When choosing an attorney, you should check qualifications and experience – and make sure your case will get the attention it deserves.
Too often, you need a lawyer because a problem has arisen unexpectedly: a catastrophic auto accident, a business deal gone wrong, a death or injury from a defective product, or one of many devastating situations where you or a family member have been harmed by the negligence of another.
Because any delay could jeopardize your rights, it may be tempting to grab the phone and call the number plastered on a nearby billboard or blasted from TV commercials. But odds are that you wouldn’t buy a car without checking out the manufacturer, its safety record, and the car’s performance. Surely the same due diligence applies to selecting a law firm to help you recover from the physical, emotional, and financial losses that have turned your life upside down.
Your first decision involves just a bit of homework: What kind of attorney or law firm do you need to help with the problem at hand? You will want to find an attorney who specializes in your kind of claim, and a law firm that is large enough – or small enough – to best represent your interests.
As you would do when choosing any kind of service professional, you will want to match your situation with the education, skill, and experience of the attorney or law firm that you hire.
- If you need a divorce, a real estate attorney is likely a poor choice.
- If you or a family member have been seriously injured in a catastrophic auto accident, you need a personal injury lawyer, not an estate planner.
- If you have been charged with a criminal offense, don’t ask your tax attorney to represent you.
- If your case is going to court, you need a litigator, not someone who negotiates business contracts.
Another consideration may be the size of the law firm you want to handle your case. In any community, many lawyers are sole practitioners, practicing law on their own. A sole practitioner is sometimes more willing to take on a small case, and may charge less because of low overhead. In addition, some clients prefer the personal, one-on-one attention of a sole practitioner. Small or medium-sized firms have the added advantage of several lawyers covering for each other and sharing their knowledge and experience. Larger firms often handle more complex problems, employ extensive staff, access outside experts, and have significant resources for pursuing claims that could result in high-dollar recoveries.
Here are some of the major factors you should consider in choosing an attorney or law firm that is best for you.
- Where was this attorney educated? Focus group findings indicate that most people rank education near the top of their list of criteria for choosing a lawyer.
- How many years of experience does this attorney have, especially in the practice area you need? A young attorney gaining experience could work well for you if you have a simple case, but for larger, more complicated claims you may want to bring out the big guns!
- Has the attorney been disciplined by a bar association or suspended from practice? If so, why?
- What is the law firm’s reputation in the community? Are they known as big winners? Tough negotiators? Responsive to clients? Engaged in the community?
- Does this firm represent special interest groups – business organizations or non-profit groups, for example – that could affect their handling of your claim?
- How is the office organized? Is there a staff of paralegals, investigators, secretaries and others with whom you would interact?
- Does this attorney demonstrate an understanding of legal issues that ordinary people face, as evidenced by websites, articles, speeches, etc.?
To find the answers to these questions, and more, you may have to do some digging. Personal references and word-of-mouth are always good sources of information. And your computer’s search engine can save you a lot of work . . . as long as you are careful to separate fact from fiction!
Whether you live in a big city or a small community, word gets around about who is competent and who is not. An attorney’s reputation may be measured by news reports, honors and awards, engagement with business and civic organizations, and social interactions. But your first move should be to ask attorneys you know for referrals, and to get recommendations from friends or business colleagues whose judgment you trust.
When you have a few names on your recommended list, check them out with local and state bar associations and organizations of attorney practice areas such as, for example, state affiliates of the American Association for Justice, a national association of trial lawyers; the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers; or the American College of Estate and Trust Counsel. Legal directories and online locators also can be valuable, although many of them will list any attorney who pays the required fee. One of the oldest free directories, Martindale-Hubbell, offers online profiles of more than a million attorneys and law firms worldwide, plus peer reviews and ratings.
These days, most attorneys have their own websites with attorney biographies that list education, years of experience, and practice areas. Many larger law firms have expanded their websites to include detailed information about practice areas, case studies, legislative issues, community involvement, and updated news and articles related to common legal problems. You can access attorney websites by typing an attorney or firm name into any search engine such as AOL Search, Google, or Yahoo.
A cautionary note is warranted about attorney advertising. In Florida, as in most states, lawyer advertising is regulated by bar association rules that are strictly enforced. Television, radio and newspaper advertising all help “brand” a law firm, but rarely give you the information you need to hire an attorney. Do call the 800 number or complete the website contact form to make an appointment . . . but not until you meet face-to-face can you make a truly informed decision about which attorney is right for you.
When you meet with a prospective attorney, you should be armed with the detailed facts of your case, including the names, addresses and phone numbers of everyone involved. Take with you all relevant reports, correspondence, and notes on telephone conversations. Most important, make a list of questions about the law firm and how it will work with you.
Many attorneys offer an initial consultation that is confidential and free of charge. This is your opportunity to test how the two of you relate, to gain his or her impressions of the viability of your case, and to learn more about how the law firm operates. Here are some questions you might ask:
- How many cases similar to mine have you handled? What were the results?
- About what percentage of your cases is settled out of court and what percentage goes to trial?
- How many cases do you handle at one time? Can you devote the time that my case warrants?
- Who else would be on my team: associates, paralegals, investigators, secretaries?
- How would you keep me updated on the progress of my claim? Can I contact you directly if I have an urgent question?
- What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of my case? What would be the range of outcomes that might be expected?
- Is my case one that you and the firm would be comfortable handling?
Paramount during this initial meeting is a discussion of fees: an estimate of fees and expenses, on what basis they will be charged, and the terms of payment. It is essential to clarify at the beginning how your attorney will be paid, and how much it will cost you to pursue your claim.
A retainer fee is, in effect, a down payment on fees and expenses that may accrue. Often a retainer is paid monthly, and the actual cost of services is deducted monthly from the account. If an attorney suggests a retainer fee arrangement, make sure you understand whether or not the unused balance of a retainer is refundable.
Separate from a retainer, some attorneys may ask for a deposit for costs that will not be funded up-front by the firm, especially if costs are anticipated to be unusually high. A deposit for costs is placed into the attorney’s trust account, and unused amounts are fully refundable.
A contingent fee is a specified portion of money recovered in your case that you agree to pay to your attorney, whether your recovery is through settlement or trial. This is a common way for lawyers to be paid in personal injury cases, and the percentage can vary by attorney, the type of case, and the limits of state law. There are two major advantages to a contingency fee arrangement: First, if no money is recovered for your claim, you do not owe the attorney a fee. Second, as part of the agreement, the law firm representing you often will advance the out-of-pocket costs of gathering evidence and preparing the case. If your attorney is successful in recovering money for you, these costs will be deducted from your recovery.
Other fee arrangement options include a flat fee, which is common for simple services such as drawing up a will or an uncontested divorce agreement; an hourly rate, usually for ongoing work, which varies depending upon the experience of the attorney; or a statutory fee set by statute or the court in a proceeding such as probate or bankruptcy.
After you have interviewed your prospective attorney, you should take a breath and review the discussion before deciding to enter into this relationship. Make sure that you understand exactly how you will work together, how long it is likely to take, and what it will cost. If you came to a mutual agreement to pursue a contract, within a few days you will receive an agreement detailing the precise terms of representation. Until both parties have signed this agreement, neither you nor the attorney has any obligation – in most states, a written agreement is mandatory. Don’t sign until you are sure you are comfortable putting your family’s future in the hands of this law firm.
- American Association for Justice (AAJ)
- American Bar Association (ABA)
- Best Lawyers (Best Lawyers in America)
- City Legal Guide
- Florida Justice Association (FJA)
- The Injury Board
- Legal Connection