There are many situations when someone might need to hire an attorney, but people don’t usually plan for those in advance. If you’re facing a criminal charge, dealing with a significant number of traffic violations, beginning divorce proceedings, filing bankruptcy, drafting a will, starting a business or going through any other legal situation, consider consulting an attorney. By compiling a list of qualified attorneys in your area and preparing some basic questions before meeting with them, you’ll be able to find the right lawyer for your legal case.
Methodology: The suggestions here are based on 10 hours of research, which included reading legal advice articles. I also reviewed resources for clients from the American Bar Association’s website, the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the Legal Services Corporation. Additionally, I consulted with five attorneys about choosing a lawyer.
How to find a good lawyer
Compile a list of attorneys or law firms who you think might be able to handle your case before scheduling consultations. You can find contact information for attorneys and law firms in a variety of ways.
- General search: Start by doing a general online search for lawyers in your city or by looking in the yellow pages. This kind of broad search will help you get a sense of the lawyers in your area. You can narrow your search by specifying what kind of lawyer you’re looking for, like a bankruptcy attorney or a DUI lawyer. Remember not to judge an attorney based solely on their website or advertisements. Talk to them about your case in person before making any commitments.
- Online directories: Several online directories exist to help potential clients find a qualified attorney. Lawyers.com, Martindale-Hubble and FindLaw all let consumers search by name, specialty and location. These kinds of online directories may also offer advice about choosing a lawyer and show other clients’ reviews of them.
- Online referral service: Online referral services are similar to online directories, but they offer a bit more guidance in selecting an attorney. For example, on LegalMatch, clients submit the details of their case and then interested lawyers respond directly to them.
- Prepaid services: Prepaid legal services, like LegalShield, allow consumers to pay a monthly fee that gives them access to certain legal services from a local attorney. This option doesn’t give consumers a choice of attorney, but it does assure them they can quickly speak to someone if a problem arises.
- Bar associations: Many state and county bar associates have a lawyer referral service that will guide people to lawyers who are looking for new clients. These services are usually free, although some bar associations charge a small fee.
- Law schools: If you live in a city that is home to a law school, they may provide a list of alumni who still practice in the area. Many law schools also have legal clinics staffed primarily by advanced law students to provide free or low-cost legal advice to individuals who meet specific income requirements.
- Legal aid: Low-income individuals may qualify for free legal assistance from their state's legal aid organization. Legal aid offices typically help consumers with civil matters, while the public defender’s office helps those charged with a criminal offense who cannot afford an attorney. Interested individuals can visit LSC.gov to find information about legal aid in their state.
- ACLU: The American Civil Liberties Union may be able to help individuals who believe their civil rights have been violated. The ACLU may provide legal counsel for free, or the local branch may refer individuals to an attorney who can help them for a fee.
How to hire a lawyer
Once you have a list of lawyers who you think might be right for your situation, you can narrow your options down by doing a little research.
- Search for them: Do an internet search for the names of each of the lawyers you’re considering. If they have a website, you’ll be able to get some sense of what they specialize in and whether you want to discuss your case with them. This search may also show you any major cases they’ve been involved with or any disciplinary actions against them.
- Interview them: To find the best attorney for your situation, you should talk to more than one lawyer before you retain anyone or sign any paperwork. Schedule appointments with two or three attorneys to ensure you’re hiring someone you trust. Some attorneys and law firms offer a free initial consultation while others charge a fee. Make sure to ask whether there is a consultation fee when scheduling your initial appointments.
10 questions to ask when hiring a lawyer
Prepare for your initial appointment with each attorney by writing down questions that you feel it is important for them to answer. Try to ask the same questions for each initial appointment so you can easily compare their answers.
- Do you have any conflicts of interest?
Attorneys are legally required to disclose any conflicts of interests, but it’s best to ask about this before paying any money. A conflict might include having represented the other party at an earlier time, having a personal relationship with the other party or the other party’s attorney or being biased against you in some other way.
- Have you handled cases like mine before? How many? What were the outcomes, generally?
You want to work with someone who has successfully handled cases like yours in the past. Working with an experienced attorney can give you a better chance at getting realistic advice and a positive outcome.
- Who are your typical clients?
It's important to know about the kinds of people the lawyer usually represents. If they typically work with corporate clients and you are seeking advice as an individual, they may not have the necessary experience to forward your claim successfully.
- What are the options for resolving my problem?
Civil matters can be resolved in a variety of ways, including a trial or arbitration, when a third party decides the matter without taking it to court. Ask what course of action they recommend and why they think that action is best. Make sure you understand how a particular choice might save you money in legal fees and how it improves your chances of a positive outcome.
- Do you tend to be aggressive or open to settlement? Communicate your ideal outcome.
If you're seeking a quick and amicable solution to a problem, you don't want to work with a lawyer who insists a trial is the only option and advises you against considering any early settlement. Ask about their general approach to ensure their philosophy matches your own. Also, make sure to tell them your ideal solution to see if they think it's possible. You want to select a lawyer whose goals match your own.
- Who will be working on the case?
Ask whether the lawyer you consult with will handle your case personally or if it will be passed off to someone else in their firm. If they are not part of a firm, ask if a paralegal will complete any of the work. Make sure you meet and feel comfortable with the person who will do the bulk of the work on your case.
- How often and through what methods will you communicate with me?
You should feel confident that your lawyer will keep you up-to-date on all important information about your case. Ask how often you should expect to hear from them and whether they’ll e-mail or call you with new information. Make sure you know whether you’ll hear from them personally or if your primary point of contact will be their assistant. Any of these options are fine as long as you feel comfortable with them.
- How many hours do you anticipate I'll be billed for?
It’s impossible for an attorney to tell you the exact amount of legal fees you’ll have to pay in advance. However, they should be able to give you an estimate of how many hours you’ll be billed for. Be cautious of an attorney who refuses to give you even a ballpark estimate of the cost of your case.
- How will payment work?
Lawyers can be paid through contingency fees or hourly fees. A lawyer who is working for contingency fees only gets paid if you win your case. The fee is usually a percentage of your settlement. Cases where no settlement is at stake are usually billed based on the number of hours an attorney works on your case as well as additional necessary costs.
- What costs will I be billed for?
In addition to the lawyer’s hourly fee, you will be billed for a variety of other expenses. Typical expenses include court costs and payment for other individuals' services, like legal researchers, private investigators, couriers and expert witnesses. Also expect to pay for items and services necessary to the case, such as postage, telephone and photocopies. If the lawyer has to travel out of town for your case, you'll be required to pay for many of those expenses.