The Basics: Choosing A Lawyer and Understanding Attorney Billing

Alex BarthetGetting Paid, Litigation & Arbitration

Where do you start in choosing a lawyer? The guidelines in “The Basics: Choosing A Lawyer and Understanding Attorney Billing” can help you feel more secure in selecting someone to take your case. Knowing what to look for and what to ask gives you the best chance at a successful, financially sound outcome.

How do I find the best lawyer?

Ask people you trust for recommendations. Get a few names, and then Google those names to make sure you are aware of everything publicly available about those lawyers. Also, use the Avvo.com rating resource to find attorneys by location or by their areas of experience. (Avvo is short for “avvocato,” the Italian word for lawyer.) A lawyer’s experience, reviews, publications, discipline and more go into the rating, so this is a tool worth considering. Also explore Martindale.com, the country’s oldest and perhaps deepest attorney database, which takes into account reviews by clients and peer attorneys in rating lawyers.

Always check a lawyer’s standing with the state bar, which regulates the profession. Make sure he or she is licensed and in good standing. Knowing an attorney was previously suspended for three years is something you want to know before you hire, not after you’ve had an issue yourself.

Explore whether the attorney you are considering has any board certifications, such as immigration or construction. Knowing an attorney has been vetted, has relatable experience and has passed tests on the issues pertinent to your case is worth consideration.

What questions should I ask a prospective lawyer?

Do you specialize in this area of law?  If so, that means you won’t have to pay a lawyer to learn things that are important in your case. For example, a board-certified lawyer focused on construction cases understands the issues relevant to your construction case. It takes time, which translates to your money, for a lawyer to get up to speed on an issue.

How much of your practice is devoted to this area of law? How many cases like mine have you handled? The result in your case might not be the same, of course. But you should know whether your attorney or law firm is recently familiar with the area of law your case involves.

Who will I be working with? You should be comfortable and acquainted with those who have a role in your case. Finding out you have been handed off to an associate isn’t always a bad thing, but you need to know what to expect. Know who would be working on your case and meet them in person.

How do you communicate with your clients? Many lawyers communicate via email. However, many very good lawyers are old school, and dictate letters to be typed and sent. Is a strict 9-to-5 in play or is your attorney available for a 6 pm call? You need to know what to expect and whether that meets your needs.

How and how often will I be billed? Ask for estimated fees and a frame of reference for costs. Yes, these will be rough estimates based on assumptions, but it certainly helps to know whether to expect $5,000 or $105,000 in fees.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of my case? This will give you from a lawyer’s perspective the things that will help your case, as well as the issues that may sink it. Be concerned about any lawyer that definitively promises you a win. Asking “How many cases have you won?” isn’t helpful. This number could be high based on settling cases before they go to court. Or the percentage could be low due to a purposely low caseload. A win-loss record by itself is a dangerous litmus test to use in evaluating a civil lawyer.

What are the different ways to pay a lawyer?

Most attorneys charge clients an hourly rate. The more time they spend on your case, the more they stand to make. Hourly rates can vary widely, and there’s a perception that the higher the rate, the better the lawyer. However, many good lawyers charge lower rates, so this alone is not a barometer of quality.

Some attorneys charge on contingency, which means they take a percentage of what is recovered in your case. Still others charge through a hybrid system: a lower hourly rate with a bonus that is based recovery.

Not many lawyers charge a blanket flat fee, because litigation and expenses are unpredictable. But certain tasks, such as drawing up or negotiating a contract, can indeed be charged as a flat fee. Certain segments of your case – writing a demand letter, filing a complaint, serving discovery – could be negotiated for a flat fee. This eliminates you having to wonder how much time is going to be spent and how much you will get billed.

A retainer is money paid in advance of a lawyer’s services. Most retainers are a month or two of work. If you approach a lawyer with a substantial case that requires extensive work be done, the retainer will be higher than for a smaller case. Be aware of the policy on any unused portion of a retainer; you don’t want to lose money but can if the retainer is non-refundable.

How do I reduce my fees and costs?

It’s your right to ask for a case cost estimate or budget, but preparing one can be difficult and unwieldly, and it will be based on many assumptions and uncertainties.

A better idea as you communicate with your lawyer is to get mini-estimates for certain tasks. For example, if a deposition of a defendant is needed, ask for an estimate of what it will cost. (That involves time to prepare, gather records, and actually take the deposition.)  This gives you an expectation of an upcoming cost. It also tells your lawyer that you are watching the cost in the case. He or she is more likely not to exceed the budget, having given you specific numbers. Your case strategy is intertwined with your fees. If the strategy is to settle the case early, that requires different steps than going to a trial and a judge for a determination. You should have an understanding of the strategy you want to employ early on, since that dictates the work that needs to be done. Switching strategies is expensive, so try to stick with one if possible.

Organization on your end can cut costs. If you give your lawyer five boxes of documents that don’t make sense, they will have to be sorted and processed and that will cost you. Put information in an orderly fashion to save time and money.

Respond quickly to your lawyer. When you are asked about setting up depositions, hearing dates, responding to discovery, or a trial date, reply promptly with an answer. When your lawyer must call or email you repeatedly, that follow-up costs time and money – and stalls your case.

As you proceed, it’s understandable to want an update on the case. But if you ask your lawyer for one, you’ll likely be billed for it. Instead, asked to be copied on everything, including correspondence with the court or opposing counsel. This way you see things progress as they happen, you know what work is getting done, and you are far less likely to need official updates.

What should be on the legal bills?

Assuming you are being billed hourly, every entry should include a date, the person who rendered the work, a description of that work, and the time it took to the tenth of the hour. It’s recommended to ask for tenths, versus quarter hours or half hours. If an attorney responds to a four-line email, depending on your agreement you could be billed a quarter-hour for what took only five minutes. In addition, you can request your bills contain running totals for the life of the case and attorneys performing work.

How do I change lawyers midstream?

If you want to discontinue working with an attorney, make sure you have everything you need to move the case. This is easiest if you have copies of everything. Give your attorney only copies of original documents or have them make copies when you begin the case and return the originals. This is important because if an attorney is not paid, he or she can file a retaining lien. This means the lawyer can retain or hold on to the client’s property he legally possesses – those documents you need – because of that failure to pay. A charging lien can also be asserted. This means that a lawyer can claim a portion of any money the client eventually gets due to the judgement. They can use that to pay their fee.

Spending time up front finding, vetting and selecting a lawyer will pay dividends in the long run. The stakes are too important to make a hasty decision. Communicate regularly with your lawyer and remain involved. There’s a professional ready to go to work for you and work as a team toward your goal.