Making fun of lawyers is probably as old as the law itself. (Q: Why don’t sharks attack lawyers? A: Professional courtesy.) Truth is, everyone hates lawyers … until they need one. Whether your legal matter involves drafting a will, defending against a DUI or filing for divorce, here are three tips to help you choose the lawyer that’s right for you.
Tip 1: Find a Specialist
“A good lawyer knows the law, a great lawyer knows the judge.” – Anonymous
If you had a heart problem, you wouldn’t go to a proctologist. If you are drafting a will, don’t go to a criminal defense attorney.
Just like doctors, many lawyers are specialists in certain areas of the law. Practicing different types of law often requires unique skill sets and relationships. For example, a ferocious litigator may lack the temperament to negotiate a business contract among two evenly matched parties.
Most attorneys offer a free initial consultation. Ask them how experienced they are in the area you need assistance with. You don’t want to be the guinea pig that gets experimented on.
Tip 2: Check for History of Discipline
“You go down there looking for justice; and that’s what you find; just us.” – Richard Pryor
For a lawyer to practice in a particular state, they must be accepted by that state’s Bar Association. To do this, they must pass a bar examination and (although this may be shocking) most states require a moral character examination. The state bar reviews the background of the applicant to prevent those with a proclivity to commit fraud or other unsavory behavior from practicing law in their jurisdiction.
Before you engage an attorney, check their records on the applicable state bar website. This will inform you if the attorney is licensed to practice in the state and if they have a history of discipline with the bar. Disciplinary matters can range from failing to professionally represent a client to absconding with client funds.
Thankfully, in our system, everyone is innocent until proven guilty, even lawyers. A minor disciplinary measure should not necessarily preclude you from hiring an attorney. However, you should check via web and phone with the applicable state bar to make sure that your attorney is in good standing.
Tip 3: Set the Right Fee Structure
“Agree for the law is costly.” – William Camden
There are three basic rate structures to pay for your lawyer: hourly, flat fee or contingency (i.e., a percentage of the settlement if your case is successful).
Engaging a lawyer on an hourly basis can make a lot of sense OR can become a nightmare if the matter drags on longer than expected. When an hourly relationship is going bad, a client may feel disinclined to communicate with their attorney because of the cost. This is problematic as communication between a client and their attorney is key.
Setting an “all in” flat fee for a particular service is another option. If your legal budget is $2,500 to have a will drafted and you can find an experienced lawyer who can draft the will for that amount, the guess work of how much the matter will cost is removed.
For contingency, the upside is that the client doesn’t have to pay money upfront. But, in addition to the contingent fee, lawyers are usually allowed to deduct their costs regarding the case. It’s important to speak to your potential lawyer about what costs are going to be deducted from any potential settlement.
Regardless of the payment structure you choose, check with other attorneys to ensure that the hourly rate, flat fee or contingency percentage is in the general range of attorneys in your locale.
Bonus Tip: Scotch!
After you have chosen the right lawyer and are (hopefully) happy with the legal outcome, consider taking your attorney out for a celebratory drink. 99% chance they order Scotch. It’s like Gatorade for lawyers.