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Hiring a Lawyer

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Hiring a lawyer can feel overwhelming — especially if you need one to advise you on complicated things like launching a business, dealing with a car accident, or drafting a will. Knowing what to expect before you choose a lawyer can make the process easier.

Finding the Right Kind of Lawyer

Many lawyers specialize in certain areas of law, such as family, estate, personal injury, contracts, or civil rights. It’s important to find a lawyer who has relevant experience with the legal area that you need. Take time to search for the right lawyer.

  • Ask family, friends, or co-workers for recommendations.
  • Check with your state and local bar associations.
  • Consult lawyer referral services offered by a union or community group you belong to.

Once you have some options, plan to talk with more than one lawyer before you choose someone to represent you. You also might be eligible to get free or low cost legal help, depending on your income and other circumstances.

Interviewing a Lawyer

Before your first meeting with a lawyer, find out if you’ll have to pay for the lawyer’s time. Often a first consultation is free. Be ready to give a short summary of your legal situation and the solution you want. You’ll want to ask:

  • About their experience with your kind of case
  • How they would get the solution you want
  • About the chances of getting the solution you want, and other possible outcomes
  • Whether this lawyer, other lawyers, or paralegals in the law firm would do most of the work on the case
  • About the fees for each member of the law firm who would work on your case
  • How long it might take to resolve your legal issue or case

Hiring a Lawyer

After you find the right lawyer, keep asking questions until you’re sure you understand what you've both agreed to. Then, get the agreement in writing. Discuss possible approaches to your case, your expectations, and the work to be done, including:

  • How, and how often, will the lawyer update you?
  • What information or documents does the lawyer need from you to help with the case? Before you send original documents, make copies for yourself. Ask the lawyer to send you copies of any important documents from your case.

Payment Arrangements and Fees

When you choose a lawyer, you’ll talk about how to pay for their services. Most lawyers charge by the hour, or part of the hour, they spend working on a case. Some lawyers charge a flat fee for a service, like writing a will. Others charge a contingent fee and get a share of the money their client gets in a case. Your lawyer should tell you if ¾ in addition to paying a fee ¾ they’ll charge you for expenses related to your case: for example, copying documents, court filing fees, or depositions.

Be sure to get the fee agreement in writing. Each time you get a bill from your lawyer, review it to see how your money is being spent. Ask the lawyer to explain any charges you don’t understand.

Retainer agreements

Before your lawyer starts to work on your case, they may ask you to pay a financial deposit, called a retainer. The lawyer may use the retainer to pay expenses and fees.

Hourly rate

If you pay a lawyer by the hour, your final cost depends on how long it takes to complete your case. A lawyer’s hourly rate depends on their skill and experience. An experienced lawyer may charge a higher hourly rate than a beginner, but they may take fewer hours to do the job. Before you agree to pay a lawyer an hourly rate, get a written estimate of the number of hours it will take to complete your case, so you have an idea of your total costs.

Flat or “fixed” fee

If you pay a flat or “fixed” fee, you pay the lawyer a set dollar amount for a service, like writing a will. Many lawyers charge a flat fee for uncomplicated services like drafting incorporation papers, handling an uncontested divorce, or filing a simple bankruptcy. Before you decide to pay for a service with a flat or fixed fee, find out exactly what services the fee does and doesn’t cover. It’s also good to ask the lawyer what will happen if your uncomplicated service needs more work than expected.

Contingency fee arrangement

If you hire a lawyer on a contingency, it means their fees will be a set percentage of the total money you get if you win your case, plus reimbursement for case-related expenses like depositions, expert witnesses, and filing fees. In a contingency fee arrangement, the lawyer takes on the risk that your case might be unsuccessful. If you don’t get any money, your lawyer won’t get attorney’s fees. In some contingency fee arrangements, you might have to reimburse the lawyer for case-related expenses even if you don’t win your case. Be sure you know exactly what your agreement covers.

You may want to look for a contingency fee arrangement if you don’t have money to pay a lawyer’s retainer or hourly fees up front. If you’re thinking about a contingency fee arrangement, know that:

  • Most states limit the kind of cases that are allowed to have contingency fee arrangements. For example, many states don’t allow contingency fee arrangements in criminal cases.
  • You can negotiate the size of the contingency fee.
  • The size of the contingency fee should be based on how much work the lawyer will do. You may be able to negotiate a fee agreement that gives the lawyer a lower percentage if the case settles quickly and a higher percentage if the case lasts longer and goes to trial.
  • You may be able to negotiate a sliding scale fee. For example, you could negotiate a fee that pays the attorney 30 percent of the money you get up to $10,000, then 20 percent of any additional money you get up to $50,000. There is no “official” or “standard” amount for a lawyer’s contingency fee, but most states limit the attorney’s fee to a “reasonable” percentage of the total amount recovered.

Other Ways to Get Legal Help

Depending on your financial and other circumstances, you may qualify for free or low-cost legal services. For example, you may be eligible for free legal help in landlord-tenant or divorce cases. You can also get free information, forms, and guides online about legal rights in your state on issues like bankruptcy, debtors’ rights, and employment. You may find free or low-cost legal help connected to state bar associations, and at legal clinics run by accredited law schools.

If You Have Problems

Lawyers are subject to state ethics rules and are required to charge reasonable fees. If you think your lawyer didn't treat you fairly, didn’t handle your case effectively, or overcharged you, talk with him or her and try to work out an agreement. Depending on the circumstances, you may be free to fire your lawyer, or you may need a judge’s permission. If you can’t resolve things with your lawyer, or you believe they have acted improperly, consider filing a complaint with your state or local bar association.