Tips on Hiring a Private Attorney
Topics on this page:
- What level of representation is right for me?
- What questions should I ask before I meet with a lawyer?
- Why should I interview a lawyer?
- What should I look for during the interview?
- What to ask about services
- Factors to Consider when Selecting an Attorney
What level of representation is right for me?
Traditionally, when an individual hires an attorney, it is for full scope representation. This means that the attorney does all of the work in the case: advises the client, examines and drafts documents, communicates with opposing counsel, and, if necessary, represents the client in court. While full scope representation is ideal, it is expensive and often prices people completely out of the legal market.
It is possible, however, to hire an attorney to help you with a part of your case, and to handle the rest of the case on your own. This is called limited scope representation or unbundled legal services.
Is limited scope representation right for you? Consider the following:
- I have a legal matter, but I can do most of the paperwork myself;
- I have a simple legal matter, and it should resolve quickly;
- I just have some questions and want to pay for legal advice only;
- I want an attorney to review documents concerning my legal matter; and
- I have a court appearance coming up soon, and I need an attorney to represent me in court.
If any of these considerations apply to you, limited scope representation might be a good fit. Learn more about limited scope representation.
What questions to ask before meeting with a lawyer?
One way to start the process of hiring a lawyer is to ask friends and family for recommendations. You can also contact your local bar association's lawyer referral service. Most attorneys will offer a free or reduced-cost consultation.
Consider asking a few questions before you make a consultation appointment. The answers will help you choose the two or three lawyers you wish to interview. Since this is only a preliminary telephone conversation, ask questions that can be answered briefly. Here are some examples.
- Will the lawyer provide a free consultation for the initial interview on this matter?
- How long has the lawyer been in practice?
- What percentage of the lawyer's cases are similar to your type of legal problems? (A lawyer with more experience in handling cases like yours should be more efficient and knowledgeable, and that may save you money.)
- Can the lawyer provide you with any references, such as trust officers in banks, other attorneys, or clients?
- What type of fee arrangement does the lawyer require? Are the fees negotiable?
- What type of information should you bring with you to the initial consultation?
Why should I interview a lawyer?
Regardless of why you are seeking a lawyer, you will be sharing details of your life. You will be relying upon this person's expertise and advice. Since this person will be acting on your behalf, it is critical that you feel comfortable with your attorney. You must have confidence that your attorney will hear your concerns in an atmosphere of mutual respect. A personal interview is the best way to make this judgment.
Follow up your exploratory phone calls by scheduling interviews/consultations with at least two of the attorneys. Don't feel embarrassed about selecting only the best candidates. You may need to cancel appointments with some of the attorneys after you complete all of your exploratory calls.
What should I look for during the interview?
Come prepared with a brief summary of your immediate case (including dates and facts) as well as a list of general questions for the attorney. The purpose of your interview/consultation is to decide:
- if the attorney has the necessary experience;
- if the attorney is available to take your case;
- if you are comfortable with the fee arrangement and,
- most importantly, are you comfortable working with the attorney?
Since this a free or reduced-cost consultation, it may not be a long meeting. Be concise and approach the interview in a businesslike manner. Take notes. Listen carefully to the attorney. Observe the office.
What should I bring to the interview?
- a brief, written summary of your case;
- a list of questions for the attorney;
- cards or a small notebook;
- a pen/pencil for notes; and
- copies of any notices or other relevant paperwork you have received.
During the interview, what do I ask about their services?
In addition to any unanswered questions from your telephone calls, ask the following questions:
- How long has this attorney worked on cases like yours?
- Based on your brief description of the problem, ask about the range of outcomes you could expect (rough estimate of length of time, cost for legal services, and size of the award if any). Ask if the case is likely to be settled or will it go to trial.
- Many factors affect how a case is decided. Be suspicious of any ironclad promises that you will win.
- Ask for an opinion as to the strengths and weaknesses of a case like yours. This should be based on your lawyer's experience with similar cases.
- Ask who will be working on your case.
- Will this attorney be doing all of the research, case preparation, negotiation, and court work?
- Or will the associates or non-attorney advocates be handling parts of it?
- What are the experience and expertise of these other advocates?
- Will other experts (including attorneys) be consulted? If so, who will they be?
- If others will work on the case, what is the applicable fee arrangement?
- These questions are particularly important to ask of attorneys practicing in large law firms where work is often delegated to associates and/or paralegals.
- Ask about fees and expenses.
- Fees and expenses are not the same.
- An attorney's fee is the payment you make for the attorney's time.
- Expenses refer to a variety of other costs including witness fees, court filing fees, copying, messenger service, etc.
- Ask if the attorney will work out a written fee agreement with you. (The specifics of the arrangement should be in writing.)
- Ask how often the attorney will bill you.
- Is a retainer required?
- A retainer is an amount of money that you pay up front before work begins.
- The attorney will often send you notices as they use the money.
- Decide what type of involvement in the case you want. Ask if the attorney is comfortable with that.
- Find out what hours the attorney will be available for meetings.
- This may be particularly important if you must leave work to meet with the attorney.
- Will you meet in the evening or weekends?
- Will the attorney make house calls or visit a nursing home if needed?
Observe How the Attorney Responds to Your Questions.
- Does the attorney seem organized (take notes, etc.)?
- Does the attorney respond openly and directly to your questions?
- Does the attorney provide you with written background material on the topics of interest to you?
- Are the attorney's explanations clear?
Observe the Physical Surroundings and Office Staff.
- Is parking or public transportation available? Would you feel secure coming alone?
- Does the office staff appear to be helpful?
- Do people identify themselves on the telephone so you know to whom you are speaking?
- Does anyone explain the roles of people with whom you may be dealing?
Factors to Consider in Choosing an Attorney
After you interview a couple of attorneys, review your notes. Look at the strengths and weaknesses of each of the attorneys you interviewed. Decide what is most important to you.
- Cost is rarely a deciding factor unless it is a simple case that will take little time and this is the only contact you plan to have with the attorney.
- However, it is critical that you feel comfortable and knowledgeable about the financial arrangement.
- Disputes over fees are one of the most common conflicts between unhappy clients and attorneys.
- Does the attorney have the necessary experience for your case?
- For a simple will a relatively new attorney may be a cost effective choice. However, for a complex estate plan you are likely to prefer someone with more experience. The higher fee is likely to be balanced by not having to pay for the attorney to learn on the job.
- Can the attorney accept the case immediately?
- Will the attorney be able to devote the time you want to the case?
- This is particularly important if you prefer a lot of interaction with your attorney.
- Your Comfort Level/Mutual Respect
- It is important not to choose an attorney simply because you share an interest in common or you are impressed by the firm's reputation.
- You should be satisfied with the expertise of the people actually working on your case.
- Will you trust them enough to tell them private matters (relevant to the case) that you may not have shared with others?
- Do you believe the attorney treats your ideas and opinions with respect?
- Choose a Lawyer Who Specializes in What You Need - You are likely to save money by choosing someone who has the knowledge and office systems set up to handle cases like yours cost-effectively. That attorney is also more likely to be knowledgeable about specific procedures relating to your case, expert witnesses in the area, and other attorney experts for consultation.