Selecting and Working With a Lawyer
Why do you need a lawyer?
Do you need a lawyer to help plan your estate and write a will, or do you need a lawyer to represent you in court on a driving-under-the-influence charge? Knowing what type of legal work you need will make the process of finding a lawyer easier.
Finding a lawyer with the background and experience your legal matter requires is critical. The “right lawyer" is the person who has experience handling matters similar to yours, and who is prepared to take action at once. An experienced lawyer knows how to act immediately, effectively and efficiently. Hiring a lawyer based on price alone may result in wasted expense and time.
What kind of lawyer do you need?
Do you need ongoing, regular legal advice from someone who has experience advising people in your line of work? Or do you need a lawyer to appear in court with you one time on a relatively simple matter? Lawyers have different focuses in their practice. Some, for example, have more experience drafting contracts or wills, representing estates or handling personal injury cases, such as car accidents. Many lawyers practice law for a lifetime and never set foot in a courtroom because their work is primarily giving advice. Other lawyers focus on trial work and therefore are comfortable appearing before juries.
How do I find a lawyer?
Finding the right lawyer will require research. But be aware that your legal issue might call for prompt action. Some legal claims have a statute of limitations—the time within which a lawsuit must be filed—or other deadlines that may be critical. In these cases you may only have a limited time to take legal action, so don’t delay.
You might start by consulting the telephone book; talking to friends, neighbors and coworkers who may have used a lawyer for a legal matter similar to yours; or contacting a lawyer referral service. If you already know a lawyer, you can ask that lawyer to refer you to another lawyer who has the background and experience you need.
Remember that phone book listings are paid advertising, and even though there are restrictions on the claims and statements lawyers can make in their ads, advertising in general involves hype and self-promotion. Helpful ads will tell you what types of services the lawyer provides and where the lawyer is located.
The Internet is another source of information about lawyers. Many law firms have Web sites that advertise their services and fees. However, Web searches can turn up too many choices. Narrow your search to lawyers licensed in your state. In most cases, you will want to choose a lawyer who is familiar with the courts and legal community in your geographic area.
A lawyer referral service can be helpful. The Virginia Lawyer Referral Service—operated by the Virginia State Bar—can be reached at 1-800-552-7977 toll-free, or 775-0808 in Richmond. A referral specialist will give you the names and numbers of one or more lawyers in your geographical area who have reported that they perform the type of services that you are seeking. A consultation costs $35 for up to one half hour. If you need more time and want to continue with that lawyer, you then would negotiate further fees. Lawyers who participate in the Virginia Lawyer Referral Service are licensed and in good standing with the bar, and they carry malpractice insurance.
How to choose the right lawyer
Once you’ve made a list of lawyers who may be suitable for your legal issue, contact the Virginia State Bar Clerk’s Office at (804) 775-0539 or the Virginia State Bar website at http://www.vsb.org, to check each lawyer’s disciplinary record. If you call the clerk’s office, ask if the lawyer has ever had any public discipline action taken, when and why. Also, ask if the lawyer has reported that he or she has malpractice insurance. A search on the bar’s Web site will provide the same information.
Select from your list one lawyer with whom you want to meet. Call the lawyer’s office and ask for an initial consultation. Find out if there is a fee involved. Some lawyers offer a free initial consultation of fifteen or thirty minutes. If your initial consultation does not meet your needs, you can schedule another meeting with a different lawyer.
Prepare for the meeting
Prepare for your first meeting with the lawyer. If a lawyer asks to see the papers involved in your case before meeting with you, send or fax the papers as quickly as possible so the lawyer has time to review them before your meeting. Write a short summary of your case, including facts and dates and a list of questions you want answered. During the consultation, ask if the lawyer has handled matters similar to yours before. Is he or she willing to take your case, what services will be provided, and what will the fee and other costs be? Will the lawyer personally handle your case or will other members of the firm be involved? A lawyer should be able to explain the strengths and weaknesses of your case, but be wary of any lawyer who guarantees results. If you don’t understand everything the lawyer tells you, ask for an explanation in simpler terms. Find out how long the lawyer expects your case to take and what may be involved (for example is there trial preparation?). Lastly, do you feel comfortable working with this lawyer?
Lawyers consider several factors in setting their fees. Lawyers who are well-known in a particular area of law might charge more than ones who are not. A higher fee might be preferable if you feel the lawyer’s special skills and experience will yield better and faster results. Lawyers also consider how complicated a case is and the amount of time it will take. A trial may only take a half day, but background research, interviewing witnesses and other trial preparation can take many hours. Sometimes unexpected things occur that complicate the case further and end up resulting in higher legal fees.
There are several different kinds of legal fees:
Hourly fee—The lawyer charges a rate for each hour worked. Many lawyers charge for every fifteen minutes worked, meaning a five-minute phone call might be billed as fifteen minutes of work. Hourly fees may vary drastically from lawyer to lawyer, and are not always indicative of the experience a lawyer has in an area of law. A lawyer with more experience who charges a higher fee might save you money in the long run, because the lawyer can produce the same result in a shorter amount of time.
Fixed or Flat fee—This is usually charged for routine, common legal matters such as wills and trusts or uncontested divorces. If you agree to a fixed-fee service, make sure you find out if there are extra costs for additional services such as clerical assistance or copying.
Contingency fee—This is commonly charged in personal injury, medical malpractice, workers’ compensation and other cases involving a lawsuit for money damages. A contingent fee means that you will pay the lawyer a certain percentage of the money you receive if you win the case or if you settle out of court. If you lose, the lawyer does not receive a contingency fee. However, win or lose, you likely will be required to pay costs of preparing and trying the case, which can be quite high. Sometimes the lawyer may pay those additional costs out of your portion of any settlement or award. Therefore, you need to get an estimate of what the lawyer thinks the court costs and other expenses may be and establish whether the lawyer’s share is paid before or after the other expenses are deducted. Make sure all these obligations are set out in a written fee agreement.
Regardless of the type of fee charged, the fee agreement, or “employment agreement," is a contract between you and the lawyer, and it should be in writing. The agreement should specify exactly what legal services the lawyer is providing for you, as well as the fees and expenses you will be expected to pay. The agreement should also spell out your obligations as a client (for example, you agree to be truthful and cooperative, to abide by the agreement, and to pay your bills on time). The agreement also should explain the lawyer’s billing practices and state whether the lawyer is going to add interest or other charges to unpaid amounts.
Even if your case is unsuccessful and you do not recover any money in a contingent fee case, some lawyers might require you to pay miscellaneous costs, such as a court reporter’s charges for recording testimony at depositions and trial, word processing charges, copying and facsimile charges, expert or consultant fees, filing fees and other court costs, investigator’s fees, postage and courier fees, service of process fees, travel expenses for the lawyer while traveling on your behalf, and witness fees and mileage charges for witnesses who appear at trial or depositions. These are just some examples. You need to find out clearly what expenses the lawyer anticipates will be associated with your legal matter and whether the lawyer expects you to pay these costs directly in advance or if the lawyer will be willing to deduct them from any settlement or verdict in the case. You should ask for an itemized receipt of all fees you pay your lawyer. You can tell your lawyer that all costs over a certain amount you must approve in advance. Also, make sure your lawyer agrees to consult with you before committing to any large expenses or costs, such as hiring an expert witness or consultant.
The agreement should also spell out how the fees are going to be paid. Most clients choose to be billed monthly. Your lawyer may ask you to post a certain amount of money in his or her trust account to start work on your case. Funds held in trust remain your property until the lawyer works on the case and can draw against these funds. The lawyer should provide you monthly statements that itemize time spent on your case and money withdrawn from your account. The lawyer may require you to advance more fees, to be held in trust, as the case progresses.
If you have a billing dispute with your lawyer or you cannot afford to pay your legal bill, contact your lawyer to discuss the problem and try to resolve the issues. Hopefully you can reach agreement or set up an alternative payment arrangement. However, in the event that you cannot, the lawyer may be entitled to stop work on your matter and withdraw as your counsel.
- Choose a lawyer you are comfortable with, and make sure you agree on goals, since you will be working closely together throughout your case.
- Establish approximately how long your case will take and how often the lawyer intends to contact you with updates on your case.
- Provide the lawyer in a timely fashion all the information and documents the lawyer needs or requests.
- Have a written agreement that sets out the fees you will pay, the anticipated costs and a schedule for payment, as well as what services the lawyer will provide.
- Contact your lawyer promptly with questions about your legal matter or any change in circumstances that occurs during the case.
- Be sure that your lawyer communicates with you, keeps you reasonably informed about the status of your matter and responds to your questions.
Virginia State Bar
Eighth & Main Building
707 East Main Street, Suite 1500
Richmond, VA 23219-2800
For assistance in finding a lawyer, contact the
VIRGINIA LAWYER REFERRAL SERVICE
1 (800) 552-7977 (Statewide)
(804) 775-0808 (Richmond, VA)
(804) 775-0502 (Voice/TDD)