Finding the Right Lawyer
First thing, first: Make sure you hire a lawyer that is a good fit for you and your situation. Here are some tips.
Make a short list of lawyers who seem like a possible match for your needs. To make this list:
- Ask friends and colleagues for referrals.
- Look up listings for attorneys in the phone book.
- Poke around online lawyer directories to read profiles of lawyers in your area.
- Read online reviews with services like Yelp.
For each of the attorneys on your list, call the office to learn more about the lawyer’s:
- Expertise. Specifically, find out if the lawyer will handle a case like yours. Trusts and estates lawyers often specialize—in estate planning, probate, trust administration, special needs issues, eldercare, or other specific legal issues. You want an attorney who is experienced in the area you need, but not necessarily highly specialized in other areas – otherwise you might end up paying a higher rate for specialization that doesn’t apply to your situation. You could ask: “How many similar matters has he or she handled?” or “What percent of his or her practice is in the area of expertise that you need?”
- Rates. Does the lawyer charge hourly for cases like yours? Is a flat rate possible? Will you have to pay a retainer? How much is a consultation? You may not be able to get all of this information over the phone, but it’s worth asking in order to get a ballpark figure.
- Tone. While you’re on the phone, gauge how you feel about any support staff who answers the phone or gives you some of the answers you need. You could be dealing with these folks quite a bit, so you want them to be professional, efficient, and knowledgeable.
After you’ve talked to the each lawyer’s office, plan to have consultations with two or three. This might seem like a waste of time or money – especially if you like the first one – but choosing the right lawyer can save you money in the long run, so you want to make an informed choice. And—unfortunately—the reality is that a cost of a consultation will probably be a small fraction of the fees you will eventually pay.
Before You Meet With the Lawyer, Do Some Homework
To save money and to make the most out of your time with your attorney, learn about your legal issue before you talk with the attorney. For example, if you’re interested in estate planning, learn the difference between a will and a living trust. Or, if you’re looking for a lawyer to help with a probate proceeding, take a bit of time to learn about probate, what a probate lawyer does, and what parts of a probate proceeding you may be able to take care of yourself.
The more you can learn, the more precise (and efficient) your questions can be at the consultation, at the first meeting, and throughout the time your lawyer works on the case.
To learn more about the issues that affect you, start your search online—with a general web search or on a website like Nolo.com that provides legal information to nonlawyers.
Attorney consultations vary, depending on the attorney’s preferences. Some lawyers charge for a consultation, others don’t. Some will only hold consultations over the phone, but some will let you come in (this is best, so that you can get a better feel for the attorney). Some lawyers will speak in generalities about your type of case, while others won’t mind getting into the nitty gritty of your situation.
At the consultation, be prepared to talk about your case. The lawyer may not too many details of your case before you sign a fee agreement, but you should be prepared just in case.
If the attorney or the office asks you to fill out an intake form before your consultation, take some time to answer the questions carefully – you don’t have to put your whole case on paper, but it’s to your advantage to have the key points written down.
Here are some questions to ask at the consultation:
- What would the lawyer like to see in order to evaluate your situation?
- What problems does the lawyer foresee with your case?
- How would the lawyer go about handling your situation? What is the process?
- How long will it take to bring the matter to a conclusion?
- How would the lawyer charge for his or her services?
- Would the lawyer handle the case personally or would it be passed on to some other lawyer in the firm? If other lawyers or staff may do some of the work, could you meet them?
At Your First Meeting
After you decide on which attorney to hire, you’ll sign a fee agreement and officially begin your relationship with your lawyer. The first meeting with an attorney usually involves the exchange of a lot of information. You will spend a good deal of time explaining to the attorney the details of your legal issue and answering his or her questions. He or she will spend a good amount of time discussion and laying out a plan. If you think you might get nervous or forget something, you could practice this conversation with a friend, or you could write down what you want to say.
In addition to a general understanding of your legal needs, the lawyer may want to know who else is involved with the case and their relationship to you. For example, in some probate matters, a client visits the lawyer to seek help for his or her parents or siblings. The lawyer will want to understand your relationship, why you are seeking help for the person, and why the person is unable to seek the lawyer's help personally.
To this first meeting, you should bring any documents requested by the intake questionnaire or at the consultation. For example depending on the facts of your case, you may need to bring copies of:
- Documents that will "prove" your authority, such as a will or living trust document that names you as the personal representative
- Will or trust documents
- Deeds to all real property
- Life insurance policies
- Prior gift tax returns, if any
- Documents related to applications for public benefits (such as Medicaid or Social Security)
Even if a lawyer doesn't ask for documentation beforehand, it's still a good idea to bring a copy of all relevant documents to the meeting. Spend some time thinking about what you may have on hand. Try to organize the documents in a logical manner before you meet with the lawyer.
There is much more to consider as you continue to work with a lawyer. For example, you may want to learn more about attorney-client privilege, tips for saving on attorney’s fees, or what to do if you are mad at your lawyer.
Questions for Your Attorney
- In what increments do you bill? To the tenth of an hour?
- What will I be charged for work that your paralegals do?
- How long will it usually take for you to return my call or email?