Expertise in Your Area of Law
Many lawyers choose to focus their practice on two or three areas of law and don't know much about other areas beyond what they learned in law school. Fortunately, if a lawyer does not generally practice in the area of law that you are concerned about, he or she will usually let you know so as not to waste your time. But It's helpful to ask up front about what practice areas a potential lawyer focuses on, and what proportion of his or her time is dedicated to that practice area. For example, a copyright lawyer likely wouldn't be able to assist you with recovering medical expenses after a traumatic car accident. Note, however, that it might be difficult to determine which practice area your situation belongs in, so be prepared to give a short summary of your facts when searching for a lawyer so he or she can try to determine that for himself or herself. Also, note that some jurisdictions restrict a lawyer's ability to advertise a "specialty."
Despite a lawyer's best efforts to negotiate with the other side to come to a resolution (and 95% of cases are settled outside of the courtroom), sometimes, it's unavoidable that a case ends up in court. When it does, you want to have a lawyer who has courtroom experience: he or she should be knowledgeable, professional, confident, eloquent, and charismatic. Because lawyers often differentiate themselves as either litigation or transactional lawyers, you want to make sure that, if your case has a chance of ending up in court, you've chosen a lawyer who is a litigator--confident that he or she can handle the courtroom, with the experience and resources to do so.
Number of Ongoing Cases
When inquiring about a lawyer's expertise in an area of law, you can also try to determine how many ongoing cases a lawyer has at the time. While a strict number is not especially helpful because different lawyers define what is "ongoing" differently, you want to get a sense of how busy a lawyer is. If the lawyer is not busy enough, that could be a signal that the lawyer does not have enough experience in the area that you need. Conversely, if the lawyer is too busy, he or she might not have enough time to dedicate to your case. Nonetheless, if a lawyer has a healthy number of cases and manages to respond to and update you in a timely manner about your case,then you've found someone with a good balance.
Although a lawyer may explain what proper courtroom attire is to a client, here, style refers to a lawyer's general compatibility with you. Does your lawyer understand your situation? Can he or she match or complement or intensity or shyness? Does your lawyer even speak the same language as you? While it is important to trust that your lawyer knows best in terms of how to handle the situation, it is also important that you get along with him or her and can work together to resolve your case.
Lawyers charge fees using different methods. Ask your lawyer how he or she charges and what is included in the fee. Some common options include the following: (1) Hourly: all legal work done is charged by the hour (or proportion thereof) and billed to the client. This is common in trial work or in practice areas in which the amount of work that needs to be done is hard to predict. (2) Flat fee: The client pays a flat fee up front, and the fee covers the lawyer's work to completion. This type of fee is usually only possible in practice areas in which the amount of work is highly predictable. For example, some simple uncontested divorces, preparation of wills, etc., might have flat fees. (3) Contingency fee: The client pays only if the lawyer wins the case. Typically, the fee is a proportion of the amount won (usually 25-40%). This fee is commonly found in personal injury cases and is how a plaintiff's lawyer would charge.
Professional Memberships and History
While a lawyer who is working in your jurisdiction likely already has the credentials to practice law there, it's helpful to check. To do so, contact the local lawyer-regulating authority: in the U.S., that would be the state bar association; in Canada, that would be the provincial law society. Ask them about the lawyer's admission date and disciplinary history. Note that some legal practice areas and some courts may require additional credentials: for example, federal courts in the U.S. may require additional certification; also, some types of cases (e.g. patent law, death penalty, etc.) may require additional certification.
Part of the successful practice of law is about who a lawyer knows. That's because a lawyer's business is built on his or her reputation. Unlike on TV, lawyers are generally friendly with each other and try to help each other out. And often, lawyers often seek help from each other because it is always helpful to bounce ideas off each other and get second opinions when handling a case with plenty at stake. That's why it's important to find a lawyer who is respected in the community who knows other lawyers; that way, if your lawyer stumbles upon something he or she needs clarification on, he or she has a network to rely on. Also, a lawyer's reputation and professionalism are crucial if he or she has to convince the other side's lawyer to accept a settlement or he or she has to convince the judge to sign off on something.