12 Secrets to Hiring an Attorney
1. Be comfortable with yourself and your case.
No matter what has happened remember that you are seeing a lawyer because you need help and they are seeing you because they need a client. Almost nobody hires an attorney because things are going well. People usually hire attorneys because there is some disaster going on and they need help navigating the legal system. Do not be embarrassed or shy about why you are seeing the attorney. If you hire an experienced lawyer you will not be telling them anything they have not heard before.
2. Understand that the lawyer is only as good as the people they surround themselves with.
A good lawyer has competent office staff. If the lawyer is a genius but they are handling the basic office duties, then their time is split between administrative work and being your lawyer. That means that no matter how good they are they will have other duties that consume their time and their efforts. A good staff confirms appointments, guides the attorney in their day to day tasks, helps manage workloads and generally covers everything outside of the actual practice of law in the office. Listen to the office when you are there – is it a steady work place with no raised voices and no sense of dread or is there a feeling that the place could implode any second? Good staff run the lawyer – not the other way around.
3. Always tell the truth to your attorney right out of the gate.
Don’t beat around the bush because you are embarrassed or ashamed. Your attorney needs the truth for a number of reasons, but the most important reason is so they can help you properly plan a course of action at the front end of the case. If your story changes in the middle of the case or if you fail to disclose something, then your attorney will have a difficult time helping you because they have been going in the wrong direction. Backtracking is far more difficult than dealing with a difficult issue on the front end.
4. Hire someone with experience in the area you need help with.
Attorneys tend to focus on certain areas of the law and attempt to become competent in them so that they can provide competent representation. Don’t hire a jack of all trades, master of none. Find someone with years of experience in the area you need. Don’t’ hire a criminal defense attorney to handle your divorce case or vice versa. Get someone that is focused so they are knowledgeable an up to date on current issues in that part of the law.
5. Get a written contract.
Make sure your lawyer is defining their representation and how they bill for their services. Ask if they use triple billing*. While triple billing may be a standard, many attorneys work and bill in different ways. Understand that in many areas the lawyers are overseen or regulated and must do fee disclosures and in some cases applications through the court to be paid. Make sure you know how they handle things so you are not hit with a big bill at the back end. If one lawyer bills $300 an hour for service and another bills $400 an hour for the same service that does not mean the second lawyer is more expensive. Often there are hidden costs that make the first lawyer more expensive, such as billing for paralegal time (often $100 an hour). Also, how much your lawyer bills an hour is often less important when they are efficient and hold down their time on tasks. A higher hourly rate usually indicates more experience which may translate into less time need to complete tasks.
6. Figure out how much lawyer you need.
It does not good to spend $5,000 in attorney fees when you are fighting over a $1,000 issue. Ask the attorney if they have an idea about the cost versus the benefit of the litigation or issues at hand. A good attorney will help you hold down the bill by not doing unnecessary work and will always let you know if they think something is not worth doing. You don’t normally need a $5,000 DUI attorney to handle parking tickets.
7. You must decide how much you want to know.
If you don’t want to know anything you can find an attorney who will probably represent you with a bare minimum of information. If you want to know more you can find an attorney who will explain things. Figure out what you want and what you are comfortable with and find an attorney who is going to match up with your expectations.
8. Take a look at your attorney’s office.
Is there paper everywhere? Are files stacked up against the walls? Does it look like a hurricane blew in the day before? Some of these things are telltale signs of impending disaster. It does not matter if the office is very nice or if the furniture is mahogany. Is it organized. Do you get a sense of relief from being there.
9. Be wary of reviews and star ratings.
These things are less important then you might think. Many attorneys have legitimate reviews online, many of them unsolicited. However some attorneys will pay for reviews, give kickbacks to clients, or pay for memberships to services that provide reviews and these are all questionable tactics. In most parts of the legal system there are winners and losers and it is unlikely that a busy attorney wins all their cases or that only people with positive experiences write reviews. The legal profession is by its nature contentious, argumentative, and at times emotionally charged.
10. Realize that your attorney can rob you of your ability to make decisions simply by failing to inform you.
Always ask yourself if you got a fair amount of information at the initial meeting. Sometimes the attorney cannot advise you at all without a substantial amount of information. Other times they do not want to bother trying to explain things. Ask questions so you can figure out which is going on. Did the lawyer explain your options, what type of case you have, how much the expected fees would be, how much you would have to put down to file? Did they tell you where you could file a case (this is called venue), what the advantages and disadvantages are to filing in a certain place? Did they go over how a case is organized, what will be expected of you, whether or not you will have to testify or be deposed? How much paperwork will you have to provide, how long is the process? What type of outcome can you expect and what are the dangers of that outcome not happening.
11. Don’t kill the messenger.
A competent attorney will tell you the weaknesses of your case right at the beginning or at least as soon as she is aware of them. Just because they tell you something you don’t want to hear does not mean you do not need to hear it. Ask your attorney about the weaknesses of your case and what the potential problems are. Often a good attorney will tell you that the weaknesses in your case are not about right and wrong but about cost versus benefit. It is always a tough thing to hear that you may be right, but the cost of proving that in a court of law will exceed the benefit. Still, you need to know.
12. If you are not comfortable with the attorney, go somewhere else.
Your attorney is interviewing you as a prospective client and you are interviewing them as well. If you don’t feel comfortable there is nothing wrong with hiring someone else. Very rarely are you limited to just one choice – find someone you are comfortable with.
* This is a way in which an attorney communicates with clients to make sure the client is getting all the information needed to run the case. However, it is also a way your bills can be inadvertently increased without you realizing it. As an example, you call your lawyer with a question – she answers it and you are billed for the phone call. That day she writes you a letter about the phone call, covering the information again and you are billed for the letter. A week later she calls you to make sure you got the letter and you understood everything in it and you are billed again. Triple billing is a standard in the legal industry, but not all lawyers use it.
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