Dos and Don’t When Hiring An Attorney

How to Hire an Attorney: Do you need to hire an attorney but aren't sure where to begin? Find out everything you need to know about hiring a lawyer right here!
8 March 2021

By Vanessa B

How to Hire an Attorney: Do you need to hire an attorney but aren’t sure where to begin? Find out everything you need to know about hiring a lawyer right here!

There’s an old saying about attorneys: “Everyone hates lawyers—until they need one.”

This jokey saying stems from the very real emotions that tend to surround legal matters. The need for a lawyer often stems from very high-stress events, such as an injury, a divorce, or even a violent act.

Facing down the opposing side’s lawyer when you’re already handling personal stress can feel like a nightmare. And getting a lawyer to help you navigate the situation can feel like handing over your life to someone you barely know. How can you hire an attorney you trust in this kind of high-pressure situation?

Take a deep breath. There are tried and true practices for finding and hiring a trustworthy attorney. Read on to learn them.

Ask Yourself: Do You Need to Hire an Attorney?

Do you actually need an attorney? The answer may not always be yes.

People usually don’t hire attorneys for simple traffic offenses or small claims issues. Straightforward divorces and estate handling can also usually proceed without an attorney.

You should hire an attorney whenever something important is at stake, whether it’s a large sum of money or child custody. Most people can’t handle more complex legal transactions, such as administering a complicated estate, without a lawyer’s help.

You should always hire an attorney when dealing with a criminal case. The stakes are simply too high to represent yourself, especially if your opponent has a trained attorney advocating for them.

Keep in mind that some of your rights may expire over time. So if you decide you do need an attorney, act quickly. If you’ve been hurt due to someone else’s negligence, for example, make sure to contact a personal injury attorney as soon as possible.

Make a List of Candidates

So you’ve decided you do in fact need an attorney. Next comes a challenging but important step: coming up with a list of candidates.

Many law offices have a marketing budget and will show up on television ads and “attorney near me” internet searches. State bar associations let you search their member base for candidates.

Family and friends can provide valuable references. Nonprofits and legal referral groups can point you to attorneys who specialize in relevant areas, such as immigration or domestic violence.

You’ll find that lawyers are everywhere. But as you search, you can narrow down a list of candidates using basic research.

Look for attorneys with relevant practice areas and experience. An estate lawyer isn’t the best choice for your criminal case.

Check whether candidates have ever received disciplinary sanctions. Every state has a disciplinary board with records of those sanctions, including the specific wrongdoing found and the punishment’s severity.

Meet With Attorneys—and Ask lots of Questions

Once you’ve narrowed down a list of potential attorneys, it’s time to meet with them and discuss your case. Many attorneys will offer initial consultations for free or a nominal charge.

During this first meeting, you’ll lay out the basics of your case. From there, you and your potential attorney can figure out whether this will be a good match. There are several important questions for you to ask here.

Does the attorney specialize in the right practice area? What’s their track record with similar cases and issues? How many years have they practiced, and how many of those years were in areas relevant to you? Does their client base tend to be businesses or individuals?

You’re looking for an attorney who will be honest with you, not whoever will provide the rosiest outlook. A good attorney will tell you how likely you are to get the outcome you want. They’ll also honestly discuss feasible and less expensive options for resolving your case.

Another important but less tangible factor is trust. Your attorney will be handling something very important for you.

Do you trust them to always prioritize your best interests? Do they have a personality you’ll be able to work with over an extended period? If someone looks good on paper but just feels “off”, don’t be afraid to trust your gut and look elsewhere.

Communicate Clearly About Finances

Most people who don’t get a lawyer even when they need one are worried about one thing: money.

It’s an understandable concern. Attorney fees can be expensive.

But your potential attorney should be able to help you understand their fee structure and your possible total costs. If they can’t, go with someone else.

Attorneys on personal injury and similar cases usually charge contingency fees. That means you’ll pay a percentage of your winnings if you’re successful. Some attorneys will agree to a percentage contingent on your settlement size.

Lawyers who handle paperwork and transactions (as well as some other kinds of attorneys) tend to charge an hourly rate. The rate can vary based on your case’s complexity and the attorney’s experience level. Some law offices will help you lower costs by assigning some of your more mundane casework to a paralegal or a less experienced attorney.

In criminal law and in some other practice areas, attorneys will often charge a flat fee to handle a specific portion of the case. Though the fee can be high, this structure lets attorneys handle the many complex and sometimes unexpected details of these high-stakes cases.

Remember that very cheap lawyers can perform very shoddy work. Your goal is to strike a balance between what you can afford and getting the experience and knowledge needed to resolve your case.

Sign Paperwork, Hand Over Documents and Expect Regular Check-Ins

So you’ve found an attorney who wants your case and seems like a good fit. What’s next?

You and your new attorney will complete some paperwork, such as a signed engagement agreement, to get everything in writing. Depending on the payment structure you agreed to, you may have to hand over a retainer—an upfront sum of money that covers early casework. You should also give your attorney all documents and evidence pertaining to your case.

This should not be where communication with your attorney mostly ends.

The legal system can be very slow. Your attorney will likely be handling other cases while waiting for your case to progress. But while they may not have an exciting case development to report every week, your attorney should be providing you with regular updates and letting you know about upcoming dates.

Don’t accept “radio silence” from your attorney. In addition to case updates, ask for regular communications about incurred costs and estimated future costs.

If you’re not happy with your attorney, you can end your relationship and hire a new one (though you may need court permission in some circumstances). If you have serious ethical concerns about your attorney’s behavior, you should contact your state’s disciplinary board to file a complaint.

Remember: You Deserve Fair Representation

The right to representation is foundational to our culture. It’s even enshrined in the sixth amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

So while hiring an attorney can feel overwhelming at first, it’s an important step towards protecting your rights. A good attorney recognizes and respects the profound importance and trust of the attorney-client relationship.