How to Choose the Right Attorney to Meet Your Needs
The owner of my firm, Beverly Wik, Esquire, has a hand-out she regularly distributes at all her educational seminars on how to choose an attorney. Here are some of her basic tips:
STEP 1: Determine a Prospective Attorney’s Qualifications
Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory gives descriptions of attorneys who subscribe to this Directory and/or its website, by city and state, with the attorneys’ education, professional credentials, areas of practice, and ratings; an attorney’s website; references given by the attorney; other attorneys; business associates; bankers; accountants; current and former clients; etc. You also should check out a prospective attorney’s professional résumé on the attorney’s website. Consider the following:
•The attorney’s experience in similar legal matters;
•Percentage of the attorney’s practice in legal matters similar to your legal matter;
•The attorney’s professional activities and continuing legal education in areas of law related to your legal matter;
•Active participation in State and National Bar Association Sections in the areas of practice or substantive areas of law related to your legal matter;
•Other attorneys in the attorney’s law firm available to provide assistance in your matter and in related legal matters;
•The attorney or law firm’s staff, including legal assistants and paralegals, who can perform routine or repetitive work at lower hourly rates, resulting in lower fees;
•Office, meeting facilities, and computer technology;
•The attorney’s law library, computer research services and/or other access to legal research resources to reduce the attorney’s time expended to research legal issues, and
•Malpractice Insurance Coverage.
STEP 2: Discuss Your Legal Problem or Need
Interview the attorney before retaining. Unless the attorney provides legal services on a contingent fee litigation matter (usually involving damages or losses due to personal injuries or medical malpractice), experienced qualified attorneys with active practices will normally charge an initial consultation fee, even if you decide not to proceed with your legal matter and/or even if you decide not to retain the attorney. Provide all relevant background information and documents so that the attorney is able to assess your case without several time-consuming consultations. Discuss:
•Do you need an attorney for your matter? Could it be handled by other professionals?
•What actions must be taken and what documentation must be prepared?
•What are your alternatives in a legal dispute: litigation, negotiated settlement, arbitration, administrative proceedings, etc.?
•If a law suit is involved, what is the basis for your claim or defense and what law supports your litigation position?
•Get an estimate of legal fees and related expenses, if possible. An attorney may not be able to give an estimate, if the attorney bills for the desired legal services on an hourly basis and the extent of the legal services and/or the time it will take to accomplish the legal services are not the type that can be easily determined, and/or the legal services must take into account much information that is personal and unique to the parties involved in the matter.
STEP 3: Determine the Attorney’s Fee Arrangement
Fee arrangements should be discussed with the attorney and confirmed in writing. However, in most cases, your oral agreement to the terms of representation described in your meeting and phone conversations with the attorney will obligate you to pay the fees even without a written confirmation or agreement. A fee arrangement may include some or all of the following:
•Method of Determining Fees. Fees may be charged in different ways. The basic methods are as follows:•Hourly rates for attorneys and other legal staff who work on a case.
•Contingent fee arrangement based on a percentage of recovery from a law suit.
•Set fee for service or transaction, i.e., simple wills, powers of attorney, real estate closings, simple divorces, simple estate administration, etc.
•Legal Staff to Work on Matter. Attorneys and other legal staff who will be working on your case should be identified.
•Costs and Disbursements. Costs and disbursements include costs for copies, mailings and deliveries, experts, court costs, regular and electronic recording and filing fees, long distance phone calls, certified copies, service of subpoenas, appraisals, etc. Disbursements are generally billed in addition to fees.
•Retainer. A retainer may be required to begin work.
•Timing of Bills. Billing may be periodic or upon completion of your legal matter, depending on the attorney and law firm’s accounting practice for your type of matter. For simple documents with set fees such as simple wills, powers of attorney, advance health-care directives, etc., payment may be required when the attorney is retained.
Understand that you will be personally liable for bills for fees for legal services provided and related costs and disbursements after the attorney begins work on your matter, even if you terminate the attorney and retain another attorney or another law firm, and even if you decide not to proceed with your matter or case for any reason. In litigation where attorney fees are not contingent on the level of recovery or damages, and in litigation in which you are the person against whom a claim is filed, you will be personally liable for bills, even if the attorney is not able to obtain the desired recovery and/or even if the attorney is not able to successfully defend the claim against you.
This column is distributed with the understanding that the author, Old Capital Law Firm, and publisher are not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinions on specific facts or matters, and accordingly, assume no liability whatsoever in connection with its use.
Renna Van Oot, Esquire practices at the Old Capital Law Firm in New Castle, Delaware. oldcapitallaw.com