Educational Consumer Tips
Choosing Legal Services
Whether you are preparing your will, buying a house, starting your own business, or considering a lawsuit, getting legal assistance is an important part of the process. An attorney can advise you on your rights under the law as well as provide information on legislation that may affect you.
Selecting an attorney is similar to selecting a physician. Attorneys concentrate on specific types of cases as do doctors. The first step is to define the nature of the matter, and then find the lawyer who can best address your needs. While some attorneys are general practitioners, many lawyers concentrate in the areas of taxation, criminal law, labor relations, workmen's compensation, real estate, and family law, to name a few.
However, unlike the physician, in most states there is no process whereby a lawyer can take an examination to demonstrate a specialized area of knowledge. A doctor takes steps to become "board certified;" a lawyer, in most states, does not. Therefore, you may have to take additional steps to be sure that the attorney you are considering can adequately handle your legal problem.
Where to look for a lawyer
Most people find a lawyer by asking friends, colleagues or neighbors for a recommendation. Another source of information is the MARTINDALE-HUBBELL LAW DIRECTORY, found in your local public library. For over 100 years the directory has provided as complete a roster as possible of the members of the legal profession in the United States and Canada. The directory gives brief biographical sketches of many lawyers and describes the areas of the law in which they practice.
Also check with the LAWYER REFERRAL SERVICE of your state, city or county bar association, usually listed in area telephone directories. Under a referral service, the lawyer will consult with you for a half hour without charge or for a prescribed and nominal fee, and then render whatever services are requested for an agreed-upon fee. If the lawyer cannot handle your problem, he or she will refer you to another lawyer. You should be aware that a lawyer often can ask to be placed on a referral list. Being on the list does not automatically mean that the attorney is qualified to handle a particular area of the law. However, bar association lawyer referral services will attempt to refer you to an attorney experienced in the area of law relating to your problem.
Since lawyers can advertise their services, you may want to check the YELLOW PAGES of the phone directory. Make sure you verify the information contained in the claims made in these ads concerning both services and payment.
Make an office visit for a consultation
It is a good idea to schedule a visit with the attorney you are considering. Some lawyers will offer the first consultation free of charge if you elect to use their services.
Question the lawyer about credentials and training. For example, if the attorney practices in tax law, ask about any experience he or she may have had working for or representing clients who dealt with the Internal Revenue Service. Similarly, a criminal lawyer may have worked as a local prosecutor or defender. Find out what portion of the lawyer's cases are in the area of the law in which you are seeking help.
Some states are taking steps to help consumers determine if an attorney qualifies as a specialist by requiring attorneys to take qualifying examinations, and attend continuing professional education courses, before they can be certified as specialists. Each state has its own standards for allowing an attorney to advertise as a specialist. Contact the state or local bar association for information on what qualifying standards are used in your own state.
Factors used for determining fee
The lawyer should determine a "reasonable" fee using a number of factors, including:
- Time and labor required. The attorney must factor in the difficulty of legal questions raised and the skill and time needed to perform the required legal services.
- The likelihood that acceptance of your case will preclude other employment by the lawyer.
- The fee customarily charged for similar legal services.
- Amount of damages sought and results achieved.
- Time limitations imposed by the client or by circumstance.
- Nature and length of the professional relationship.
- Experience, reputation and ability of the attorney performing the work.
- Whether the fee is fixed or contingent.
With these factors in mind, be sure to discuss fees and expenses with the attorney you choose.
Principal methods of compensation
There are four principal methods for compensating a lawyer, though others may be agreed on:
- One method is the RETAINER. Individuals or a business may employ a lawyer on a retainer basis which is a down payment toward the fee for specified legal services.
- The term "retainer" is used to mean different things in different jurisdictions. Some allow non-refundable retainers, others do not. Be sure you understand how the term is used and whether the money is refundable.
In return for the retainer, the attorney will work for you on specific matters that require his or her services.
Other costs may be added to the final bill for services involving additional time and effort on the attorney's part. Always ask for a copy of the receipt for the retainer fee.
- A second method is the CONTINGENT FEE. This is used in private or civil cases, especially in accident and negligence cases and domestic relations cases. The fee is contingent upon the lawyer recovering money damages for the client. If no recovery is made, compensation may not be required. Many states require contingent fee agreements to be in writing.
If an award is made, the fee will be a percentage of the settlement. Court costs and out-of-pocket expenses normally are the responsibility of the client. Costs and expenses of litigation may be taken from the amount awarded or settled upon. You should ask if these costs will be subtracted from the recovery before or after the lawyer's contingent fee is calculated.
- Another method of payment used by lawyers is to charge for a specific job at an ESTABLISHED FEE.
For example the attorney tells you exactly what he or she charges for preparing a will, handling a divorce, the sale of property, a title examination, among other tasks. The attorney should make it clear if there are any charges. Make sure you know what is or is not included before hiring the lawyer.
- The most common method for establishing fees is to charge an HOURLY RATE for each hour spent on the client's behalf. Generally, the rate varies from $50 to more than $200 depending upon the attorney.
Always get an estimate from the attorney of how many hours the legal problem will require. A law firm may also charge a different rate if a partner, associate attorney or paralegal performs part of the work involved in the case.
Also keep in mind that in some situations lawyer fees are set by the court.
Free or reduced-fee legal assistance
Court-appointed attorney---If you are charged with a crime and cannot afford an attorney to defend you, you should be able to obtain free legal help. Inform the judge in your case that you are unable to afford an attorney, and ask that one be appointed to represent you. A state or local public defender's office can provide you with information.
Legal aid programs---If you need help with a civil legal problem and cannot afford a lawyer, a local legal aid or legal services program may be able to assist you at no charge, if you meet certain financial eligibility requirements.
In most cities there are no legal aid programs funded through the federal or state government, or financed by bar associations or private foundations. Many cities also have pro bono programs which can find you a private lawyer who will handle your case without charge.
To locate either a legal aid office or a pro bono program, look in the telephone book under "legal aid" or "legal services," or call the local bar association and ask about sources of free legal help.
Additionally, many law schools offer free or low-cost legal services through the efforts of law students supervised by licensed attorneys. Call the nearest law school for further information about their legal clinic.
Legal aid offices generally offer assistance with a variety of legal problems, including those involving landlord-tenant issues, public benefits, credit and utilities disputes, and family law matters such as divorce, adoption, and guardianship cases.
Commercial legal clinics---If you can afford to pay only a small amount for legal services, you may be able to obtain help from a commercial "legal clinic." These are law firms that specialize in providing low-cost legal help with simple matters such as wills and uncomplicated divorces.
Prepaid legal service plans---If you are a member of a labor or credit union, assistance may be available through a prepaid legal service plan. Using an arrangement similar to a health maintenance organization (HMO), organizations such as labor unions, employee groups and credit unions, provide members with legal services on a prepaid basis.
Members can contact a specified attorney and receive free or discounted legal services. This arrangement encourages members to seek legal advice before potential problems arise and costs escalate.
Plans are also available to persons who may or may not be part of a group and who purchase prepaid legal services on an individual basis through an insurance company or other marketer. Plan benefits should be reviewed carefully as they vary from limited access to comprehensive services.
Small claims court---If your case involves small monetary damages, you may want to consider going to small claims court. This procedure usually is simple, inexpensive, and quicker than other court proceedings. Court fees are nominal, you will not need a lawyer, and you often get your filing fee returned if you win the case. Small claims court cannot be used for family, probate or most injunctive matters.
Check your local phone directory under municipal, county or state government listings for the small claims court. Ask the court clerk for instructions on how to proceed with your case, and the size of claim that can be brought.
Mediation and arbitration---If you have a common consumer/business, landlord/tenant or employer/employee problem, you may want to seek assistance through a dispute resolution mechanism such as a mediation or arbitration. These methods for resolving claims are usually less expensive and time consuming than traditional court proceedings.
Mediation is an informal process where the parties are brought together to identify, discuss, and resolve their disagreements openly before a trained, neutral person or mediator. A lawyer is not required for mediation.
Arbitration, on the other hand, is a more formal process where the disagreeing parties present evidence and witnesses to support their position to an arbitrator who is a neutral third party. Generally, the parties must agree in advance to abide by the arbitrator's decision, which is the final resolution of the matter.
Consult your local or state consumer protection office, or your local Better Business Bureau about the availability of these services.
If you have a complaint about your attorney
If you have a problem dealing with an attorney, you can file a complaint with the appropriate local bar association or
lawyer disciplinary agency. Before deciding to dismiss an attorney, however, be sure to discuss the matter with him or her. Remember that the dismissed lawyer may be entitled to a fee for services actually rendered. In some circumstances, a dispute between an attorney and client can be resolved through arbitration conducted by the local bar association.
Tips to remember
Before choosing a lawyer to represent your case, you should ask:
- What are your credentials and area of expertise?
- Who will be working on my case-a paralegal, a law clerk, or another partner in the firm?
- What will be included in the service? How much will it cost?
- How will the fee be determined?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of my case?
- What will be the possible outcome of the case?
- What role will I be expected to play in the proceedings?
- What information must I provide?
- When and how will I be informed about the progress of my case?
- How will any disputes that may arise about the quality of legal service be resolved?
After selecting an attorney to represent you, make sure you do the following to assist him or her in providing the best quality of legal service:
- Have a written agreement drawn up outlining the terms of the attorney-client relationship. Make sure that you clearly understand all of the contract before signing your name.
- Be honest and truthful. Tell all the relevant facts about your case--the good and the bad. Provide all pertinent documents.
- Be organized. Keep notes and files on your case and how it is proceeding.
- Stay informed about your case and keep your attorney abreast of any new developments that affect the situation.
- Respect your attorney's time and service. Have your attorney analyze your case thoroughly, but do not expect easy answers to complex matters.
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