Hiring a lawyer is one of the most important decisions you can make. With your money, business, freedom or ability to stay in the country at risk, it pays to do your research. The five questions below will help you decide which attorney to hire. . . and which ones you should run from.
QUESTION # 1: Do you have a law license in the state I live in or where my business is located?
Sounds like a common sense question, but you’d be surprised by how many people fail to check if the attorney they have hired is licensed to practice law in their state. The first step you should take before you hire a lawyer is to go to the website of your state’s bar and check to see if the lawyer has a license to practice law in your state. For example, the Virginia bar (www.vsb.org) has a “Lawyer Directory” that lets you enter a lawyer’s name and find out if they are licensed to practice law in Virginia.
Many times clients will hear from friends or family members that their immigration filing can be handled by a notario or they can form their corporation or LLC with the help of an accountant. Notarios and accountants are not lawyers and can do more harm than good. The areas of immigration law and corporate law are very complex and it takes a lawyer with legal training and experience to handle your matter correctly and make sure you do not get deported or your corporate formation documents rejected.
So now that you’ve checked to see if the attorney you’ve hired is licensed in your state, you may think you’re done with your research. Not quite.
Here’s a SECRET you may not know: the attorney you hire to do your legal work may have a license to practice law in your state but may have never gone to law school and may have never passed the bar exam in your state. How is this possible?
Most states require a person to graduate from an accredited law school before taking the bar exam. However, a handful of states, including Virginia, allow a person who has never gone to law school to take the bar exam. These individuals are only required to have worked with an actively practicing lawyer for a certain number of months before taking the bar exam. These individuals never get the benefits that law school provides, such as learning proper legal research and writing skills and effective oral argument techniques. Yet they can still take the bar exam and receive a license to practice law!
There are still other attorneys who took the bar exam in one state, practiced law in that state for a number of years, then were admitted to the bar in a second state without having to take the second state’s bar exam. These attorneys are not necessarily familiar with the specific state laws in the second state, yet can still practice law there legally.
Before hiring a lawyer, ask him or her what law school they went to and whether they took the bar exam in your state or if they were admitted to your state’s bar after practicing in another state. After all, do you really want an attorney who never went to law school and never took the bar exam in your state to handle your important legal matter?
Question #2: What area of law do you specialize in?
If an attorney tells you they handle everything from personal injury cases, to drunk driving charges, immigration filings, securities matters and tax law issues, you should stand up from your chair and begin slowly backing out of their office. Why? Because no attorney can possibly be an “expert” in so many areas of law.
It takes years of handling the same types of legal matters over and over before a lawyer can possibly be considered an “expert” or “specialist.” Taking on every legal matter that comes across their desk is a sign of an attorney who cares only about making money and is not worried about getting a good result for the client.
Here’s a SECRET to figuring out how experienced an attorney is in your specific legal matter – ask them “How many times have you handled my specific legal matter?” Don’t settle for a vague response. This is your money you are going to be using to pay the lawyer’s fees. Ask for specifics and what the outcomes of the cases were.
Another danger to watch out for is a new attorney who has just gotten their law license. The economic downturn has resulted in many law school graduates who cannot get a job with a big law firm, so they decide to start their own law firm fresh out of law school. These attorneys have not had the benefit of working with more experienced attorneys to learn the best and most efficient way to handle a legal issue. They want you to be their guinea pig. Please don’t pay to be someone’s guinea pig. Pick a lawyer with experience in your type of legal issue.
Question #3: What is the size of your law firm?
The size of a law firm is another very important part of choosing a lawyer. Bigger law firms are better for some matters, while smaller law firms work better for other matters.
Let’s look at the example of a large bank looking to acquire another bank. In such a complex legal matter, the bank would need many experts, from banking regulation attorneys to securities attorneys to tax law attorneys, so a big law firm with all of these lawyers under one roof would be the best choice.
However for smaller businesses and individual clients, a large firm can do more harm than good for several reasons.
First, a large law firm will not necessarily give the same type of attention to a small business or individual that they would give to a big, multi-million dollar bank or corporation. A small client’s business is not worth as much to the big law firm, so phone calls and emails will not be responded to as quickly and if the firm’s bigger clients are particularly busy, you may have to wait days or weeks before the firm can handle your legal matter.
Second, unless you are a big, multi-million dollar bank or corporation, you likely will not have your work done by the partner you hired. This is a dirty SECRET of most big law firms – they never have your work directly handled by a partner unless you’re a huge client. Instead, they pawn your legal matter off to a junior associate who is many times fresh out of law school and has never handled your type of legal issue before. Why should a law firm train their new attorneys on your dime? Always ask “Will I be working with an experienced partner or a junior attorney?” before you hire a large law firm to handle your legal issue.
Third, a large law firm has a lot of bills to pay: rent for multiple offices, secretaries/paralegals/docketing clerks/word processors, salaries of junior attorneys, etc. This translates to bigger fees for the same work that could have been done less expensively by a smaller firm with as much, if not more, experience in your type of legal matter.
Question #4: Do you charge by the hour or offer flat fees for certain matters?
For some legal matters, such as a criminal trial or patent prosecution case, attorneys almost always charge by the hour because it is difficult to predict how long it will take to resolve these matters. However, for things such as reviewing a commercial lease, forming a corporation/LLC or many immigration filings, experienced attorneys will offer their services on a flat fee basis. This is because the amount of time and work involved in these types of matters can usually be predicted. Always ask your attorney if your legal matter can be handled on a flat fee basis.
Question #5: Do you require a signed fee agreement or engagement letter?
Every ethical attorney will require a signed fee agreement or engagement letter. This is to protect both the attorney and the client. The fee agreement or engagement letter should set out what legal matter the attorney is handling for you and how much they will charge per hour or what flat fee they are charging for handling the matter.
If an attorney tells you they do not do signed fee agreements or engagement letters or says they’re not necessary, you should run the other way. . . fast.
BONUS QUESTION - What is your policy on returning phone calls and emails?
The most common complaint that state bar authorities receive about attorneys is that they failed to answer a client’s phone calls or emails in a timely manner. A good rule of thumb is when you contact your lawyer for a non-emergency issue, you should receive some type of response by the close of the next business day. For times that your lawyer is out of the office, you should be provided the contact information of someone who you can contact with any urgent issues.