Many articles written by this author over the years have concluded that people should seek assistance from a “knowledgeable attorney.” This two-part series discusses how to find the right lawyer. Part One of the series covered “equine law” and what equine lawyers do. Part Two concludes with how to evaluate a lawyer to determine whether he or she is right for you.
Evaluating the Lawyer
Our society is full of lawyers who are seeking your business, each one claiming that he or she is capable of handling your matter. But how can you determine who is right for you and your matter? Here are some guidelines to help you decide:
Gather the names of several lawyers. Ask your friends, relatives, and neighbors for names. Some lawyers advertise their services in magazines and newsletters. Call each lawyer and ask questions (several questions are listed below). Make sure you are satisfied with the answers you receive. You might quickly determine that your matter is beyond the expertise of a lawyer, a lawyer might be too expensive, or you might simply be uncomfortable with a lawyer. Just a few minutes on the phone could spare you time and trouble and help you move on to a different lawyer.
Your local library might have the Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directory, which is a very thick set of books that provides information about and evaluates lawyers. This might help you learn when an where the lawyer went to law school, and when the lawyer became admitted to practice law in your state. Some listings in this directory include the lawyer’s areas of expertise and professional accomplishments. Keep in mind that lawyers must pay for the more detailed listings; therefore, you may not find in-depth information on every lawyer you check.
Evaluate the Lawyer’s Style
Do you want your lawyer to have a certain background or style? That is, depending on the circumstances of the matter, you may want a lawyer who can be aggressive; you may want a recognized specialist; you might want a lawyer who shares your interest in resolving your dispute and who will try hard to settle it; you might want an experienced lawyer who is well-known to the judges and lawyers in the community; or, you might want a lawyer who recently graduated from law school who is willing to take your case at a very low fee to develop experience. You must decide who is best for your matter.
Plan a Meeting
Some lawyers charge nothing for the first consultation, but make sure to ask. If you are interested in hiring a lawyer, consider scheduling a meeting at his or her office or a mutually-convenient location. Sometimes seeing the lawyer’s office will tell you more about him or her. The office might reveal the lawyer’s success, how organized he or she is, and the type of staff and resources available to assist in your legal matter.
Learn the Lawyer’s Fees
Lawyers operate under a variety of fee arrangements. Before you hire a lawyer, make sure that you understand and accept the fee arrangement. Here are the most common ones:
- Hourly Fee. Most legal matters involve an hourly fee, in which a lawyer will charge for each hour of time he or she spends on your matter. A lawyer’s hourly rate tends to vary according to the location of the lawyer, years of experience, reputation, expertise, and many other factors. When evaluating a lawyer’s fee, ask not only the amount he or she charges for each hour of work but also the increments of an hour for which you will be billed. There is a difference between increments of one-quarter of an hour and one-tenth of an hour. For example, if your lawyer charges $150 an hour and you are billed for a five-minute phone call with your lawyer, you will pay $37.50 to the lawyer who bills on quarter-hour increments, but you would only pay $15 to the lawyer who bills on the tenth of an hour.
- Contingency Fee. Everyone has seen lawyer advertisements promising: “You pay no fee unless we collect.” This describes a contingency fee arrangement in which the legal fees are contingent on (a percentage of) what you recover from the losing party. Lawyers who accept cases on a contingency fee basis accept a risk that you will recover money from the losing party and that the losing party will have money to pay. Contingency fee arrangements are common in personal injury cases or cases that involve loss or damage to something of high value. A veterinary malpractice case based on the loss of a $1,200 horse probably would not be appropriate for a contingency fee arrangement because the percentage the lawyer stands to recover will not adequately compensate the lawyer for his or her time. Your state may regulate the maximum percentage that a lawyer can accept as a contingency fee as well as the cases that cannot be handled on a contingency basis (such as criminal or divorce matters). The contingency fee arrangement should always be established in a written agreement. Most of these agreements specify the percentage that the lawyer can recover; these agreements usually require you to reimburse the lawyer for his or her expenses and costs.
- Flat Fee. Is the lawyer drafting a will, handling an uncontested divorce, preparing some type of equine-related contract, or representing you in an uncomplicated case? Under these circumstances, the lawyer might agree to do the work for one flat fee. The flat fee is usually based on the amount of time the lawyer anticipates will be needed to handle the matter, and the fee might even contemplate a discount. Typically in hourly fee arrangements, the lawyer may ask you to pay him or her a sum of money called a “retainer” before the work begins. Depending on the arrangement, a retainer can represent either some or all of the legal fee. A retainer is usually combined with a written “retainer agreement” (discussed below). By ethics rules, the lawyer cannot immediately spend the retainer. Rather, the lawyer must deposit the retainer funds into his or her attorney trust account, and the lawyer is only permitted to draw money from that account after services have been rendered and legal fees incurred. Keep in mind that lawyers are usually not permitted to reap a windfall from the retainer; consequently, if your legal matter concludes before the retainer is used up, you should be entitled to a refund.
Get it In Writing
Particularly in on-going matters (such as a lawsuit or a probate proceeding), or matters where a large fee is involved, it benefits both the client and the attorney to have a written agreement that addresses the billing arrangement and the details of the representation. Retainer agreements often specify what services the lawyer will provide, acknowledge the lawyer’s receipt of the retainer, and explain the client’s obligation (if any) to make further payment after the retainer is used up.
Ask Good Questions
How can you determine who is the right lawyer for your matter? Ask the lawyer several questions. Here are some to help get you started: What is your experience in this area of the law? How many cases or matters like mine have you handled? Who will be handling my matter — you or someone else at your firm? How strong is my case (or defense)? Do you think I have a good chance of winning? Why? How frequently will you keep me advised of the status of my case? Do you have the time to handle my legal matter? Can we discuss the case during evenings or weekends? Do you have evening or weekend office hours? What are the chances that we can resolve this matter out of court, and what might be a reasonable settlement? Is my case appropriate for an alternative to the legal system, such as arbitration or mediation? Why or why not? How often will the lawyer’s office send you bills? This article is not intended to constitute legal advice.
Julie I. Fershtman, Esq.
About the Author
Foster Swift Collins & Smith PC
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