When seeking legal aid, as in purchasing any product or service, it's important to be a smart consumer: to be well informed and to know exactly what you are getting for your money. This Financial Guide discusses how to find an attorney who will provide cost-effective help with your legal problems.
Table of Contents
This Financial Guide gives you a roadmap to the process of finding a good lawyer and making sure that the legal services you are getting are cost-effective. Before hiring an attorney, take the following steps.
You hire a lawyer to help you resolve disputes, engage in legal transactions, or assert your legal rights. For certain legally complex or time-consuming disputes or problems, there is no doubt that a lawyer is necessary. For example, if you want a will prepared, or a more complex business deal handled, you will need a lawyer. If a court case is involved (other than a simple, routine matter), you'll almost always need a lawyer. There may, however, be ways to resolve a problem or dispute without the specialized assistance of a lawyer.
In deciding whether to hire a lawyer, consider the following:
Mediation or Arbitration
Dispute resolution centers, located in just about every state throughout the US are used to resolve problems in the areas of consumer complaints, landlord/tenant disputes, and disagreements between neighbors or family members. The names, services, and fees (if any) of the centers vary from place to place, but they generally use two methods to resolve problems: mediation and arbitration. Mediation involves a neutral person who assists the two sides to discuss their differences and possibly reach an agreement. In arbitration, the neutral third party conducts a more formal process and makes a decision (usually written) after listening to both sides.
If both parties can agree to it, using a dispute resolution center or a private mediation center can be a low-cost alternative to bringing a suit in court or hiring an attorney to represent you in a negotiation. In some areas, the court itself may refer certain types of cases to a mediation program.
Small Claims Court
Small claims court may be appropriate if you have a monetary claim for damages within the limits set by your state (usually $1,000 to $5,000). These courts are more informal and involve less paperwork than regular courts. The filing costs are low and the system is faster than the regular court system. If you file in small claims court, be prepared to act as your own attorney, gather the needed evidence, research the law, and present your story in court.
Are you willing to collect information and do research on your own? Is there a time limit on when you must file suit? Ask the small claims court clerk or look it up in your local law library. You must file your case before this time limit (usually within a year). Are you able to prove that the person against whom you are making the claim owes you money? You must be able to prove legal liability and that you have suffered a financial loss as the result of someone else's action.
In deciding whether to use small claims court, check the many "how-to" books in the library for general information. Check with the clerk of small claims court, local consumer agency, or legal aid office for more information in your area.
Once you have decided you need a lawyer, it's time to begin shopping around. The first step is to compile a list of names. The recommendation of someone whose judgment you trust is an excellent place to start your search. You may want to begin by asking relatives, friends, clergy, social workers, or your doctor for recommendations. Often those persons can refer you to someone who has provided similar legal services for them. You need to know more about the lawyer than simply that he or she is a good attorney. Ask those making the recommendation for specific information about the type of legal help the lawyer provided them and how their case was handled.
Bar Association Referral Lists
Many state and local bar associations maintain lawyer referral lists by specialty. A referral service will provide you with the name of an attorney who specializes in the area you need. Keep in mind, however, that a referral is not a recommendation and does not guarantee a level of experience. Bar associations may charge participating lawyers and law firms a fee to be included on the referral list.
Two of the larger lawyer directories are probably available at your local library. Martindale-Hubbell online lists profiles for over one million lawyers and firms in the United States, Canada, and 160 other countries, alphabetically by state and by categories. Each entry has a biography, with information on each lawyer's education, specialty, law firm, and the date of admittance to the bar. It also includes a "rating" based on information supplied by fellow lawyers. The Who's Who in American Law directory lists about 24,000 lawyers and includes biographical notes. However, this directory is somewhat difficult to use because the lawyers are listed alphabetically rather than by state or specific area of expertise.
Many communities also have other lawyer referral services to assist people in finding a lawyer. Often the services are for specific groups such as persons with disabilities, older persons, or victims of domestic violence. Groups that may be good sources for a local referral include the Alzheimer's Association and other support groups for specific diseases, such as Children of Aging Parents, the Older Women's League, the state civil liberties union, a local social services agency, or the local agency on aging.
Other referral services may be financed by a few lawyers who receive all the referrals. Some services may screen the lawyers who wish to have referrals in a particular area.
Lawyers are permitted to advertise within specific guidelines. You will be able to gather some useful information from ads. However, as with any advertisement, take everything with a grain of salt.
Many attorneys specializing in areas of the law in which there may be substantial fees--such as personal injury or medical malpractice--advertise free consultations. Advertisements may list a set fee for a particular type of case. Many attorneys who do not advertise may also provide free consultations or offer set fees for a certain legal problem.
In addition, the court and your banker may be good referral sources. Finally, the yellow pages of the telephone book often list lawyers according to their specialties.
To start the process of hiring a lawyer, call several lawyers to whom you have been referred or about whom you have heard. Ask them the preliminary questions listed below before committing yourself to a consultation. The answers you get will help you choose the two or three lawyers you wish to interview.
Since this is only a preliminary telephone conversation, ask questions that can be answered briefly. Here are some questions to ask:
Follow up your phone calls by scheduling interviews with at least two of the attorneys. Don't feel embarrassed about selecting only the best candidates or canceling appointments with some of the attorneys after you complete all of your exploratory calls.
A personal interview is absolutely necessary. Whether you want a lawyer for a single transaction or over a period of years, you will be sharing details of your life and relying upon this person's expertise and advice. Since the lawyer will act on your behalf, it is critical that you feel comfortable with your attorney and that your will function in an atmosphere of mutual respect. A personal interview is the best way to make this judgment.
Come prepared with a brief summary of your immediate case (including dates and facts) as well as a list of general questions for the attorney.
The purpose of the interview is twofold: (1) to decide if the attorney has the necessary experience and is available to take your case; and, (2) to decide if you are comfortable with the fee arrangement and, most importantly, comfortable working with the attorney.
Since this an initial consultation, it may not be a lengthy one. Be concise and approach the interview in a businesslike manner. Be prepared to take notes, to listen carefully to the attorney, and to make observations about the office and how it is run.
Bring to the interview:
In addition to any unanswered questions from the telephone calls, you may want to consider asking the following questions:
Observe how the attorney responds to your questions. Does he or she seem organized (take notes, etc.)? Respond openly and directly to your questions? Provide you with written background material on the topics of interest to you? Provide clear explanations?
Observe the physical surroundings and office staff. Is the staff friendly? Are they responsive? Do people identify themselves on the telephone so you know to whom you are speaking? Does anyone explain the roles of people with whom you may be dealing? Is the pace frenetic, lackadaisical, or busy in an organized fashion?
Observe your attorney during the preliminary interview to see whether he or she fits the bill:
After the interviews, review your notes. Look at the strengths and weaknesses of each attorney you interviewed. Decide what is most important to you. Factors to consider in choosing an attorney include:
Fees are one of the least discussed parts of any legal case, yet are highly important to both client and lawyer. Frequently fees are not discussed early enough, candidly enough, or in enough detail. Why? Generally, the discussion can be uncomfortable for both parties. However, becoming knowledgeable about the types of fee arrangements can increase your comfort level in dealing with this crucial part of hiring an attorney.
The market rate for any given legal service varies by locality. A "fair" fee is what seems fair to you, based on your knowledge of going rates. Whether you are comfortable with a fee is likely to be based on the following factors:
The fee arrangement you make with your lawyer will significant affect how much you will pay for the services.
Types Of Fee Arrangements
Here are several common types of fee arrangements used by lawyers:
Flat fee. The lawyer will charge you a specific total fee for your case. A flat fee is usually offered only if your case is relatively simple or routine.
Hourly rate. The attorney will charge you for each hour (or a portion of an hour) that he or she works on your case. If your attorney's fee is $100 per hour, and he or she works ten hours, the cost will be $1,000. Some attorneys charge a higher rate for court work and less per hour for research or case preparation.
Large law firms usually charge more than small law firms and urban attorneys often charge more per hour than attorneys practicing in rural areas.
Contingency fee. Under this arrangement, the attorney's fee is based on a percentage of what you are awarded in the case. If you lose the case, the attorney does not get a fee, although you will still have to pay expenses. The contingency fee percentage varies and some lawyers offer a sliding scale based on how far along the case is when it is settled. A one-third fee is common.
A contingency fee is usually found in personal injury cases, accidental claims, property damage cases, or other cases where a large amount of money is involved.
Referral fee. On occasion, an attorney who has accepted your case may refer you to another attorney who specializes in the area you need. Sometimes the first attorney will ask for a portion of the total fee you pay for the case. This "referral fee" may be prohibited under state codes of professional responsibility unless certain rules are followed. The rules usually include a requirement that client fees be split only if each attorney does some work, the client knows about the arrangement, and the total fee is reasonable.
Suggestions for Ensuring Cost Effectiveness
It is important to remember that a lawyer's fees are often negotiable. Your lawyer is unlikely to invite you to bargain over fees, and you may not want to bring the subject up. Keep in mind, however, that there are some situations in which attorneys are more likely to consider a lower fee. If your case is interesting, unique, or extremely lucrative, an attorney may be willing to negotiate. If the firm is actively seeking more work or is new to your locality, it may handle a case for less as a way to build its caseload.
There are two general situations in which you may wish to raise the issue of lower fees. First, if your case has the possibility of significant attorney's fees, you are in a stronger position if you are willing to shop around and to negotiate. It's wise to negotiate, for example, in personal injury cases. Most lawyers will propose a standard contingency fee for one-third of any damages that they win for you, nothing if they lose.
It makes sense to sit down with several different lawyers before choosing one. Ask each to assess the merits of the case and the likelihood that you will receive money if you are successful. The consultations will be free and you will come away with a more realistic sense of what fee arrangements you should agree to. Generally, the higher the likelihood of success in a case, the lower the contingency percentage you may be able to negotiate. Some clients also prefer to pay their lawyers on a sliding scale, for example, 33 percent for the first $100,000 in damages, 25 percent for the next $100,000, and 15 percent above that.
You may be able to negotiate other arrangements that will save you money, including flat fees instead of hourly charges, hourly rates up to a prearranged maximum for the entire project, and fees based partly on the outcome.
Comparison Shop for Flat Fees on Simple Cases
When you need a simple transaction like a will, a real estate closing, or a power of attorney, you can comparison shop. Contracting for legal services is like any other consumer transaction in that the prices and the work product vary. Call several attorneys and compare their answers to the questions listed above. Only after you get a sense of the range of fees will you be able to determine which rate and which attorney best suit you and your budget.
Ask About Billing Method for Hourly Rates
A written agreement specifying the fee arrangement and the work involved is the best way of assuring clear communication between you and your attorney about the total cost of the case.
Choose a Lawyer with the Appropriate Qualifications
Most legal work is relatively routine. It often has little to do with complex legal theory or analysis, and much more to do with knowing which form to fill out and which county clerk will process it most quickly. Smaller firms, attorneys charging lower rates, and less experienced attorneys are often well suited for the broad range of legal work needed by many consumers. Recently graduated attorneys may offer to work for a somewhat lower price to compensate for the extra risk and time involved in becoming familiar with the specific area of law. Lawyers who charge $300 an hour and up are appropriate for very sophisticated trusts and estate work, corporate litigation, or complex criminal defense work.
Offer to Perform Some of the Work
Discuss ways that you can help the attorney on the case. For example, if the attorney needs copies of birth certificates or other records, you can write the letter to request them and save your attorney the time needed to dictate and process the letter.
Splitting the work with an attorney also can cut the cost of writing a will or health-care power of attorney or setting up a trust. You can draft the document, using a standard form as a guide, and then present it to your lawyer for reviewing and finalizing the work. Make sure that your attorney is willing to do this kind of work and discuss the fee if major rewriting is needed.
Hire the Attorney to Act as Go-Between
Some lawyers are open to negotiating a lower fee if you are only looking for their legal expertise to write a letter to the other side to settle. You may wish to hire the attorney for this type of limited assistance initially and follow up yourself. If you are unsuccessful, you may wish to retain the attorney to further pursue the case.
Hire the Attorney to Act as Your Pro Se Coach
If you want to represent yourself in court (called "appearing pro se"), hire your attorney to act as a pro se coach who will review documents and letters that you prepare and sign. The attorney may also help you prepare for a hearing in which you represent yourself. This might be appropriate when appearing in small claims court to enforce a lease or collect bills owed to you, for example.
Not all attorneys will be comfortable in this role, but some, especially in smaller firms, may be interested in empowering consumers.
Choose a Lawyer Who Specializes in What You Need
You are likely to save money by choosing someone who has the knowledge and office systems set up to handle cases like yours cost-effectively. That attorney is also more likely to be knowledgeable about specific procedures relating to your case, expert witnesses in the area, and other attorney experts for consultation.
Prepare for Your Attorney Meetings
Come prepared with all of the necessary information and papers. Ask questions to make sure that you are providing everything the attorney needs. Think about your legal problem and gather the information your attorney will need. Write down the names, addresses, and phone numbers of other people involved in the case. Write down the important events or facts. Bring any relevant papers such as contracts, letters, court notices, or leases. Keep copies of this information and provide it to your attorney. The more work you do to prepare, the less time your attorney needs to spend and charge you for finding the information.
Answer Your Attorney's Questions Fully
Your communications to your attorney are confidential. Pay close attention to the questions your attorney asks you and offer complete and honest answers. If you are not sure if a piece of information is relevant, ask your attorney. If your attorney knows all the facts as early as possible in the case, it will save time and money that might be spent later on further investigation or misdirected case development.
If the Situation Changes, Tell Your Attorney as Soon as Possible
You are the primary source of information about your case and your attorney will act based on the information you have provided. If something happens or if you find out new information which may affect your case, give the information to your attorney quickly. It may change what he or she is doing on your case. It may save the attorney's time and your money or save the attorney from heading in the wrong direction on a case.
Maximize the Value of Your Contacts with Your Attorney
Keep in mind that you will pay for virtually every minute you spend with your attorney. Consolidate your questions or information-giving into a single call. Pass on information in writing or to other office staff rather than speaking directly with the attorney, unless you have a specific reason to do so.
Examine Your Bill
Request that your attorney bill you on a regular basis. Even if you have agreed on a contingency fee and will not actually pay the expenses until the case is settled, you should periodically examine the expenses. Question any items that you do not understand or that are not covered in your fee agreement.
In films or television, a client simply tells the attorney of the problem and the attorney, without regard for expenses or further consultation, solves the case. In real life, a partnership is necessary. You must state, at the outset, your expectations on how much you want the attorney to consult with you and which decisions (if any) he or she can make without consulting you. You must also discuss the details of your legal costs in the case.
There are many variations of the attorney-client relationship, from full representation to having the attorney act as a "pro se coach."
The bottom line is that the outcome of the case affects you much more than it affects your attorney. No matter what role you envision for your attorney, you should be the decision-maker on all major points in your case. An attorney is hired for his or her experience on legal procedures and familiarity with the appropriate court system, but the more fully informed you are, the better prepared you will be to make the necessary key decisions and to oversee the work of your attorney.
At a minimum, educate yourself about the general area of law relevant to your case by reviewing one of the many self-help legal manuals and gathering information from the attorney interviews you conduct. You can find out about courtroom procedures from staff at the court (although they may be reluctant), legal aid staff, or the law library or your public library.
Further, you can support the attorney by gathering documents and performing other agreed upon tasks. It may be wise both financially and in terms of your staying involved in the case for you to undertake certain tasks to support the work on your case. There are various tasks in the development of any case which do not require specialized legal expertise, e.g., compiling information, researching regulations or company policy, obtaining birth certificates or other documents, or reviewing the factual portions of documents prepared for court.
In making the decision about the degree of your involvement, ask yourself the following questions:
You will need to have a clear agreement with your attorney about your relative roles and expectations. On one hand, your involvement should not hinder the attorney from exercising the expertise for which you hired the attorney. On the other, all options should be explained to you in clear language. Ask questions about the relative merits of a proposed step until you understand it.
Be wary of an attorney who makes strategic decisions without you, or who presents a proposed next step as necessary without explaining its merits and costs.
Here is a list of questions to be addressed, which can serve as a guideline:
Many attorneys who specialize in the elder law area are familiar with the other professionals (such as ombudsmen, social workers, geriatric care managers, or other elder care professionals) who can provide related services to older people. They may also be trained in the mental and physical effects of the normal aging process.
What Elder Law Includes
The broad range of legal areas covered by "elder law" includes:
Today most lawyers limit their practices to a few areas such as domestic relations, criminal law, personal injury, estate planning and probate, real estate, or tax issues. Even attorneys who list themselves as elder law specialists are unlikely to be expert in all the areas detailed above.
Do You Need An Elder Law Specialist?
The answer depends on your situation. If you already have a good working relationship with an attorney, discuss your particular legal needs with that attorney. Ask about your lawyer's experience in the issues typical of elder law. If the attorney is experienced in the areas of most concern to you, it is unlikely you will wish to go elsewhere. If the attorney is unfamiliar with elder law issues, ask the attorney for a referral or visit the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) website (more information below).
Another reason you may want to seek out an elder law specialist is that finding the best solution is likely to involve a variety of other professionals such as physicians, home care agency workers, geriatric care managers, bank officers, and long-term care ombudsmen. An attorney familiar with this network can be very helpful. If needed, the attorney can act as a legal representative (fiduciary) if a client becomes incapacitated. Elder law specialists may work closely with financial planners, social workers, or geriatric care managers. This can be an advantage for many clients as a number of elder law issues involve both legal and non-legal solutions.
The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) is a nonprofit professional association of attorneys specializing in legal issues affecting older persons. NAELA is not a legal referral service; however, it does sell a registry listing over 4,200 member attorneys nationwide ($25 including shipping and handling). National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA),1577 Spring Hill Rd., Suite 220, Vienna, VA 22182. Telephone: 703-942-5711
The Area Agency on Aging
The Older Americans Act (OAA) requires your state office on aging to fund a local Area Agency on Aging (AAA) program that provides free legal help on non-criminal matters to people age 60 and over. Most of the over 385 local AAAs in 41 states set aside funds to provide free legal assistance for those older persons who are in the greatest social and economic need.
OAA legal services advocates provide representation in court or at administrative hearings, community education, and self-help publications. The OAA programs offer other types of assistance and services as well. For example, an advocate may assist an older person with a food stamp appeal and arrange for transportation to a nutrition site. The OAA legal services programs do a great deal of outreach to the community. Some attorneys spend as much as half of their time speaking at senior centers or visiting people in their own homes.
There are no income guidelines that clients must meet in order to qualify for services. However, the legal services provider and the Area Agency on Aging may set priorities about the preferred type of representation, such as obtaining government benefits and may not be able to provide help in cases the agency considers to be a lower priority.
There is no cost to eligible clients. OAA legal services providers handle civil (not criminal) matters for people age 60 or older regardless of income. Local offices set priorities for the types of cases they will handle. Not all cases can be handled.
Programs or offices providing free legal help to older persons can be identified by calling your local Area Agency on Aging listed in the government section of the telephone directory.
A national directory of OAA legal services providers (entitled Law & Aging Resource Guide) lists a state-by-state breakdown of the addresses and phone numbers of each office and is available from the American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging, 740 15th Street, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20005-1022. Telephone: 202-662-8690. Website: www.americanbar.org
Other Sources of Legal Assistance For Senior Citizens
There are a number of sources of legal help for elderly people:
The Administration on Aging, headquartered in Washington, D.C. has a number of regional offices that offer legal help for the elderly:
Region I- CT, MA, ME, NH, RI, VT: (617) 565-1158
The National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care (formerly the NCCNHR (National Citizens' Coalition for Nursing Home Reform) can locate an ombudsman in your area and provide general information on nursing homes.
The Consumer Voice, 1001 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 425, Washington, DC 20036
In this section, we list publications helpful to those trying to find a lawyer and lists of sources for legal services for seniors and low-income people.
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