Hiring a Lawyer

Like doctors and other professionals, lawyers range from general practitioners to specialists. Typically, lawyers who offer general legal services concentrate on legal issues concerning the general public—for example, wills or real estate transactions. However, if you are seeking a lawyer because of legal problem associated with your online activities, you should look for a specialist who focuses on media law or intellectual property issues on the Internet. If you want to set up a business, you should find a lawyer with experience in corporate and tax matters.

Finding the right lawyer

There are several ways to find a lawyer:

  • Personal Recommendations
The best way to find a good lawyer is by word-of-mouth. Ask your family, friends, or colleagues for recommendations. If you previously hired a lawyer for another situation, ask her for references in the field you need. Don't stop at getting names and contact information; press the referrer for reasons why he thinks the lawyer is good.
  • Bar Associations and Other Organizations
Your state or county bar association will likely have a referral service that matches your legal problem with an appropriate lawyer. Visit the American Bar Association's Consumer Guide to Legal Help to find bar associations in your state. Additionally, other types of organizations are focused around a specialty rather than geography. For example, the Media Law Resource Center provides a list of their law firm members who specialize in media law, including First Amendment and intellectual property law. (Organizations that might provide legal representation without a fee are covered under the Nonprofit Legal Assistance section of this guide.)
  • Advertisements and the Yellow Pages
You may come across advertisements for a lawyer's services through tv, radio, magazines, newspapers, websites, or phonebooks. Remember that the advertisement has little to do with the lawyer's abilities. You should thoroughly research the lawyer by following the steps outlined below.
  • Your Insurance Company
If someone has brought a lawsuit against you, check with your insurance company to see if you have liability insurance for the situation at hand. If you do, your insurance company should provide you with the necessary legal defense and indemnify you if any money needs to be paid to the other party. In this case, you will be represented by the lawyer from the insurance company and will not need to seek a lawyer of your own.

Once you have a list of lawyers, research them as much as possible. The lawyer's education background and the firm that the lawyer is associated with may be an indication of the quality of a lawyer's practice, but the best indicator of a lawyer's service is experience. Additionally, check your list of lawyers against a legal directory, a resource that contains peer ratings of lawyers, to see the opinions of others in the legal community. Martindale Hubbell is a highly regarded legal directory and is available online.

Initial Meeting With a Lawyer

Once you're comfortable with your list, call each lawyer to set up an initial meeting. Apart from the where's and when's of the meeting, you should make sure to find out:
  • approximately how long the meeting will take
  • what documents you should bring
  • whether the lawyer charges for an initial meeting (and if so, the amount and method of payment)
  • whether the lawyer can provide you with a list of references from current or former clients
You should prepare so that the meeting stays focused, allowing you to gauge the lawyer's response to your situation.
  • Gather all documents pertaining to the situation in a file. This includes printouts of any relevant emails and webpages. Additionally, note dates and times you received each document.
  • Write down everything you know about the situation, including:
  • the nature of the actions that triggered the situation
  • when and how you received any documents about the situation
  • any relevant interactions you’ve had with anyone involved in the matter
The act of writing the summary allows you to: record events you may forget during the conversation; better understand your position; and focus your conversation with your prospective lawyer. If there is a lawsuit, you may be required to disclose this summary to the other side, so keep to the facts and do not include your opinions.
  • Prepare a list of questions. The lawyer will ask you a lot of questions to help her evaluate the strengths of your case; you should do the same to evaluate the lawyer. Alexander Hawes, LLP has a terrific approach to identifying the information you need, as does the Monroe County Bar Association.

Understanding Legal Fees

The lawyer should go over her fee arrangement during your initial meeting. Bills may run high and you must understand the various fee structures to avoid unpleasant surprises.

There are several ways you may be billed for a lawyer's services:

  • Hourly fee: The most common fee structure, an hourly fee is a person's hourly rate times the hours spent working on your case. Hourly rates will probably vary from lawyer to lawyer within a law firm, and from lawyer to non-lawyer. If money is an issue, ask whether a junior lawyer can work on the case while a senior lawyer reviews the final product. Make sure to get a breakdown of the hourly rates for each person who will work on your case, and an estimate on the length of time each person will spend on your case. The amount of work put into a case varies and it's impossible to project a definitive amount; however, a good lawyer should be able to give you a ballpark figure based on her prior experience.
  • Retainer Fee: A retainer is an advance payment, or down payment, to be applied towards the hourly fees earned later. (Note: in some cases, a retainer fee also refers to the amount paid to an attorney on a regular basis to keep the attorney available for handling legal services.)
  • Fixed fee: A fixed fee is a flat amount that covers a specific legal service. For example, if you need help starting your business, a lawyer may charge you a fixed fee for helping you to incorporate.
  • Contingency fee: In a contingency fee arrangement, the lawyer only gets paid if she is successful in getting you an award of damages, whether through trial or settlement. A lawyer's portion of the award is usually a fixed percentage of the total amount, depending upon the type of case involved.
  • Mixed Fee: A mixed fee arrangement combines contingency and hourly fees.
  • Costs: Fees go to the lawyer for her work, while costs cover the payments incidental to those services. For example, if you've hired a lawyer to help you incorporate your business, one cost will be the filing fee for the articles of incorporation. For purposes of a lawsuit, talk to the lawyer about advances for the costs associated with litigation.

The First Meeting

Plan to arrive 5 minutes early so that you can be ready as soon as the meeting starts. Bring your summary and file of documents. As you explain the situation be candid. Remember, the lawyer needs all of the information, good and bad, to assess your case and give you a useful road map of what lies ahead. Except in rare cases, lawyers are bound by professional rules to keep the initial meeting confidential, so you should not feel constrained. You should already know how long the meeting will last, so keep an eye on the time and make sure the lawyer addresses all of your questions.


After you've met with a few lawyers, compare how they approached your situation and think about whose counsel you valued the most. If you met with a lawyer who was personally recommended to you, don't be surprised if you don't like her as much as the recommender did. There are many different styles of lawyering, and you may not be as comfortable with some as you are with others.

If there are one or two lawyers with whom you connected, call their references and speak to former clients. Once you're comfortable making the decision to hire a lawyer, make sure you have a written fee agreement to avoid billing surprises.

Lastly, don't lose touch with your case just because you have hired a lawyer. Your lawyer works for you. You need to set the goals, and your lawyer will use her legal expertise to help you achieve them. The only way for you to make decisions about your case is to stay informed.