How to hire an Attorney

Hiring a Lawyer Going through a divorce? Launching a business? Hurt in a car accident? Writing a will? Facing a lawsuit? In any of these situations, you may consider hiring a lawyer to advise you or represent your interests. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) offers the following advice to help you be smart when you choose — and use — legal representation.

Know Who You're Dealing With

Many lawyers specialize in a particular area of the law. Be sure your attorney has relevant experience. An attorney who regularly drafts wills may not be the best choice to represent you in a courtroom if the subject is an auto accident. If family, friends or co-workers have hired a lawyer for a similar reason, ask them for recommendations. If not, check with your state and local bar associations. Some groups offer lawyer referral services for their members.

Do Your Research

Try to talk with more than one lawyer before you choose the one to represent you. But find out if you will be charged for an initial meeting. Be prepared to describe your problem in a brief, clear summary. Ask the various lawyers about their experience, their fees, what your options might be, your chances of success, who will do the work, and when the problem might be resolved.

Know The Real Deal

Once you decide to hire a lawyer, be sure you understand what you've both agreed to. How often will the lawyer update you? What information will you be required to provide? Do you understand all your options? What will the total cost be? If you're not clear on exactly what the lawyer is doing, ask for clarification. Although your chances of success can't be guaranteed, discuss approaches to your case. You should be comfortable with your lawyer's approach to your case. Be up front with your lawyer on all the facts and circumstances surrounding your situation. You may want to get the agreement with your lawyer in writing.

Fees and Costs

Before any work begins, ask what the cost will be for the lawyer's services and whether you will be responsible for other fees and charges. State ethics rules require lawyers to charge a reasonable fee. The American Bar Association advises that lawyers explain their fees, preferably in writing, within a reasonable time after beginning to represent you. And some state bars require that lawyers put their fees in writing before they take a case. Your lawyer may charge you extra for copying documents, courier services, court filing fees, or research services. Be sure you understand what you will be charged for and how much.

Payment Arrangements

Remember the most expensive lawyer is not necessarily the best one for you. Nor is a "bargain" rate always a great deal. Look for the best balance of experience and cost. You may want to ask your lawyer if a junior lawyer or paralegal can perform some of the work to lower your costs. You also may want to ask if there are tasks you could perform yourself to save time and money. For example, you might be able to copy, pick up or deliver certain documents. A lawyer may charge you a flat fee for a particular service or offer alternative methods of payment. Each has benefits and risks.

Contingency fees. A contingent fee arrangement means that your lawyer gets a percentage of whatever money you receive as resolution of your case. If you receive no money, then your lawyer collects no fees. However, you may owe charges for court fees, copying, and hiring expert witnesses. If you have very little money to pay hourly fees, it may be appropriate to negotiate a contingency fee with your lawyer. But before agreeing to a contingent fee, consider that:

The size of a contingency fee, usually a percentage of any money you receive to resolve the case, is always negotiable. Sometimes you can negotiate a sliding scale fee (for example, 30 percent of any recovery up to $10,000; 20 percent of any recovery up to $50,000, etc.). Remember that there's no particular percentage of a consumer's recovery that constitutes a "standard" or "official" fee.

The size of the contingency fee should reflect the amount of work that will be required by the attorney. Some cases are straightforward; others can be novel or uncertain. You may want to ask whether the case is likely to settle quickly and whether government agencies will gather significant amounts of evidence. A fee arrangement sometimes can be negotiated with a lower percentage for a quick settlement and a higher percentage if it goes to trial. Be sure you know exactly what is covered in your agreement. Your state also may have rules about maximum contingency fees; check with your state's bar association.

Flat fee. You pay the lawyer a set dollar amount for a particular service, like writing a will. If the matter is simple and straightforward, say, an uncontested divorce or a simple bankruptcy filing, many lawyers often charge a flat fee. Be sure to find out exactly what the flat fee includes.

Hourly rates. The lawyer charges a set fee per hour. Your final cost will depend on how long it takes to complete your work. Hourly rates vary according to a lawyer's expertise and experience. An experienced lawyer may charge a higher hourly rate but may complete the work more quickly. Because the hours worked on your case can add up quickly, you should ask for a written estimate of the number of hours necessary to complete your case to get an idea of what your final bill might amount to.

Retainer. Your lawyer may ask you to pay a fee up front. A lawyer can use this fee — often called a retainer — as a down payment on expenses and fees. It is important to review your account from time to time to understand how your money is being spent.

Public Legal Services. Depending on your financial situation, you may qualify for free or low cost legal services through special organizations. For example, you may be eligible for free representation in landlord-tenant or divorce cases. Look in your local telephone directory for legal services organizations or legal clinics associated with accredited law schools.

Pre-paid legal plans. Some organizations offer pre-paid legal plans that work like an insurance policy. In exchange for a monthly fee, you receive certain legal services as you need them. However, the fees charged and the services covered vary with each state's law and the particular plan. Check out any plan carefully to be sure you know what's covered and whether it makes sense for your situation.