Choosing an attorney can be a bewildering experience. The days of general practice lawyers who manage any and all problems are far past. Nowadays we need lawyers for reasons such as personal injury, estate planning, job discrimination or divorce. Linda P. McKenzie, Esq. explains the five questions we all need to ask to find the right attorney.
Can I talk to you?
Arrange to meet with a lawyer to get a sense of their communication style before you decide to retain them. Often attorneys offer an initial consultation at no charge. Talk about how much experience s/he has had handling cases like yours. Ask how busy she is, how often she will update you on the progress of your case. Listen carefully to her responses and write them down. Does she address your questions in a way that is straightforward and easy to understand? It is important that you feel comfortable; you will be talking with your lawyer throughout the process of your case. How’s her body language?
Are you accessible?
It is important to find out how often your attorney will communicate with you and whether you can reach her if you have questions. You will want to know if the lawyer has enough time to devote to your case. Ask how long it will take to resolve your problem, how many hours per week she expects to spend and how quickly she returns calls. One of the most frequent complaints against attorneys is that they do not return clients’ phone calls. Some lawyers spend considerable time in court where they cannot receive or make phone calls so this question can be a deal breaker if you can’t be reached by phone for work or other reasons. You’ll end up with two people playing constant telephone tag.
What’s your area of expertise?
A state’s bar association offers attorneys the opportunity to become certified in a specialty. Certification goes beyond merely practicing in a particular area of law. State requirements vary, but my home state of Arizona is typical in requiring an applicant to be admitted to the practice of law for at least five years, demonstrate substantial involvement in the specialty area, pass a written exam and successfully complete a peer review process.
How much experience do you have?
Take the attorney’s word here or contact your state bar association to determine whether the attorney is a certified specialist in a particular area of the law and how long she has been practicing. If she is a relatively new lawyer or one without a specialty certification that does not mean that she cannot do an excellent job for you. Ask how many cases like yours she has resolved. More importantly, what is her success rate? Many new attorneys work in large law firms where they benefit from consulting with more seasoned lawyers. If the attorney works in a firm ask her if her colleagues have experience with cases like yours.
Ask about fees. There are various ways for attorneys to charge clients. The three most common arrangements are hourly fee, contingent fee and flat fee. In an hourly fee arrangement the lawyer bills in increments – fifteen minutes is typical. Expect the lawyer to bill for phone calls, letters, e-mail and travel time spent resolving your case, not just time spent talking to you. A contingent fee is when the attorney is paid only after she resolves your case and collects from a third party. This is customary practice in personal injury lawsuits. The client usually pays costs as they accrue, including items like expert witnesses, travel, photocopying, mailing and long distance phone calls. A flat fee is the total amount the attorney will charge to resolve your case. This type of fee is common with criminal cases, will preparation and divorce. Because fees vary by location, it is important to contact your state’s bar association to find out the fee range in your area. The internet or your local library are good places to start.
The Squirrel says: Use your State Bar. When choosing an attorney the state bar association is an excellent resource. Every state has a bar association, responsible for regulating legal practice and licensing attorneys. State bar associations generally offer referral services and also list licensed attorneys by area of specialty. A state’s bar association web site will typically post information about each attorney, such as where she attended law school and what kind of law she practices. If the attorney you are thinking about hiring works for a firm, you can get information about the firm from the bar association. If the bar has taken disciplinary action against a lawyer, information concerning the action should be available on the web site or by contacting the bar association directly. There is a useful list of city, state and national associations at www.hg.org/northam-bar.html. If you’re not an internet fan, your local library will be a good resource.