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How do I find a good attorney? What questions should I ask, and what should I look for? Are big firms better?

I am in trouble, and need to find a good lawyer. There are so many in the phone book and on the Web. How do I find a good one?

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Highlights

  • Learn what steps to take to find the right attorney.
  • Review some key questions to ask an attorney before hiring one.
  • Check with more than one attorney, to compare services.

Finding an attorney is easy. Finding the right attorney is hard. There are at least a half-dozen Web site directories that allow consumers to search for lawyers in their area by specialty. The Web sites are a great idea in theory, but a consumer still needs to do their own homework.

Why? Not all consumers know exactly what legal issues are involved in their case, and most of the information provided in an attorney's profile was self-generated.

In my experience in viewing the profiles and consumer ratings of attorneys I know, the ratings are wildly inaccurate because the sample size of user-reported ratings is tiny. Also, one frustrated consumer who did not receive the answer they wanted in an hour-long meet-and-greet holds as much sway as a client who has a decade-long relationship with an attorney that has included dozens of transactions. Take online attorney ratings with a grain of salt. Therefore, work from a checklist when shopping for a lawyer, and be ruthless and clinical in your search.

Working the Web

The practice of law is very competitive. Some attorneys work in large firms that employ hundreds of attorneys. Gravitate towards a large firm if you have a complicated case that may involve multiple issues. However, if your case is simple -- for example you are sued for a credit card debt or want to create an estate plan -- then a sole practitioner will probably give you excellent, personalized service.

Start your search at Lawyers.com, Avvo, Findlaw, Martindale-Hubbell, NACA.net, or LawGuru. (See links to another below.) My favorite places to look are state bar Web sites. California's State Bar Web site, for example, contains lists of state bar certified specialists, who have passed State Bar tests in their area to earn the right to be considered a specialist in a particular area of law. That is not to suggest that every consumer needs to find a state-certified specialist to answer their needs, but certification may be a consideration if your issues are complicated.

If you have a tax issue, see the Bills.com resource Tax Attorney Information, which outlines how to find a tax specialist.

Ask your friends and family for recommendations. Make a list of two or three candidates, and call their offices. Ask if the attorney has a policy of meeting with a potential client for 30-60 minutes so that you can ask questions, describe your case, and determine if there is a good match. If the attorney does not, then cross him or her off your list and move on.

Eight questions to ask an attorney candidate

Interviewing an attorney is easy if you know what to ask.

What is your experience in this area?

If an attorney is presenting him or herself as an expert in a certain area, then it is fair to ask how much experience he or she has. That is not to suggest that you should not consider an inexperienced attorney -- they all start without experience. However, attorney's have a duty of competency, and if the candidate is inexperienced ask how they will make themselves competent for your case.

What are the possible results of my case?

If the attorney is cautious and circumspect about the outcome of your case and makes a long speech about multiple possible what-ifs, then you have a good candidate. If the attorney makes bold predictions and guarantees victory, then cross that candidate off of your list. No attorney can predict the future. All cases are unique, and the more complicated the facts the more difficult it is to predict an outcome.

What are my alternatives?

Again, like above, if the candidate launches into a litany of what-ifs and you-could-do-this scenarios, then you have a good candidate who demonstrates mental agility and flexibility. Beware the attorney who presents one solution to your issue -- he or she may not be a creative thinker if that is what your case requires.

How long will it take to resolve my case?

This is a trick question. What you are really asking the candidate to do is explore all of your options. You may not understand all of the options he or she relates, but what you are testing is the thought process. Also, this question gauges how busy the attorney is at the moment. You may have an issue that does not require immediate attention. Some do.

What are your rates?

Some attorneys are super-stars who can demand high fees. Some are content to charge a lower rate. Marquee criminal defense attorneys earn high rates because they are worth it. On the other hand, a green attorney straight out of law school working in a small town should charge an entry-level hourly rate.

What is your estimate for the total bill, including fees and expenses?

Like automobile mechanics, some cases are handled on a time and materials basis. If you have an unusual case (like an unusual repair on a car), expect to pay the "shop rate." If your case is routine, such as an estate plan, bankruptcy, or traffic violation, many attorney's work for a fixed fee.

What is your negotiating style -- aggressive or problem-solving?

If your opponent is an aggressive adversary, then you probably need an attorney who can go toe-to-toe with tough negotiators. On the other hand, aggressive negotiators are not always effective if subtlety is required. If your case is complex and full of gray areas, then an attorney predisposed to problem-solving is what you need.

Who else in the office will be working on my case?

Paralegals are unsung heroes in most law offices. An attorney candidate who has an experienced staff and speaks highly of them is an excellent candidate. A candidate who glosses over his or her staff's credentials and instead spends time touting his or her abilities is one to be wary of.

Do not be impressed by a fancy office -- you are renting the attorney's mind and not his or her office furniture. Conversely, there is an emerging trend among attorneys to work virtually, so do not be surprised if one or more of your candidates does not work from a traditional office.

Before settling on an attorney, point your browser to your state bar's Web site. Many state bars post basic information about the attorney's licensed to practice law in the state. Beware of an attorney with a record of numerous ethics violations regarding client funds or misconduct.

Legal Aid

What do you do if need an attorney but cannot afford one? Call your county bar association and ask for the name of the local organization that provides free or low-cost services to low- and no-income people in your area. The name of the organization may be something like "Legal Aid of (your area)" If you have no means to pay for legal services, what you seek is called pro bono work in the legal trade.

Make an appointment with your local legal aid organization, and bring all of the letters, documents, forms, and contracts regarding your legal issue to your appointment. An attorney or paralegal will give you advice according to your exact situation and state law.

I hope this information helps you Find. Learn & Save.

Best,

Bill

Bills.com

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