We have all heard the lawyer jokes, haven’t we? Ones like “How can you tell when a lawyer is lying? His lips are moving!” Well, as funny as that one is, it’s not a laughing matter when you actually need an attorney to help you in real personal or business matters. Whether it’s to prepare your will, make estate plans, resolve a tax issue, handle a personal injury claim, evict a tenant, draw up a business contract, defend against a civil lawsuit, or even handle a criminal proceeding, lawyers are invaluable professionals in navigating the complex legal maze and protecting your rights.
The interesting part of needing the help of a good lawyer is that most of us really don’t know where to look or even begin. Unless you’re someone who has unfortunately dealt with lots of legal issues, you may think you can just look in the yellow pages, run a quick search on the internet or call some number you see advertised on TV. That’s probably not the best idea. But there are some ways you can find a lawyer who will meet your needs and become a real asset to you.
I am ashamed to admit that 20 years ago, I actually did use the yellow pages to find a divorce attorney. I lived to regret being so cavalier about that decision and once again, making a big mistake taught me an important lesson. I finally discharged him and was able to get a fair settlement in the end with someone else protecting my interests. There are definitely better ways to obtain a good attorney.
How to Find the Right Lawyer for Your Needs
Check with your employer to see if they have an EAP plan
That’s an Employee Assistance Program which can aid you in finding many things including legal help. This is particularly good for simple procedures like writing a basic will or power of attorney or for confusing situations when you don’t even know what type of lawyer you need to consult. Usually there is a free 30-minute consultation for you to check out the situation and get some free advice. There may even be pro bono help available for you (free services).
Ask family and friends for a personal referral
This might be the best way to find someone who you can trust and verify their experience easily. Keep in mind though that just because your brother had success with a bankruptcy attorney, for example, your needs may be very different than his were. It’s important to find a good match in the particular area of expertise you need.
Ask professionals you have worked with
CPA’s, financial advisors, realtors, doctors, and even colleagues may have some good recommendations, especially if the expertise you seek is in their field. Lawyers and paralegals in one area may also be able to recommend lawyers in other areas.
Contact local and state agencies for additional information
You may be able to find out more information about attorneys you are considering, such as their status to practice law in your state, any certifications they’ve received, and any disciplinary actions taken against them. Also check your local bar association or an appropriate lawyer specialty group (such as the National Elder Law Foundation or the American Health Lawyers Association).
Use a referral website
If none of these options work for you, you can check a lawyer referral website to find local options. I recommend Avvo.com, Nolo.com, and FindLaw.com. If you qualify as having low or moderate income, you can check LawHelp.org for free or low cost resources.
Once you have the names of some prospective candidates, the best thing to do next is to call and set up an in-person free consultation. There is nothing better than an eye-to-eye meeting to make sure there is understanding, compatibility, and communication. You need to be comfortable talking with and depending upon this person. If you find you’re not comfortable during the meeting, it’s probably best to look for someone else.
There are also a series of important questions you should ask the attorney when you first meet him or her. They include:
- What are your areas of expertise and does my situation fit your experience?
- How long will it take to prepare for the case, resolve the matter, or complete the document(s)?
- How will I be kept up-to-date on your progress? Telephone calls, e-mail, or in-person meetings?
- Who will actually handle my situation? You really don’t want the attorney you’ve carefully chosen to assign all the work to a paralegal or junior associate without your knowledge and approval.
- How am I to be billed? By the hour, flat rate, on contingency? Are fractions of the hour to be itemized and charged? How are incidental expenses to be handled? Do I need to pay a retainer?
After you have completed your consultations, you should be able to decide on the right person to represent your needs. Remember, you can always change or fire an attorney, although it is more cost effective to choose wisely the first time, and if it’s a court case, you may need court approval to make a change.
Legal issues can be complicated and you’ll want to be sure that the right expert is there to guide you along. A little due diligence up front can make all the difference.
Have you had to seek out a lawyer to help you? What selection process did you use? Were you satisfied with the result?