6 questions to ask before you hire a lawyer
Whether you’re hiring a lawyer to handle your divorce, to draft your will or defend you in court, it’s not a decision to be rushed into.
“Don’t just open the phone book to the yellow pages and pick the first lawyer, or the lawyer with the biggest ad,” attorney Anne P. Mitchell, who is also dean of cybersecurity and cyberlaw at Lincoln Law School of San Jose, says. “That’s a recipe for disaster. Don’t let alphabetical happenstance — or a lawyer or law firm’s willingness to pay extra for a big ad — be the deciding factor.”
Instead, contact a few different lawyers and have these questions at the ready.
1. What’s Your Experience?
An experienced attorney knows the ins and outs of the law process and specific areas of law — and will also have knowledge of local court systems, resources and connections.
“You want to ensure your lawyer has handled cases like yours many, many times,” Jason Savarese from Savarese & Associates, PLLC, in Gulfport, Mississippi, says. “Everyone has to learn how to do a new skill by repetition, but you don’t want to pay your lawyer while he learns and makes mistakes along the way while honing that new area of practice. Ask how many cases like yours he’s handled. Ask for examples with court case names that you can verify.”
2. What Percentage Of Your Practice Is Dedicated To This Area Of Law?
You don’t want a lawyer who dabbles in your practice area, or one who is unfamiliar with the issues, procedures and necessary contacts in the legal system to help bring your case to a satisfactory conclusion.
“I often have clients come to my office with denials that were previously handled by a lawyer unfamiliar with the disability litigation system,” disability litigator Andrew November from Liner Legal, LLC, in Cleveland, Ohio, says. “Sometimes, the past cannot be changed and simple mistakes that were undiscovered by the inexperienced attorney cannot be fixed. Those are the hardest conversations to have with a potential client.”
3. What Will This Cost?
Taking legal action can be pricey. According to a 2017 survey by Bankrate, the average cost of getting divorced in the U.S. is $15,000 per person. So you should definitely ask a lawyer what the total cost may be. Bear in mind that you’re likely to get a number that’s simply an estimate.
“Most lawyers cannot predict the total cost of a matter,” Savarese says. “I can give prospective clients an overview of what I plan to do and some anticipated responses from our opponents, but variables — for example, whether the opponent will respond to a demand letter or ignite it — are out of my control.”
What a lawyer can tell you is their hourly rate, which varies from around $100 an hour to $400 an hour or more depending on where you live. Expect to pay top dollar for an experienced metropolitan lawyer with expertise in specialized areas.
However, there may be room for negotiation.
“If your lawyer is less experienced on cases like yours but you feel comfortable with them as a person after speaking with them, they could charge you a lower flat fee or a lower hourly rate to compensate for their inexperience,” Savarese says. “That could save you money in the long run. Ask them what their normal rate is and how much of a discount they’d offer due to their lack of experience.”
Be sure to ask if a retainer fee is required and whether you’ll get part of that retainer back if your matter ends up costing less. Also, will the lawyer bill against the retainer? Alternatively, your lawyer could hold onto the retainer until the end of your case and bill you directly each month.
“These matters should be stated in writing in your fee agreement with the lawyer,” Savarese says.
4. Can You Charge Me A Flat-Rate Fee?
In some cases, such as in business or immigration matters, lawyers can roughly estimate the amount of time needed to handle your cases.
“Flat-rate fees are great for clients because they help them plan their budget in advance and avoid unwanted surprises at the conclusion of the case,” Deryck Jordan, managing attorney at Jordan Counsel, LLC, in New York, says. “Flat-rate fees also make it easier for you to be a savvy shopper when comparing law firms.”
If you do agree on a flat-rate fee, be sure your lawyer clarifies upfront what expenses are not included in the fee, such as overnight delivery charges, travel expenses or fees paid to governmental agencies.
5. Where’s My Contract?
If your lawyer doesn’t offer you a contract, ask for one. This should clearly state what they will be doing for you, what they charge (be it an hourly rate or a flat rate), how they bill (monthly invoices, etc.) and when they will have your project completed.
“If the lawyer won’t put it in writing, that’s a red flag and you should move on to the next lawyer on your list,” Savarese warns.
6. Can I Avoid Going To Court?
Many people push for legal action because they don’t think they can resolve their matter without going to court, but it’s often possible to achieve the best outcome without the help of a judge or jury. Arbitration, mediation and good old negotiation are all alternatives to formal court proceedings.
New York-based attorney Nance L. Schick uses the Third Ear Conflict Resolution process with many of her clients to help them look at both sides of the dispute.
“First, we explore what the dispute is triggering for them emotionally because that is what tends to hinder their ability to see possible resolutions,” she says. “Then, we can start looking at what might be going on with the other party. If more of us did this, there would probably be far fewer cases on the already backlogged court dockets!”
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