For people who are unfamiliar with the justice system, legal issues can cause you much stress and consternation if they are not handled properly. In certain instances—for example, if you have a sparkling clean driving record are issued a citation for a minor traffic infraction—a lawyer is nice to have on your side but is certainly not a necessity if you want a favorable resolution. Most of the time, though, someone without knowledge of the legal system who is facing a legal problem would be wise to retain a skilled lawyer who can help them through the process. Before you decide on a lawyer to represent you, be sure you have asked yourself these questions:
Before you go out, decide which lawyer you want to hire, and sign a representation agreement, you should devote at least some amount of time to thinking about how badly you want to have counsel to assist you with your legal issue. At this stage, you should be considering what is at stake for you and those close to you in the legal matter at hand. If an unfavorable outcome in your legal proceeding could, say, result in you going to jail for several years, losing custody of your children, or losing a significant amount of money, you should probably err on the side of caution and find a lawyer to represent you. Better safe than sorry. The decision becomes a bit more complicated if you and your loved ones do not have much money or freedom at stake in the matter, so you should always be sure to weigh each one of your available options.
If you do want to hire a lawyer, you need to figure out how much you can pay and how much you are willing to pay for a lawyer’s services. Pricing structures vary from lawyer to lawyer, but the three most common are hourly billing, contingency billing, and flat fees. Lawyers who bill their clients hourly typically require payment for their services upfront. They will often require a retainer fee to secure their services and then bill you monthly for the hours they have worked on your case once the retainer payment has been exhausted. In a contingency billing arrangement, your lawyer will front all the costs associated with the case and you will not have to pay anything unless you recover monetary compensation through a settlement or judgment. Flat-fee arrangements require payment of a set fee for whatever specific service is being provided—for example, a DUI defense, a bankruptcy filing, or a relatively simple divorce. The bottom line is that before you sign a representation agreement, you need to know what your finances will allow.
Law firms come in all shapes and sizes. If you want to hire a full-service firm with a large staff of attorneys whose areas of expertise are highly variegated, you will likely have to pay top dollar for the privilege of having access to all its high-quality client-facing resources. But unless you are going to be a source of repeat business for a large firm that survives on hourly billing and hourly billing alone, there is a chance you will get short shrift from your attorney when you try to get answers to your questions or updates on your matter’s status. Smaller firms are more likely to offer you better access to lawyers than their larger counterparts, although they probably cannot offer you the same range of expertise or client perks.
When you are selecting a lawyer, you need to be sure you find one whose professional area of expertise matches your specific needs. For example, if you need legal advice regarding an IRS audit of your business’ taxes, you should find a skilled lawyer with a practice focusing primarily on litigation involving business taxes. But tax litigators may not do you much good if you were injured in a car accident and need to find a way to recover compensation to pay for your medical treatment and pain and suffering. In that case, you would want a lawyer who devotes a significant portion of their practice to representing people who have suffered personal injuries. Think through the legal issues that are present in your case and do your research ahead of time to find the attorney whose primary practice area and pricing both set you up for success. Failing all else, you could just choose the first lawyer for whom you see an advertisement, but people who care about you would caution you to think the matter through a little more.
In choosing a lawyer, as in nearly all walks of life, you need to know yourself and be mindful of your own needs. Are you the kind of person who will want frequent updates and reassurance about your legal matter? Would you prefer to have someone else handle everything that does not absolutely require your input or participation? Is it important for you to have a lawyer whose demeanor matches yours? Not all lawyers are created alike, and the differences in their personalities can sometimes make quite a difference to their clients. If you care only about results, you may choose differently than if you care about how friendly and compassionate your counsel seems. Think about what kind of client experience you want before you make your decision, and never underestimate the value of having a skilled lawyer to help you navigate through the judicial system.