How to Select a Lawyer
Use this helpful information to understand when hiring a lawyer is appropriate, advice on finding an attorney, and your options if you cannot afford a lawyer.
(This information is not intended to be a substitute for the legal advice of a licensed attorney. If you have any questions regarding a particular issue or topic, we suggest you seek legal counsel.)
How to Select a Lawyer
When should I see a lawyer?
It is not possible in this page to set out every circumstance under which you might require the services of a lawyer.
To prevent problems from occurring in the future, the most commonly recommended instances to consult a lawyer are:
- Real estate transactions, such as buying or selling a house;
- Making a will or planning your estate;
- Family matters, such as divorce or adoption; and
- Starting or buying a business.
After problems arise, you should consult a lawyer when:
- You are arrested or accused of a crime;
- A lawsuit is brought against you;
- You are unable to resolve issues with a government agency, such as tax, immigration, social security, workers compensation or veteran’s or pension benefits;
- Someone does not satisfactorily perform work or services or fails to honor guarantees or warranties. These service providers could include professionals such as lawyers, accountants and doctors, as well as others; and
- Someone refuses to pay you funds to which you believe you are entitled, or tries to collect funds you believe you don’t owe.
Under appropriate circumstances, reputable bankers, accountants, real estate salespersons, tax firms, investment counselors, the Better Business Bureau, federal, state and local government agencies, and others can provide valuable assistance. The important thing is that you consult a lawyer if a lawyer can be of help.
Most lawyers have a fee for a first office visit that is within the financial means of most people. This visit does not obligate you to hire the lawyer.
What if I cannot afford a lawyer?
You will not know whether or not you can afford a lawyer until you have called a lawyer’s office or visited with a lawyer.
If you are a person who has a very modest or low income, Alaska Legal Services may be able to help you. Alaska Legal Services has very specific guidelines as to who is eligible and what kind of cases they take. They also provide free legal clinics on a variety of subjects. Please go to their site for more information: www.alsc-law.org. You can also go to our legal resources page to find out about more legal aid resources.
How do I find the name of a lawyer?
There are many ways to get the names of some lawyers:
- Ask a friend, especially one who has had a problem like yours, for the name of his or her lawyer;
- Ask a professional person, such as a doctor, minister, social worker, banker, or business person whom you know and trust;
- Call the Alaska Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service, call 907-272-0352, or toll-free in Alaska, 1-800-770-9999;
- Visit your local library. Many libraries have law directories, such as Martindale-Hubbell, which give a brief biography of lawyers practicing in your area and elsewhere; and
- Telephone directories contain listings of attorneys in your area. Most attorneys will list the areas of law in which they prefer to practice.
How do I choose a lawyer?
Before you make an appointment to see a lawyer, call the offices of the lawyers on your list. Find out with whom you are speaking, briefly explain your legal problem and ask:
- Does the lawyer have experience with this kind of problem?
- Does the lawyer charge for an initial interview? If so, what is the charge?
- If you believe your problem is routine: Does the lawyer have a standard fee for this kind of problem? What does the fee cover?
- If your problem is more complicated or the lawyer does not have a standard fee: What is the lawyer’s hourly fee?
Keep a list of the information and think about the answers you receive from the lawyers or their office representatives. Then call back to make an appointment with the attorney whose answers satisfied you the most.
How do I prepare?
Plan to go to the first interview with an open mind. You do not have to decide to employ the lawyer with whom you are interviewing until you have had time to think about the interview.
When you go to your initial meeting, it is important to have with you:
- A written summary or detailed notes outlining your problem, and include
- Names, addresses and phone numbers of all persons or companies involved; and
- All documents which are part of your case, including those you may have received from a lawyer or a court, receipts, contracts, medical bills, repair estimates, checks, etc. Some lawyers may ask you to deliver written materials in advance of your first interview in order to have adequate time to review them. You may prefer to provide copies at the initial interview.
Prepare a list of questions for the lawyer, such as:
- Are you experienced in my type of problem?
- Will you or one of your associates be handling my case?
- Will you regularly contact me about my case’s status?
- Will I be provided with copies of all important documents, and will there be a charge for those documents?
- Will you assure me that I will be able to make the final decision on my case?
- What is your estimate of time needed to complete my case?
REMEMBER: When you hire a lawyer, the lawyer will be working for you. He or she should be genuinely interested in your problem and in giving you the best possible advice. The lawyer may not be able to accomplish everything you wish because of the facts or the laws that apply in your case. Many times the best advice a lawyer can give will be to avoid court action. He or she may suggest other methods to resolve your matter, such as mediation.
What should I expect?
Here are a few tips about what to expect from your lawyer. Your lawyer should:
- prepare a written fee agreement if a contingency fee or more than $500 will be charged;
- disclose the types of expenses you will be responsible for paying and explain the basis for those expenses;
- disclose to you in writing if the lawyer does not have the malpractice insurance coverage of a certain amount set out in the ethics rules or if that coverage is reduced below that amount or is cancelled;
- give you frank, honest advice;
- tell you the strong and weak points of your case;
- keep you informed and follow your instructions, within the bounds of the law;
- protect and defend you (his or her principal duty!). He or she should not make any agreements or take on any obligation which might jeopardize your rights or interests without consulting you;
- while representing you, not represent any other client whose interests conflict with yours;
- provide you, if you ask, with copies of all letters and documents involved in your case; and
- provide an itemized bill of all work done for you and all expenses incurred on your behalf.
Here are a few tips about what your lawyer will expect of you. The lawyer will expect you to:
- be prompt for court dates and appointments;
- let him or her know how to keep in touch with you. If you have a change of address or phone number or place of employment, let your lawyer know; and
- be completely honest – even if it is embarrassing to tell the truth about your problem. Remember, what you tell a lawyer in private will be kept confidential. Even confessions to past crimes or criminal activity are going to be treated as confidential by your lawyer. The only exception to this rule of strict confidentiality are plans for future crimes and continuing criminal activity.
How much will the lawyer charge?
The lawyer’s fee depends upon many variables, such as amount of time, the difficulty of the work, the skill required, the customary fee in your area for similar work, the experience, reputation and ability of the lawyer, and whether the fee is a set amount or contingent on the outcome of the case.
Some fee arrangements are:
Contingent Fee: A lawyer may agree to represent you in return for a percentage of the total recovery that lawyer obtains on your behalf. While lawyers who do this type of work often charge one-third (33 1/3%), the percentage may be less or more depending on the nature of the case. If the lawyer recovers nothing, then you won’t owe the lawyer for the lawyer’s services. A lawyer may agree to make recovery of the lawyer’s costs and expenses on the case contingent on the outcome. Generally, however, the costs and expenses of the case will be deducted from your portion of the recovery. The agreement must be in writing and explain that you may be liable for the fees, costs and expenses of the opposing side if you lose.
Flat fee: The lawyer may quote you a set amount or standard fee that he or she has arrived at for your type of legal problem. In addition, lawyers usually expect you to pay court costs and to reimburse them for out-of-pocket expenses, such as travel or copying expenses. It is important that you find out what any fixed fee covers.
Hourly fee: A lawyer may prefer to bill you by the hour. Such fees may vary widely depending upon the complexity of the legal work, the skill of the lawyer and whether there are time deadlines. You may wish to try to negotiate with a lawyer on his or her hourly rates. If you agree to an hourly arrangement, you and the lawyer could include a provision in your contract requiring the lawyer not to exceed a specified amount of time or money without obtaining your permission. Insist that you be kept advised every month of the number of hours that the lawyer is spending on your problem. You also have the right to ask for a written explanation of what the lawyer did during the hours he or she worked on your case.
Retainer or Advance Fee: Some lawyers also require a retainer or advance fee that they will put in their trust account and bill against as work is performed. The lawyer is required to return any unused retainer or advance fee.
Questions about fees that you may want to ask are:
- Can you give me an estimate of how much this legal matter will cost?
- May I review the written fee agreement that sets forth not only my obligation to pay you, but also exactly what services you will provide before I hire you?
How should I make my decision to hire a lawyer?
Based on your first interview, you should consider the following factors before agreeing to hire a lawyer:
- Could you communicate effectively with the lawyer? Was the lawyer clear and easy to understand?
- Are fees reasonable in comparison with other lawyers’ charges?
- Did the lawyer give clear explanations of how he or she will let you know about progress in your case?
- If you are not satisfied with this lawyer, do not hire him or her. Look elsewhere for legal help.
Before you finally sign a contract with a lawyer, read the contract. Make sure you understand it. Make sure that everything you and the lawyer have agreed to is in writing.
What if I have a problem with my lawyer?
If you have a problem with your lawyer, you should first discuss it with him or her. Try to work out any problems. If the problems cannot be worked out, it is your right to fire your lawyer and to hire someone else to represent you.
If the situation occurs before your legal problem is settled, you should expect to pay a portion of the fee to the lawyer for time already spent. The lawyer has an obligation to avoid prejudice to your case and to return your file with very limited exceptions.
If you believe your lawyer has not acted in your best interests and has thereby done something illegal or unethical, you may wish to file a grievance against your lawyer. In such circumstances, please go here for more information.
This information is not intended to be a substitute for the legal advice of a licensed attorney. If you have any questions regarding a particular issue or topic, we suggest you seek legal counsel.
(This document was originally created by the Texas Bar Association and modified to reflect the practices in Alaska. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.)