What Not to Do When Hiring a Lawyer

Couple meeting with financial advisor

From filing for bankruptcy to managing estate planning to negotiating a divorce, there are plenty of situations when it makes sense to hire an attorney. A good lawyer can help you protect your assets and offer sound advice for complicated legal matters thanks to extensive expertise in a specific practice area, such as employment, personal injury or family law.

[Read: 5 Estate Planning Strategies to Keep Your Money in the Family.]

However, hiring top-notch legal representation without breaking the bank can seem like an elusive task. What’s more, if you retain an attorney that makes an error or causes a contract to be amended, you could wind up spending even more money in the long run.

So, if you’re planning on hiring an attorney in the near future, heed the guidance of these lawyers and sidestep these common pitfalls.

Don’t be bashful about discussing legal fees. Before you hire a lawyer, it’s important to not only ask about how much your attorney will cost you during the period you will be retaining him or her, but also when the payment is expected, says Jeremy Rovinsky, a dean and general counsel at National Paralegal College, an online paralegal college headquartered in Phoenix.

“Many people don’t realize how quickly attorney fees can add up. Clear communication and pointed questions upfront can paint a much clearer picture – and sometimes, you can even negotiate how much a lawyer will charge for your case or per hour,” Rovinsky says.

You also want to understand exactly how your lawyer bills you: by the hour or as a flat fee? And if your lawyer charges clients by the case, such as for an uncontested divorce or simple bankruptcy filing, ask if that is an estimated price or if could you be billed more if the case takes longer to complete than the attorney expected. If your attorney bills you by the hour, you’ll also want to aim to keep your conversations short and to the point. In other words, don’t make a lot of small talk about the weather, or call your lawyer numerous times just to check in or spend 20 minutes telling your divorce attorney what a terrible spouse you had. Instead, vent about that to a friend who doesn’t charge you by the hour.

Do not fight with your lawyer. “If you find yourself butting heads with your lawyer, you are asking for trouble,” Rovinsky says. “You have to be on the same page in order to strategically navigate your case.” He likens staying coordinated with your attorney to baseball. “If the pitcher and the catcher aren’t on the same page, they are going to have problems when the other team gets up to bat,” he says.

Sandra Bowen, a divorce and family law attorney at the law firm Bowen Ten Cardani PC in Richmond, Virginia, echoes Rovinsky’s point.

Listen carefully to your attorney’s advice Bowen says, emphasizing that you’re paying for their expertise. She also suggests that you don’t get your legal information from the internet, family and friends – and then tell a lawyer that he or she is doing the job wrong. “Divorce laws and procedures vary from state to state,” she says.

If you think your attorney is doing a subpar job, you can always find another one. But keep in mind, if you’re constantly bickering with your attorney and offering him or her unsolicited advice, your lawyer is a trained in a specific area of expertise, and you, presumably, are not. Bowen also cautions clients against trashing the legal system or bad-mouthing the court and expecting the attorney to agree.

“I am governed by legal ethics and cannot speak badly about a judge,” Bowen says.

[Read: The Pros and Cons of Prenups.]

Do not discuss your case with others. Take caution before talking about your case with loved ones. Bowen sees this a lot in divorce cases, where clients tend to talk a little too freely to others. She stresses that sharing what your lawyer is telling you could backfire on you if, say, your spouse’s attorney hears about these conversations.

“Don’t talk to your friends, neighbors, family members, your soon-to-be ex-spouse and their family about your case, my advice to you and my legal strategy,” Bowen says. “It is a big mistake to telegraph to the other side what we are going to do in case and our objectives.”

Do not neglect to do some of the administrative work yourself. Are there certain papers your lawyer needs for your case? Can you get them easily to your attorney, rather than have him or her call an office and request them? You might save money if you do some of the administrative work on your own, such as gathering estate planning information or your debts for a bankruptcy, rather than passing it onto your lawyer, suggests Nance Schick, an attorney whose New York City-based practice, The Law Studio of Nance L. Schick, specializes in private conflict resolution.

“Don’t be the equivalent of the client who shows up in an accountant’s office the day before the tax-filing deadline and dumps a box of receipts on the desk. The more organized and prepared you are, the less you will have to pay someone else for these services,” Schick says.

Find an attorney who is relevant to your case. People often hire lawyers who they’ve used before, rather than seeking out an attorney that has a practice and expertise in a certain legal area, according to Lisa Witt, a criminal defense attorney who has her own practice in Mesa, Arizona. That is fine if you have, say, a business lawyer who you like and continually use for business law matters. However, it may not be a wise idea if you’re calling up the attorney who handled your divorce to ask him or her to protect you in a complicated liability lawsuit, where somebody is trying to take everything you have. You can look at the American Bar Association’s website, which has a lawyer referral directory, for qualified legal help. You may also want to solicit referrals from other attorneys you trust or from your friends, relatives, neighbors or business associates.

“The No. 1 mistake people make is hiring an attorney who only dabbles in the relevant field of law,” Witt says. “For example, a person who needs a criminal defense attorney should not hire a general practitioner who has handled a few criminal cases.”

If you’re still unconvinced that hiring a lawyer with the right background is essential, consider the assets you’re trying to protect, whether it’s future income or keeping the family breadwinner from going to jail, and imagine what it would be like to lose your case.

As Witt puts it, “For a defendant, that could mean the difference between freedom and prison.”