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The following are answers to frequently asked questions about the process of hiring a lawyer.

Under what circumstances should I hire a lawyer?

If you are accused of committing a crime, charged with drunk driving (DUI), or party to a law suit, you definitely need a lawyer. You should contact a lawyer right away, especially if there are witnesses to interview and/or evidence to gather. A lawyer can also help you avoid legal problems, as well. For example, you can file for a divorce or file for bankruptcy by yourself, but a lawyer can help you avoid legal issues that may arise due to changes in laws or if any other legal complications arise. A lawyer's advice can also be invaluable if you need to sign an employment or contractor agreement, or if you need to sign a contract or agreement to buy a house, a car or make any other major purchase. Legally binding contracts and agreements have a lot of jargon you may not understand. Hiring a lawyer to help you through these contracts could save you a lot of money and prevent legal complications that could arise later on.

Hiring a lawyer will prove to be a valuable investment if you plan on starting a business with a partner, forming a limited liability company (LLC), or forming a corporation. There are a lot of legal issues involved with starting a business, particularly when partners or stockholders are involved. Having a lawyer will save you a lot of time and legal hardships, not to mention the fact that the lawyer will be able to better determine what business formation is best suited to your needs. These are just a few examples of how lawyers can help you understand your rights and solve legal problems, many times before they become problems.

Which is the best lawyer for my legal situation?

Finding the best lawyer for your legal situation is similar to making any other major financial decision; you need to do some comparison shopping. Search for a Lead Counsel Rated lawyer on this site, ask friends for recommendations or otherwise find lawyers that specialize in the law area in which you need assistance (e.g., if you are charged with DUI find a lawyer that specializes in DUI defense). Make a list of several that appeal to you. Then, call each lawyer on your list and ask him or her questions to help you make a decision. Some lawyers may prefer to meet in person rather than discuss your situation over the phone. If this is the case, find out if there is a consultation fee. Many times, lawyers will not charge for the initial consultation (first meeting).

Some of the things you may want to ask the lawyer when you talk over the phone or meet include:

  • How much experience do you have with legal issues similar to mine?
  • How recently have you handled a case like mine?
  • How was it resolved? (Went to trial, settled out of court, etc.)
  • What was the result? (Did you win the case? Did you lose?)

If you end up meeting the lawyer in person for a consultation, you shouldn't expect it to last any longer than 15 minutes to a half-hour. Write down all the information you get from each lawyer. Review your notes a couple of times, and take some time to think things over before making a decision. Then, make an appointment to discuss your situation further with the lawyer who seems best for you.

How should I prepare for my meeting with the lawyer?

Before the meeting, make notes about your legal situation so you can easily go over the important points with the lawyer. Bring the names, addresses and telephone numbers of everyone connected with your case (including witnesses), as well as all papers involved in your case. Some lawyers may ask to see the papers before the meeting. If the one you're meeting does, fax everything the lawyer requests as quickly as possible so he/she has enough time to go over it all before meeting with you.

How do I know which lawyer to hire?

It depends on how you feel after meeting with them. How comfortable do you feel with the answers the lawyer provided to your questions? If you asked the lawyer how he/she handled a case similar to yours, are you satisfied with the results? Base your decision on how well you feel the lawyer can handle your case, rather than being concerned about his/her age. Just remember that even though a lawyer may have been in practice for 15 or 20 years, he/she may not have as much experience with your particular type of situation as one who has more recently graduated from law school.

What other things should I consider before hiring the lawyer?

Among the things you should do is to ask the lawyer whether he/she will work on your case personally or have another member of the law firm handle all or part of it. If a second lawyer and/or other member of the firm are involved, you should talk with them, as well. Keep in mind that most legal cases are not "sure things." Be wary of any lawyer who "guarantees" results. However, a lawyer will be able to determine the strengths and weaknesses of your case better than you can.

If you do not understand everything the lawyer tells you, ask for an explanation in simpler terms. Find out about how long the lawyer expects your case might take, what steps will be involved in preparing it and taking it to trial (if needed), what may expected from you in further preparing the case, and how you will be charged for the lawyer's services.

These are some sample questions you may want to ask yourself before making the final decision:

  • Are you comfortable enough with the lawyer's working style to work closely with him/her?
  • Do you believe the lawyer has the experience and skill to handle your case?
  • Does the lawyer's explanation of what your case involves seem clear and logical to you?
  • Does the fee seem reasonable and justified?
  • Is the fee agreement in writing, and does it outline what is covered and what isn't?

If your answers to these questions are all "yes," chances are you should hire this lawyer. If not, you should continue looking for another lawyer.

Will my lawyer handle everything, or should I help?

It depends on the arrangement between you and the lawyer. You may be able to help by gathering additional papers and/or other evidence, and by lining up witnesses that the lawyer could interview. Most importantly, give the lawyer as many details as you can about your case and report any new developments right away even if you feel the information is potentially harmful or unimportant. It may actually be important or helpful to your lawyer.

The lawyer may be able to provide a timetable that tells what still needs to be done, what will be done and when it will be done, but this isn't always possible. How long your case will take may partly depend on how busy the courts are. This is especially true for family law cases, law suits and other civil law matters.

If you have any questions as your case moves along, call the lawyer. Just remember that you may be charged for the time the lawyer spends talking to you, depending on the fee arrangement.

How does a lawyer set the fees I'm charged?

Lawyers consider several factors when setting their fees. For example, some lawyers who are well-reputed in a particular law area may charge more than ones who are not. You may not mind paying a higher fee if you feel the lawyer's special expertise and skill will yield better and faster results.

Lawyers also factor in how complicated your case is and the amount of time it will take. Even though the trial itself may only take half-a-day, researching the law, finding and interviewing witnesses, as well as preparing documents and arguments for the trial can take days, weeks or even longer. Sometimes unexpected developments take place that make your case even more complicated, which could result in higher fees.

Do all lawyers use the same fee agreements?

No. There are several kinds of fee agreements and most agreements between you and a lawyer must be in writing. Apart from any fee you may pay for your first meeting with a lawyer, you will typically be charged a fixed, hourly, retainer, contingency or statutory fee, which are explained more in detail below:

Fixed (standard) Fee: This fee arrangement is used most often by legal clinics and some law firms or lawyers for routine legal matters, like drawing up a simple will or handling an uncontested divorce. When you agree to a fixed fee, be sure that you know what it does and does not include. You also should find out if any other charges might be added later on.

Hourly Fee: Hourly fees can vary from lawyer to lawyer. To find out the approximate total of your bill, ask the lawyer to estimate how long your case will take. Just remember that circumstances may change, and your case may take longer to handle than the lawyer expected at the beginning.

Retainer Fee: A retainer fee can be used to guarantee that the lawyer will be readily available to work on your particular case, which could mean that he/she would have to turn down other cases in order to remain available for you. As a result, you will probably be billed at a higher rate for the legal work that is done. If the fee agreement states that the retainer is not refundable, you may not be able to get your money back, even if the lawyer does not handle your case or complete the work. Another way of working out the retainer fee agreement is to have the lawyer be "on call" to handle your legal problems over a period of time. Certain kinds of legal work would be covered by the retainer fee while other legal services would be billed separately. In some cases, a retainer fee is considered a "down payment" on any legal services that you will need. This means that the legal fees will be subtracted from the retainer until the retainer is used up. Then, the lawyer will either ask you to pay another retainer or bill you for the additional time spent on your case.

Contingency Fee: This kind of fee agreement is commonly used in personal injury, medical malpractice, workers' compensation and other cases involving a law suit for money. It means that you will pay the lawyer a certain percentage of the money you receive if you win the case or if you settle it out of court. If you lose, the lawyer does not receive a fee. However, you will still have to pay any court costs and other expenses that are involved. Depending on the circumstances, these costs can be quite high. In some cases, the lawyer may use the money you receive from the case to pay some of these additional costs for you when they are due. Be sure your contingency agreement spells out the percentage the lawyer will get. Also, get an estimate of the court costs and other expenses, and find out whether the lawyer's share is paid after the other expenses are deducted or before-it can make a big difference in the amount you receive from the settlement.

Statutory fee: For certain legal matters the cost is set by statute or law. This means the lawyer's fee is either set or must be approved by the court.

When making fee agreements with your lawyer, don't forget:

  • All contingency fee agreements must be in writing. Among other things, they must state whether you are required to pay the lawyer for related matters that come up as a result of your case, which are not covered by the written fee agreement. Depending on your state's laws, the agreement may also have to state that the attorney's fee is not set by law but is worked out between the attorney and the client.
  • Non-contingency fee arrangements must include the lawyer's hourly rate, fixed fee or statutory fee and other standard rates, fees and charges that would apply to your case, as well as an explanation of the general nature of the services that the lawyer will provide for you.
  • Sometimes it is impossible for a lawyer to know exactly how much time your case will take, so you should ask that an estimate of the costs and time involved to be included in the fee agreement. But, keep in mind that many unexpected factors may affect the lawyer's fee and that the actual cost may be greater than the estimate.
  • Tell your lawyer everything you know about your case. In the case of a law suit, be sure to let the lawyer know if the person you are suing is also suing you (cross complaint or counter suit). Cross complaints can affect the type and amount of the fee your lawyer will charge because they make your case more complicated.

What additional costs may be involved?

The following are typical costs you may have to pay in addition to the lawyer's fees, even if you don't win your case or settle it out of court:

  • Certified shorthand reporter charges for taking down testimony at depositions and trials and for providing written transcripts of that testimony.
  • Per page or flat fee for word processing, copying and facsimiles (faxes), and possibly for secretarial time spent on these tasks, including overtime and telephone charges.
  • Expert and/or consultant fees for any time spent in evaluating the case and testifying in court.
  • Court filing fees, and other court costs.
  • Investigators fees for helping to gather facts. Investigators usually charge an hourly fee and also may charge for expenses such as mileage, meals and lodging.
  • Jury fees and mileage fees (set by law) if you request a jury for your case. These expenses must be paid in advance.
  • Postage, courier and messenger costs for mailing, shipping or personally delivering documents to you or others involved in your case.
  • Service of process fees charged by people who locate witnesses and other parties involved in the case and deliver legal papers to them.
  • Travel expenses for the lawyer while traveling on your behalf, which can include gasoline, mileage, parking fees, meals, airfare and lodging.
  • Witness fees and mileage charges for people who testify at depositions and trials. The amounts are set by law. You also may need to pay travel expenses if a witness must be brought in from far away.

Your lawyer may charge for other costs, as well. Be sure you understand all the different expenses for which you will be responsible. Find out if you will be responsible for paying extra costs directly or if you will have to reimburse the lawyer for costs that he or she may pay on your behalf. It is a good idea to ask for a written estimate of anticipated additional costs. You can also tell your lawyer that costs over a certain amount have to be approved by you in advance.

Should I get the fee agreement in writing?

Yes you should, because it is important for you and your lawyer to agree about what you will pay the lawyer, as well as what services are and are not covered under the agreement. This way, both of you will know what to expect from each other as you work together on your case.

By law, contingency fees, and non-contingency fees anticipated to be $1,000 or more must be in writing. But, it's best to get any fee arrangement in writing no matter the amount because it provides a written record of the services you and the lawyer agreed he or she will provide and on what will and will not be covered under the agreement. Try to avoid making oral agreements, but if you do make one with your lawyer, make a written note of it.

What should the fee agreement include?

Your fee agreement should set out the services the lawyer will perform for you, as well as the type and amount of fees you will be expected to pay. The agreement should also spell out your obligations as a client (e.g., you may agree to be truthful and cooperative, to abide by the agreement, and pay your bills on time), as well as how the court fees and miscellaneous expenses of your case will be handled, explain the lawyer's billing practices, and state whether the lawyer is going to add interest or other charges to unpaid amounts.

You should make the fee agreement with your lawyer in the same way that you would make an agreement with a contractor or other businessperson—tell the lawyer what services you will want and ask questions to find out what the charges will be. Ask a friend or relative to come with you if you are not sure what to ask.

Some questions you may want to ask include:

  • How will the lawyer bill for his or her time?
  • Who else will be working on the case—associate lawyer, legal assistant, or paralegal? How will that time be billed?
  • What can be done to reduce fees and costs?
  • What is the lawyer's estimate of the total charges?

Keep in mind that an estimate is just a ballpark figure on what the fees and costs will be. The total amount is subject to change as circumstances change. The lawyer may have a pre-printed fee agreement for you to sign. However, you can always ask the lawyer to change parts of the agreement or make up a new one especially for your situation.

How often will I be billed by my lawyer?

Unless you have a contingency fee agreement, you will probably be billed monthly. If you are paying an hourly fee, you may want the lawyer to get your permission before spending more than a certain amount of time on your case. You have a right to get itemized bills that show how the lawyer has spent time on your case, and to get an itemized list of expenses such as photocopying, telephone calls and travel costs. In fact, a lawyer must provide the itemized bill within 10 days of the date that you request it.

What if there's a problem with the bill or I can't afford to pay?

If you think your lawyer's bill contains an error or something you didn't agree to, contact the lawyer immediately and try to resolve the discrepancy. But, if your lawyer's bill is accurate, but you just cannot afford to pay it, contact your lawyer to see if you can make arrangements to pay over time or agree on some other accommodation (e.g., asking your lawyer to postpone work temporarily until you can get the bill lower). However, if you cannot reach an agreement about how to handle the problem, the lawyer may be entitled to stop working on your matter or withdraw as your lawyer.

What is the best strategy for working with my lawyer?

  • Be sure that you and your lawyer have the same goals, and that your expectations remain realistic.
  • Be sure you understand and are comfortable with the lawyer's working style. You will be working with him or her very closely until your case concludes.
  • Be sure that you have a clear picture of approximately how long your case will take, when you can expect significant developments, as well as when and how often the lawyer intends to contact you with updates.
  • Be sure that you provide the lawyer with all the information and documents necessary to understand and properly prepare your case.
  • Be sure you provide information about any new developments that take place on your case, even if you think it could be harmful or you think it's unimportant. It could be important to your lawyer.
  • Be sure you understand and agree with the lawyer's billing practices including what type of fee you will be paying (fixed, hourly, retainer, contingency or statutory fee) and what additional costs you should anticipate paying.
  • Be sure to contact your lawyer promptly if have questions or concerns about your legal matter, listen to the responses, and if necessary act upon them. It will help your lawyer better prepare your case and possibly yield better and faster results.