Everyone is familiar with the line from Shakespeare’s Henry VI: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” While most people think that this is negative about lawyers, it is just the opposite. This line was uttered by Dick The Butcher, when he was suggesting one of the ways the group of pretenders to the throne could improve the country was by killing all the lawyers. The line was an acknowledgment that the first thing any potential tyrant must do to eliminate freedom is to kill all the lawyers because lawyers provide a valuable service. Whether you like lawyers or not, at some point in time you will probably need to hire one. Here are ten tips on what to think about when you need to hire an attorney.
The best way to start is to get a recommendation from someone you trust, whether it is a family member, friend or a trusted advisor, such as your accountant. You should get more than one name. You should also try to find an attorney who is familiar with the type of law you need. Don’t despair if the only names you can get are in other areas of the law. Use that attorney as a resource.
Sometimes, such as where you looking to sell your business, you may not want anyone to know why you need an attorney. In that case, the internet can be a good resource, if used properly. One site to consider is martindale.com, which rates lawyers on a scale of A, B and C. Those ratings are done by other lawyers and are fairly reliable. Another site to consider is superlawyers.com. The lawyers who make this list were are anonymously nominated by other lawyers.
Law firms range in size from one to over 3,000. How do you decide which is better? There are several factors to consider. One factor is the complexity of your legal issue. If you engaged in a hostile takeover of a company, a large firm will have the necessary resources. However, if you are looking for someone to negotiate a lease for your new office, consider a small firm. Rates at large firms are higher. They also represent larger clients. Sometimes large firms will have younger attorneys assigned to smaller matters. Also, a large number of lawyers in small firms started in large firms.
Before your initial meeting, do your homework. Review the lawyer’s website. Don’t just look at the content, look at how it is set up. Is there a lot of sizzle but little substance? Next, do web searches on the attorney. This may bring up additional information.
Once you have the name or names, meet with the lawyer. Ask questions regarding both your particular matter and the lawyer's practice. Among the questions you should ask are: (1) how many similar matters has the attorney handled; (2) what happened in those cases; (3) how will this case be handled; (4) based on experience, what can be expected; (5) which lawyer in the firm will be working on the matter; (6) will there be any limitations on the scope of the representation; (7) how will you be kept informed about the progress of the case; (8) how quickly do you respond to phone calls and emails; and (9) how can the lawyer be reached after normal business hours. You can find more questions on the internet.
Lawyers generally charge in one of three ways for their services, hourly, flat fee or contingency (percentage). Not every type is permitted for every legal situation. For personal injury cases, most lawyers charge a percentage of the recovery (contingency). For certain business transactions, such as incorporation, most lawyers will charge a flat fee. For most other matters, lawyers charge hourly. You need to understand how the lawyer will charge you, both in terms of the minimum billing increment, as well as the expenses. There is an extremely wide range of hourly rates, from $100 to more than $1,000 per hour. Keep in mind that an attorney who charges $200 per hour may take twice as long to do the same thing as an attorney who charges $300 per hour.
There are also questions you should ask depending on the type of fee structure. If the engagement is on an hourly fee basis, you will want to know: (1) the hourly rate; (2) what are the minimum billing increments; (3) is there a charge for every phone call, letter and email; (4) an estimate of the number of hours the case will take; (5) what expenses might be required; and (6) what happens if the case takes longer than anticipated. If the engagement is for a flat fee, you will want to know: (1) how much time do these types of matters typically take; (2) what expenses are typically required; and (3) what happens if the matter takes significantly less/more time.
If the engagement is on a contingency, you will want to know: (1) the likelihood of recovery (remember, there are no guarantees in the law); (2) an estimate of the recovery (same warning); (3) what is the percentage that is being charged; (4) what percentage do most lawyers in town charge for the same type of case; (5) what expenses might be required; and (6) what happens if the case settles immediately.
Next, you will need to enter into an engagement letter with the lawyer. This letter is a contract, so read it carefully. It is for the protection of both you and the lawyer. It should describe the nature of your legal issue, as well as all of the terms and conditions of the relationship including the hourly rate, the minimum billable increment, the costs you will be responsible for, the amount of the retainer and any other matters you agreed to. If you are unsure about something in the engagement letter, call and ask. Once you sign and return the letter, you are agreeing to be bound by it.
Once the relationship has commenced, you need to remain proactive to make sure the lawyer continues to properly handle your matter. Ask your lawyer to provide you with copies of everything that goes out relating to your case.
If you are dissatisfied with your lawyer or the representation, fire him or her. You control the relationship. If you owe money, they may insist on being paid before turning over your file to you or your new attorney. The ability of the attorney to do that is governed by the ethics laws in your particular state. If that becomes an issue, call the state bar association. If you have a dispute about the fees, most, if not all, states, have fee dispute mechanisms (generally through the local bar association). Don’t think you are at a disadvantage because it is through the bar association. Lawyers do a good job of policing themselves. The bar association wants to make sure that the public is being treated fairly.
Hiring an attorney is important. You should do at least as much homework as you would do in buying a car.