Despite what some popular jokes insinuate to the contrary, lawyers are people, too. They understand that it’s common for potential clients to be nervous or anxious when meeting for the first time. Try to remember that attorneys are there to help you. Knowing what to expect can ease your mind.
Being prepared will organize your thoughts, refresh your memory, and do wonders for your comfort level. It will also help to focus the meeting so your attorney can give accurate and relevant advice.
• Gather all significant documents. If your attorney has sent you forms to fill out, complete them in advance and bring them with you.
• Write down a brief timeline of events.
• Make a list of all the issues you are concerned about and any questions you want to be answered before you commit to hiring the lawyer. Sample questions include: What kind of strategy would you recommend for handling my case? What are your rates? What additional costs am I expected to pay? Who else in your office will work on my case?
• Think about what you would like the outcome to be, which will help the lawyer determine whether your expectations are attainable.
The meeting is an opportunity for you to tell your story, but it’s also important to get to know each other a bit to make sure you feel comfortable working together. Regardless of the reason you are seeking legal advice (personal injury, criminal defense, divorce, bankruptcy, etc.), be honest and as accurate as possible when describing the events. The lawyer will ask questions designed to focus the discussion on the background facts he or she feels are important.
If the lawyer is willing to take your case and you wish to proceed, you will be presented with a retainer agreement, which should be fully explained to you. Do not sign until you understand it. This agreement is a contract that describes your obligations to the lawyer and the lawyer’s obligations to you, including such details as to how you will receive updates about what’s happening with your case, how much the lawyer is charging to handle your legal issue, whether you’re required to make an upfront deposit and how frequently payments are due.
If you need a lawyer for a case that doesn’t involve a claim for money (seeking a divorce, criminal defense, filing bankruptcy), then you will have to pay a “retainer” in advance for the work and then pay by the hour once the retainer is spent. Usually, attorneys with more experience have higher rates than novice attorneys, but the cost often evens out because they may take less time to do the same work. Some lawyers are willing to work out a payment plan so you don’t owe everything at once. If you can’t afford the costs that the lawyer outlines, ask if alternative arrangements can be made.
For cases seeking money, such as personal injury or workers’ compensation claims, the lawyer often agrees to accept a fixed percentage of the amount recovered by the client. This is called a contingent fee arrangement and although percentages vary, one-third (33 percent) is common. If you win, either through settlement or trial, the lawyer is paid for the recovery. If you lose, you don’t have to pay the lawyer anything (of course, you don’t get any money either). The lawyer’s fee is different from filing fees and similar court costs, and, win or lose, the client is usually responsible for their payment.
By the end of your meeting, you should leave with a clear understanding of what you have accomplished and what is happening next. If all goes well, you’ve found an attorney with whom you’re comfortable and who wants to represent you. While meeting with a lawyer for the first time is a new experience, it doesn’t have to be an intimidating one.
If your legal problem is complex or involves lots of money, you might not want to attempt to handle the entire matter without a lawyer. After all, lawyers do more than dispense legal information. They offer strategic advice and apply sophisticated technical skills to legal problems. Ideally, you’ll be able to find a lawyer who’s willing to serve as your legal “coach” to help you educate yourself to the maximum extent possible and to take over as your formal legal counsel only if necessary.
How to Find the Right Lawyer
Locating a good lawyer who can efficiently help with your particular problem may not be easy. Don’t expect to locate a good lawyer by simply looking in the phone book or reading an advertisement. There’s not enough information in these sources to help you make a valid judgment.
A better approach is to talk to people in your community who have experienced the same problem you face — for example, if you have a claim of sexual harassment, talk to a women’s group. Ask them who their lawyers were and what they think of them. If you talk to half a dozen people who have had a similar legal problem, chances are you’ll come away with several good leads.
But don’t make a decision about a lawyer solely on the basis of someone else’s recommendation. Different people will have different responses to a lawyer’s style and personality; don’t make up your mind about hiring a lawyer until you’ve met the lawyer, discussed your case, and decided that you feel comfortable working with him or her.
Also, it may be hard to find a lawyer through a personal referral with the expertise you need (for instance, if your friend had a great divorce lawyer, but you need incorporation advice, the referral may not do you much good).
Many sites, including Nolo.com, offer a way to connect with local lawyers based on your location and the type of legal case you have. You answer a few questions about your case and your contact information, then the right type of lawyers contact you directly. Talk to a local lawyer.
Nolo’s Lawyer Directory
Our service offers a unique lawyer directory that provides a comprehensive profile for each attorney with information that will help you select the right attorney. The profiles tell you about the lawyer’s experience, education, and fees, and perhaps most importantly, the lawyer’s general philosophy of practicing law. Nolo has confirmed that every listed attorney has a valid license and is in good standing with their bar association.
Businesses that provide services to key players in the legal area you are interested in may also be able to help you identify lawyers you should consider. For example, if you are interested in small business law, speak to your banker, accountant, insurance agent, and real estate broker. These people come into frequent contact with lawyers who represent business clients and are in a position to make informed judgments.
Lawyer Referral Services
Lawyer referral services are another source of information. There is a wide variation in the quality of lawyer referral services, however, even though they are required to be approved by the state bar association. Some lawyer referral services carefully screen attorneys and list only those attorneys with particular qualifications and a certain amount of past experience, while other services will list any attorney in good standing with the state bar who maintains liability insurance. Before you choose a lawyer referral service, ask what its qualifications are for including an attorney and how carefully lawyers are screened.
What you may not get from any lawyer referral service, however, is the insight into the lawyer’s philosophy — for instance, whether the lawyer is willing to spend a few hours to be your legal coach or how aggressive the lawyer’s personality is.
Here are a few other sources you can turn to for possible candidates in your search for a lawyer:
The director of your state or local chamber of commerce may be a good source of business lawyers.
The director of a nonprofit group interested in the subject matter that underlies your lawsuit is sure to know lawyers who work in that area. For example, if your dispute involves trying to stop a major new subdivision, it would make sense to consult an environmental group committed to fighting urban sprawl.
A law librarian can help identify authors in your state who have written books or articles on a particular subject — for example, construction law.
A women’s or men’s support group will probably have a list of well-regarded family and divorce lawyers.
Consider a Specialist
Most lawyers specialize in certain areas, and even a so-called “general practitioner” may not know that much about the particular area of your concern. For example, of the almost one million lawyers in America today, probably fewer than 50,000 possess sufficient training and experience in small business law to be of real help to an aspiring entrepreneur.
It can pay to work with a lawyer who already knows the field, such as employment discrimination, zoning laws, software design issues, or restaurant licensing. That way you can take advantage of the fact that the lawyer is already far up the learning curve. Sometimes specialists charge a little more, but if their specialized information is truly valuable, it can be money well spent.
Interview the Prospective Lawyers
When you get the names of several good prospects, the next step is to talk to each personally. If you outline your needs in advance, many lawyers will be willing to meet with you for a half-hour or so at no charge so that you can size them up and make an informed decision.
Pay particular attention to the personal chemistry between you and your lawyer. No matter how experienced and well-recommended a lawyer is, if you feel uncomfortable with that person during your first meeting or two, you may never achieve an ideal lawyer-client relationship. Trust your instincts and seek a lawyer whose personality is compatible with your own. Look also for experience, personal rapport, and accessibility.
Communication and Promptness
Ask all prospective lawyers how you will be able to contact them and how long it will take them to return your communications. And don’t assume that because the lawyer seems friendly and easy to talk to that it’s okay to overlook this step.
Unfortunately, the complaint logs of all lawyer regulatory groups indicate that many lawyers are terrible communicators. If every time you have a problem there’s a delay of several days before you can talk to your lawyer on the phone or get an appointment, you’ll lose precious time, not to mention sleep.
Almost nothing is more aggravating to a client than to leave a legal project in a lawyer’s hands and then have weeks or even months go by without anything happening. You want a lawyer who will work hard on your behalf and follow through promptly on all assignments.
Willingness to Work With You
When you have a legal problem, you need legal information. Lawyers, of course, are prime sources of this information, but if you bought all the needed information at their rates — $150 to $450 an hour — you’d quickly empty your bank account. Fortunately, many lawyers will work with you to help you acquire a good working knowledge of the legal principles and procedures you need to deal with your problem at least partly on your own.
If you are hoping to represent yourself and use a lawyer only for advice, make sure the lawyer is open to that type of setup. Likewise, if you’re going into business and will draft your own bylaws or business agreements, ask the lawyer if she’s open to reviewing your drafts and making comments.