Critical First Steps
Are you facing what you hate to admit-but can no longer deny – is a legal problem? Finding the right attorney is critical to achieving a satisfactory resolution of your legal problem, but your time and energy are no doubt in short supply. Approach this seemingly overwhelming task by following these steps.
Legal problems require immediate attention. Procrastination never makes anything better and usually makes everything worse. As soon as that first threatening telephone call or major slip in contract compliance occurs, begin the search for a lawyer. Taking the first step will ease your anxiety and improve your ability to face the situation head-on.
Clarify your Goals
Clarify your thinking. Your business success is built on your ability to set goals and see a project through to completion. Ask yourself: what is the problem; who are the major players; what action or inaction brought us here; what are some acceptable solutions. The lawyer you ultimately choose to advise you may have a completely different take on any or all of those questions, but you need a basic understanding of where you are, how you got there and where you hope to end up.
Ask for Referrals
Ask for referrals from colleagues, past professional advisors, friends and family members. How did you find the realtor who sold your house? The CPA who saved you thousands in tax penalties? Even if your current problem falls outside the expertise of past professional advisors, they work within a wide professional community and are a valuable source of referrals. Ask present and past professional contacts to recommend lawyers with particular expertise. If your contacts can’t help, ask them to refer you on to someone who may be able to do so. Proceed cautiously with referrals from friends or family members. Remember, legal problems are not all the same. Briefly explain your situation and ask for suggestions for representation. Ask about attention to detail, fees and overall outcome. Focus less on “did you win” and more on “did your lawyer pay attention.”
Narrow the Field
Make telephone contact with at least five lawyers with relevant professional experience.
- Years of experience but focus on the amount of experience in and the percentage of practice devoted to the relevant area of law.
- The lawyer’s general approach: is he or she settlement oriented or litigation oriented; tend to rely on formal discovery or informal methods of information gathering; handle the case personally or pass on much of the work to associates (who may be less experienced or poorly supervised)?
- What is the lawyer’s hourly rate? Is a retainer required? What expenses are billed to the client? Is there a written fee agreement. (There should be.)
- The process of reaching a lawyer by telephone sheds light on a lawyer’s practice style. Are you treated respectfully by staff? Does the lawyer return your call promptly. During the conversation does the lawyer seem impatient – interrupting you, jumping to conclusions – or does he or she listen carefully and give you full, albeit brief, attention? If you are treated in a rude or condescending manner before you are a client, it is unlikely that your treatment will improve after you become a client.
The Final Cut
- Do in-person interviews with at least three lawyers. Some lawyers will provide a free (or reduced fee) initial consultation. Others will require payment at their standard hourly rate. The purpose of the initial consultation is to check the “fit” between you and the lawyer. Think of it as a job interview with this twist: you are hiring a lawyer and applying to be a client.
- Arrive at the consultation prepared to briefly describe your legal problem. Don’t bring every piece of paper you have collected on the matter. Rely instead on a brief, written outline you have prepared in advance. The purpose of the outline is twofold: (1) to keep your description of the problem on track and (2) to help you remember to ask questions about experience, fees, and philosophy.
- Do not expect the lawyer to give you immediate advice. This is an initial consultation. You are both deciding whether or not to work together. An experienced lawyer will be unwilling to give legal advice without a full understanding of the facts and shouldn’t be expected to do so.
The lawyer you hire represents you. Ask yourself, bottom-line: how do I want to be represented? When you have the answer to that question, the choice of attorney will fall into place.