Hiring an attorney is one of the most important steps you can take to begin to resolve your legal matter. The information below can be useful before you select an attorney and when you meet with the attorney during an initial phone call or consultation.
Because each legal issue or case is unique, you may wish to consult additional resources for specific information you would like to request from an attorney before hiring him or her.
The initial phone call and consultation
When calling an attorney for the first time, introduce yourself, briefly explain the nature of your legal concern, and ask whether the attorney will provide a free consultation (generally 15-30 minutes).
When you meet with the attorney, conduct yourself in a businesslike, courteous manner and bring:
- a short, written summary of your legal issue or case.
- a written list of questions.
- all documents pertaining to your case.
- names, addresses, telephone numbers, and email addresses of everyone connected to your case.
- a notepad and pen to take notes.
Be prepared to discuss your goals or expected resolution. Ask the attorney for his or her professional opinion about your chances of achieving the desired outcome and what challenges you may face.
Ask whether the attorney encourages mediation or arbitration when it is appropriate.
Ask the attorney how fees are charged. Be familiar with the terms below. The definitions provided are general. Ask the attorney for specific information pertaining to the way he or she bills, including when payment is due.
- Retainer: In many instances, a retainer is requested. It is considered a "down payment" on legal services the attorney will provide. Legal fees will be subtracted until the retainer is used up, at which time you may be asked for another retainer, or you may be billed on an hourly basis.
- Fixed Fee: Some simple matters, such as preparing a simple will or uncontested divorce, may be billed at a fixed rate.
- Hourly Fee: Hourly rates vary from lawyer to lawyer.
- Contingency: This is commonly used in personal injury, medical malpractice, workers' compensation, and other cases involving law suits for money. It means that if you win the case or if it settles before going to trial, you will pay the attorney a certain percentage of the money you receive.
- Ask whether the attorney will accept a payment plan so you can pay over time.
- Ask the attorney what type of payment he or she will accept: credit cards (and what types), check, money order, or cash.
- Ask the attorney to provide an estimate of how long it will take to complete your case.
- Ask about any additional costs. For example, you are likely to be billed separately for items such as emails, faxes, copies, postage, filing fees, expert witnesses, travel expenses, etc.
- Request a written fee agreement.
- Ask the attorney how long he or she has been practicing the type of law that your case concerns.
- Ask whether this is his or her primary practice area.
- Ask what percentage of the attorney's cases have settled out of court and the percentage that have gone to trial.
- Ask whether the attorney will be handling the work himself or herself, or whether the case will be given to an associate.
- Ask for the attorney's credentials. For example, ask what law school the attorney attended and his or her class ranking. Ask for a list of references.
You want to feel confident about the attorney you hire. Is he or she courteous, organized, and knowledgeable? Is he or she forthright with information?
Be sure you are comfortable with and understand the lawyer's working style. Your relationship may last several months or more. You are likely to be asked to disclose information about yourself or your case about which no one else is aware. Since the lawyer will be acting on your behalf, it is critical that you are confident that he or she will listen to your concerns in a non-judgmental atmosphere of mutual respect.