Finding the Right Lawyer

Tips on finding and choosing the right attorney for your case and your needs.

A lawyer can provide peace of mind in many ways: by protecting your property, navigating through bureaucracy, or representing your interests in a courtroom. But with so many attorneys to choose from, how do you know which lawyer is right for you? Here are some tips on how to start.

Do you need a lawyer close to home?

The wider you throw your net, the better your chances of landing the right lawyer. In today’s world of email, overnight deliveries, and faxes, you don’t always need a lawyer within driving distance. For example, you can hire any lawyer licensed to practice in your state when preparing or negotiating contracts, forming a corporation or LLC, or planning an estate. You can look even farther when dealing with matters regulated by the federal government—for example, immigration cases, copyright, patent, aviation, or maritime disputes. You may feel more comfortable with someone you consult face-to-face, but it isn’t a necessity if your only concern is getting competent legal work.

The location of your attorney does matter if you’re in court or headed there. In that case, you’ll need a lawyer who practices within the court’s jurisdiction—that is, the geographic area over which the court has control. In cases that involve the courts, like a personal injury or bankruptcy case, you'll want a local lawyer. Practicing in proximity to the court also helps because the attorney may be familiar with courthouse personnel and procedures.

Making a short list of candidates

It’s best to talk to two or three lawyers before deciding which one you want to hire. If you find some likely prospects through Nolo’s Lawyer Directory, or another directory, read their profiles—they should give you a good feeling for what each lawyer would be like to work with. You can get an idea both of a lawyer’s experience and philosophy, to see who might be a good fit with you. If you get lawyers’ names from the phone book or an online search, try to talk to people who know or have worked with the lawyer so you can find out a little about the lawyer before going further.

What to ask a prospective attorney

Once you have a list of a few possible lawyers, speak to each one over the phone or in person, with some preliminary questions. You may find it helpful to write down your questions, and take notes on the answers; it’s easy to forget something you wanted to ask and even easier to forget what a lawyer said in reply. Or if you prefer, ask the lawyer if you can email your questions.

Here are some questions to start with:

What experience do you have in this area? Whether it’s filing for bankruptcy, bringing a car accident claim, assisting in adoption, or drafting a prenuptial agreement, you want an attorney with experience in your specific type of legal matter. Most lawyers specialize in a few areas of law.

How long will it take? A good attorney should be able to give you an idea of how long your matter will take—for example, “These types of cases usually don’t last more than a year. In rare cases they can drag on for two or three years.” Or, if your job involves more paperwork than courtroom drama, the lawyer may tell you, “I’ll need to gather some information from you, which should take no more than a month, and then I can have your final documents ready to sign in another month”

What are my prospects? Attorneys can’t predict outcomes, but a good attorney should be able to assess and express your odds of success in some way—for example, “You have a fair-to-good chance of winning your lawsuit,” or “It’s more than likely that the government will grant your patent.” This question should also pave the way to discussing how you want to pursue the matter—how much time and money are you willing to spend on it, and what’s the result you’re determined to get?

What will you need from me? Often, an attorney needs you to supply specific information and documentation. Asking early guarantees you sufficient time to prepare.

What should I expect to pay for your services? An attorney should be able to estimate the fees for the work and explain any additional costs—for example, “The fees for these cases are usually $2,000 to $4,000 and you should expect to pay at least $1,000 in filing fees and discovery costs.” If you don’t understand how the attorney plans to bill your case, keep asking until you get an answer you understand.

Do I have to go to court? A lawsuit isn’t the only way to solve a dispute, and often it isn’t the best way. You may be able to save money, time, and angst by steering your case into mediation (where a trained third party helps you negotiate a solution) or arbitration (where a private judge decides your case) instead of court.

Is there any way I can lower the fees? It’s always worth asking. There may be some aspect of the work that the attorney can delegate to you. If you want to do the bulk of the work, the attorney may be willing to merely coach you through the process, guiding you but not taking on the whole matter.

For some example scenarios and tips for negotiating a contingency fee, see this page.

What you’re looking for

There’s no one ideal lawyer—you need someone who has the legal skills you need and also the people skills that make a productive working relationship possible. Look for someone who:

  • answers your questions. Don’t choose an attorney who dismisses your questions with, “Trust me, I know what I’m doing.” If you can’t get a straight answer before you hire the attorney, you’ll probably have a hard time getting a straight answer later.
  • focuses on you. If you are not getting the attorney’s full attention—for example, it’s obvious she’s working on the computer while talking on the phone to you—find another lawyer. Like any service provider, your lawyer should treat you respectfully.
  • is easy to reach. One of the most common complaints about attorneys is that they don’t return calls or are hard to get hold of. If you run into this during the preliminary screening, don’t hire the attorney.
  • doesn’t pressure you into making a quick hiring decision. You may need an attorney quickly, but that doesn’t mean you should act impulsively. It’s a buyer’s market for legal services—the U.S. has more lawyers per person than any nation on earth—and you have your pick among many qualified attorneys.
  • feels ‘right’ to you. If there’s something about an attorney that’s off-putting and you can’t put your finger on it, avoid the lawyer. It’s true that your lawyer doesn’t have to be your friend, but your attorney will be your voice—maybe in court, in contract negotiations, or in preparing an estate planning strategy—and should represent you in a way you feel comfortable with.

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