Will any other persons be doing work on my case? What will they do? How will it affect my fee or relations with you?
* Will you talk to me in plain English when I do not understand "legalese"?
* Will you provide me copies of all documents and letters received or written in my case? Will you treat this as an out-of-pocket expense or will you want me to pay for it in advance? Will you allow me access to my case file at your office?
* Will you keep me informed about all developments in my case? For important things, will you allow me to make the final decision?
* Will you send monthly billing statements?

Remember: When you hire a lawyer, the lawyer will be working for you. He or she should be genuinely interested in your problem and in giving you the best possible advice.

The lawyer may not be able to accomplish everything you wish because of the facts or the law that apply in your case. Many times a good lawyer will advise you to avoid court action.

A lawyer should be able to explain, in terms you can understand, what he or she hopes to accomplish for you and how he or she plans to do it.

Think about how the lawyer responded to your questions, his or her experience and whether you will be able to work with the lawyer.

If you are satisfied with the interview so far, tell the lawyer everything about your problem, including facts which may be unfavorable or embarrassing to you. Unless you are completely candid, the lawyer will be unable to advise you properly.

Strict rules prohibit the lawyer from repeating to anyone what you say, unless you admit any ongoing or planned criminal activity.

Next, you may want to ask the lawyer questions such as:

* What are the strengths and weaknesses of my case?
* What would you advise me to do about my situation?
* Can a timetable be set for my case?
* If I hire you, what will you be doing for me, and when and how will we get back in touch with each other?
* Is there a statute of limitations, or legal deadline in my case that we must be careful not to miss?

WHAT ABOUT THE FEE?

Discuss fees frankly with the lawyer, preferably at your first meeting.

Often, a lawyer cannot tell you exactly what the charge will be because it is difficult to estimate how much work is going to be involved. But lawyers can usually estimate the minimum and maximum limits of the fee for that particular work, or give you some idea of the problems involved and the time that will be required.

The timetable for paying legal fees depends on arrangements between the lawyer and client. Usually, lawyers require an advance payment, often called a retainer, to cover the initial work and court costs to be paid on your behalf.

In other matters, you will be billed at the end of the month, or at the completion of the service, for services and disbursements. Be sure to discuss your plans for payment with the attorney when you discuss the fee.

A lawyer usually makes only a nominal charge, if any, for your first office visit. Only when actual time is spent working on a matter do lawyers charge a fee. Then charges are usually influenced by the time and work involved, the difficulty of the problem, the dollar amount involved, the result, and the lawyer's experience.

In some cases, your lawyer may take the case on a contingent fee basis. This means that if your suit is successful, the lawyer receives a percentage of the amount recovered for you, plus out-of-pocket expenses for filing fees, reports and the like. If it is not successful, he or she receives only these expenses.

As with any other business relationship, fees and costs are important matters that can breed future problems if there are misunderstandings. Provisions for binding arbitration may be included in your Fee Agreement. A WRITTEN FEE AGREEMENT IS ALWAYS ADVISABLE.

Other Factors

Critical factors that are often overlooked in choosing an attorney include whether the attorney is a good listener and/or whether they seem to fully understand your case.

Not all people are great listeners and someone that already has preconceived ideas as to what your case is all about will likely make mistakes. A good attorney listens to your circumstances and understands that it is different from any previous case.

Likewise, any good attorney will ask questions about your case. Unless you are both a great lawyer and orator yourself, it is doubtful that you will fully explain your case in the detail and to the extent that no questions need to be asked.

An attorney that asks pertinent questions is seeking to understand your circumstances and develop the proper mental picture.

The final question to be answered can only be answered by you. Is this an attorney that you can and want to work with?

All things considered, personality plays an important role in any relationship and it is important that both of you are on the same side. If you don't like or trust the attorney, you may be better off going somewhere else. You will both be better off and your case will be better served.

Copyright © Used by permission. All rights reserved. For more information, please visit www.seniormag.com