What People Don’t Know (But Should) About Hiring A Lawyer
(or, “How To Avoid Getting Ripped Off”)
I’ve worked in a lot of firms and spent lots of time in other lawyer’s offices. Here’s a few tips for what to look for when deciding which lawyer to hire. First, before the appointment, do your homework. You need to find out . . .
Has your lawyer ever been disciplined by the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility?
Go to the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility’s website and look up your lawyer’s name under the search “Check Public Discipline for an Attorney.”
What do people have to say about your lawyer online?
There are lots of websites that have reviews of attorneys, such as AVVO, LawyerRatingz, and the Yellow Pages. You can even find lawyers on Craigs List. You can also get a sense by simply googling his/her name.
At your first appointment, obviously, you are going to talk about your legal problem. But you should also get to know the lawyer’s style. So, be sure to . . .
Take a look at the office: Your lawyer’s office should look like work is getting done. If the office is too messy, then your lawyer is over-worked and likely disorganized. If it’s too clean and fancy, it means your lawyer is making lots of money, but isn’t spending enough time actually doing work. Don’t forget: your money is paying for that office. How much do you want to spend on your lawyer’s office?
Ask the right questions:
1. Does your lawyer keep a trust account?
We are required to. If your lawyer looks at you blankly or says anything other than, “of course I do,” run away. For anything other than a “flat fee” case, we are required to put any money you pay us up front into an IOLTA trust account. And by the way: beware the flat fee. If a lawyer charges a flat fee, the incentive is to maximize profit margins by doing as little actual work on your case as possible. You want your divorce lawyer to actually work your file. That means paying them an hourly rate.
2. Does your lawyer bill to the tenth of the hour?
Some lawyers bill to the tenth of the hour; some bill in quarter hour increments. At $300/hour, that’s a big difference. For example, I’d charge you $30 to respond to your email - that’s bad enough. But a lawyer who charges by the quarter hour would have charged you $75 for the same email.
3. Does your lawyer have a written contract?
Don’t hire a lawyer without one. Otherwise, how will you know what s/he’s doing, and what you are being charged for?
4. How many cases does your lawyer have open?
We should know the answer. If we don’t, find another lawyer. The most common and serious complaints from clients are that lawyers don’t keep their case moving, don’t return their calls, or that they “sell out” the client. All of these complaints arise about lawyers who take too many cases; who take all comers, then just work through the files based on which one is going to make them the most money, or which one is going to cost them a malpractice lawsuit if they don’t do the work. The result is that much client work goes undone for years. At our firm, we stay very busy with only forty cases per lawyer. If your lawyer has more than that, then expect that you aren’t going to get their attention until the crisis happens, and maybe not even then.
5. How often does your lawyer handle your type of case? Experience counts.
After the appointment, ask yourself . . .
1. How many interruptions did you have during your initial consultation?
You just scheduled an appointment with your lawyer. Did you get her undivided attention? Or was s/he being harassed constantly by staff wanting to ask a question, or the phone ringing all the time? In a well-run law office, staff knows their job well enough to leave your lawyer alone long enough to give you undivided attention. A lawyer’s phone doesn’t ring if s/he’s on top of the case; instead, s/he’s the one making the calls. The most important thing is for you to have your lawyer’s attention. Don’t hire one that got interrupted all the time - it’s only going to be worse when you aren’t looking.
2. When you asked the lawyer a question, did you understand the answer?
You wouldn’t be hiring a lawyer if you understood what you needed to do. On the other hand, this is your life. You have a right to understand everything your lawyer is doing and why. If you ask a question, and they blow you off, or tell you “just trust me” without further comment, chances are you aren’t going to get the kind of detailed attention your problem deserves.