Advice on Hiring and Using Lawyers

If you’re like most Americans, you don’t know how to go about hiring a lawyer. What questions should you ask? What qualifications should you look for? What terms should you and your lawyer agree? Responsive Law provides you with answers to these questions. We also have put together a Clients’ Bill of Rights, which outlines your rights in the lawyer-client relationship.


Tips for Finding and Managing a Lawyer

Here are some simple guidelines that will help you get the best value and service from your attorney.

Hiring your lawyer
Find out as much as you can about the lawyer before you hire him or her. Ask around for a recommendation, do an Internet search for their name, and look up their discipline record on the state bar's website.
 
Before you call, prepare a short written summary of your case and write down your questions. When you make the call, have all relevant details written down in front of you before you talk to them. Lawyers will ask questions before they decide whether to take a case; make sure you are ready with answers.
 
Once you’ve settled on a lawyer, get a written fee agreement that shows precisely how you will be charged and what costs you will be liable for.
 
If you are hiring a lawyer to work for you on a contingency fee basis, remember that just because you are not paying your lawyer up front for his or her services does not mean that you don’t need to review the fee agreement carefully.
 
 
After you’ve chosen your lawyer
Have all the details of your case at your fingertips whenever you speak to your lawyer.  This is especially important in the first few meetings.  Be honest about your case, regardless of whether you think the information helps you or not.
 
The only way to keep costs down is to use your lawyer efficiently. Never meet with or call your lawyer without a list of questions in front of you. Take notes. Not only will note-taking help prevent you from asking the same question more than once, it will give you an accurate record of what advice your lawyer gave you. 
 
Make sure everything your lawyer explains to you about your case makes sense.  Too often clients are afraid to ask questions when something isn’t clear to them.  If you don’t understand, you can’t make good decisions.
 
Stay active in your case.  Ask for regular updates.  Educate yourself about the law.  Not only will this help you better understand what your lawyer is doing on your behalf, but it will empower you to ask better questions of your lawyer and to have realistic expectations about the outcome you can expect.
What to do if things go wrong
Problems with attorneys generally fall into one of three categories: 1) Problems with the person; 2) problems with the process; and 3) problems with the outcome.
 
1) Problems with the person. If your lawyer is not: returning your calls, answering your questions in a way you can understand, providing you with sufficient information to make an informed decision, or willing to explain his or her bill to you, then you have a problem with the person. Your lawyer works for you – just like any other paid professional and should act accordingly.
 
If you decide you are unhappy with your lawyer’s service, you should first make that clear to your lawyer. Clients too often are reluctant to assert themselves early on.  It is far better to be yourself from the very beginning than to try to change the relationship down the road.
 
2) Problems with the process. Everyone agrees the legal system is too slow and bureaucratic. That is why your attorney should have taken the time at the beginning of the engagement to carefully explain the processes you might encounter and how long they might take. If you believe your lawyer is not being as efficient as he could be, let him know and ask for an explanation.
 
If it becomes clear that you cannot work with your lawyer, you should not be afraid to fire him.  However, it is best to make such decisions early on. Otherwise, not only will you have to switch lawyers during a potentially critical phase of your case, but you will also have to pay to bring your new attorney up to speed.
 
3) Problems with the outcome. The first thing every law student learns is that the law is not about justice. The law tolerates unfair outcomes and your lawyer, the judge, and the jury don't change that reality. Futhermore, in certain types of matters, bankruptcy and divorces, for example, there are no winners. Keep this in mind as you work with and evaluate your attorney.
 
If you think your attorney is incompetent or unethical, that is another matter. Do not be afraid to confront your attorney, using your notes and records to support your position and be clear what it is you want from him or her. You should also investigate your state's fee dispute resolution program, if there is one.
 
If you decide to fire your attorney, do it in writing.  You don’t have to give a reason.
 
If you hired your lawyer to work for you on a contingency fee basis, it is important to decide if you have “good cause” first before discharging that lawyer.  Given that a lawyer working on contingency only gets paid out of an eventual settlement or judgment, even if you fire your lawyer for a good reason, they may have a right to claim a percentage of the money you win. Further, without establishing “good cause” to fire your attorney it is possible you will end up paying twice — a percentage to your current lawyer and a percentage to the lawyer you fired.  It is probably best to have your new attorney help you make you case for “good cause” against your old lawyer to avoid such problems.
 
Ultimately, the best way to manage your attorney is to empower yourself by understanding the law. Don’t just assume that your lawyer will take care of everything.  Not only are you the boss when you hire a lawyer, but you also have the most to gain or lose.  No one cares more about your case than you do.  It’s your money and your life. Manage your lawyer accordingly.

Clients' Bill of Rights

Here are ten rights you should enjoy from the moment you interview, consult or hire a lawyer. Many of these rights are already guaranteed by law, but you can insist upon the rest from your particular lawyer. Lawyers also benefit when clients know their rights. That’s why every state should require that lawyers present a written copy of the Clients' Bill of Rights to their clients before they agree to represent them.

These first six rights are guaranteed to you in any state whose lawyer ethics rules follow the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct.

Clients often complain that lawyers never return their calls. Too often, a client is left in the dark, unaware of how her matter is proceeding. Everything that a lawyer does on your behalf has the potential to affect the outcome of your matter. It is just common sense that a lawyer should make sure you are regularly updated on how your case is going and promptly address any concerns or questions about the case you may have.
You need to understand the details of your legal situation, therefore being present during meetings and court appearances is essential to informed decision making.
Just as your doctor should not make the final decision as to whether you should have surgery, a lawyer should not make final decisions about what actions you should take, including whether to settle, plead guilty or testify on your own behalf. A lawyer’s job is to help you make the best possible decisions, not to make them for you. However, you do not have the right to dictate how every element of the case is handled. Lawyers must use their best judgment on matters of legal strategy and must be professional and courteous to the court and other parties. They also must be treated respectfully by their clients because they are not allowed to represent clients with whom they cannot work or who do not trust them.
Attorney-client confidentiality is one of the most sacred doctrines in the law. It allows you to tell your lawyer everything that is relevant information with the understanding that it will be kept in the strictest confidence. Without it, you might be reluctant to divulge critical information, thereby limiting her ability to represent you effectively. You also need to be able to shop for the right lawyer, and that means talking about your case openly. That is why your discussions with the lawyers you interview are also confidential. HOWEVER, the attorney-client privilege only covers certain types of communications and can be lost under certain circumstances. Your lawyer knows the rules that need to be followed.
Everything that happens in your case could affect the outcome. Therefore, your lawyer should provide you with all memos and court filings in your case. It simply is not possible for you to take an active role in her representation of you unless you are fully informed.
Clients often feel restrained from firing their lawyers and taking their legal business elsewhere, even after they have failed to meet their most basic needs. The Client Bill of Rights is intended to help you and your lawyer get along, but when things don’t go well, and the relationship with your lawyer is beyond repair, you should feel free to fire your lawyer. (Court approval might be required in certain instances and you may have to pay for the services your lawyer has already provided.) If you believe your lawyer has behaved unethically, you may want to contact the Office of Bar Counsel in your state.

The following rights are not guaranteed, but you might want to ask your lawyer to agree to them.

It is customary in most professions, especially when a lot of money is involved, that a client be provided up front with a written estimate detailing the nature of the services to be performed and explaining all potential risks. It’s difficult to make a decision as to whether to pursue a legal matter without fully understanding how that matter is likely to proceed. After all, if you expect an electrician to give you a detailed estimate before doing any work on your house, shouldn’t you demand at least as much from your lawyer?
Any smart lawyer would advise her client to get any business agreement in writing. Written agreements allow the parties to the agreement easy reference to the terms of their contract and are easier to enforce in court. It is sound legal advice and yet, shockingly, when it comes to fee agreements clients make with their own lawyers, an expensive representation can sometimes rest on a few spoken words and a handshake. You wouldn’t (we hope) buy a car or conduct major home improvements without a written statement containing a precise description of how much you will pay and what will be provided to you. In this respect, a contract for legal services is like any other: you should be able to easily understand it and it absolutely should be in writing. You may also want to include a statement in this agreement that any disputes over fees will be settled by arbitration before a neutral third party.
It is rare these days for almost any service provider not to send customers a regular itemized bill. From your cell phone provider, to your cable company, to your local auto mechanic--you expect to receive a regular itemized bill describing the services performed. Without such information, it is impossible not only for you to know what services are being performed, who performed them, and at what cost, but also for you to challenge your bill if you feel you’ve been incorrectly charged for services.
Choosing a lawyer can be a daunting proposition for most people. That is why it is essential that lawyers be as forthcoming as possible about who they are, where they went to school, where they are admitted to practice law, and their experience with the kind of cases for which the client is considering using them. You should also find out if your lawyer has ever been disciplined for ethics violations. (You can usually get this information from the state bar association.) A lawyer’s background, especially her experience in similar matters, is essential information when you are deciding what lawyer to hire.