Check Out Attorney's Fees First

Last week, we went shopping for a lawyer. This week, we'll discuss what to say to your lawyer the first time you meet and how much it will cost.

You don't have to hire the first lawyer you see. Don't be afraid to interview several attorneys. It may take longer, and it may cost a little bit extra, but you want to be satisfied with the person who will represent you in court.

Before you walk in the door, find out if you'll be charged for the initial consultation. Many lawyers charge, but some are willing to listen to your problem during the first meeting without turning on the meter.

Many lawyers specialize to one degree or another. The State Bar certifies specialists in a few limited categories--workers' compensation, tax, criminal and family law. Although lawyers may concentrate on other areas, they are not allowed to advertise themselves as "certified specialists" in those areas.

Specific Experience An antitrust expert will be of little or no help with a child-custody problem. So ask specifically about the lawyer's experience with the type of problem you face. Ask questions like these:

"How many divorces have you handled?"

"Have you ever sued the city before?"

"Do you represent many small-business owners in this field?"

"Is your practice mainly civil or criminal?"

"What has been your success rate on these types of cases?"

"And how much did it cost the last time you did it?"

This will help you pick the right lawyer. You might even sit down beforehand and write out questions to make sure you cover all the relevant points.

You should also find out whether the lawyer you are meeting will actually be the lawyer who handles your case. In many firms, much of the nuts-and-bolts legal research is delegated to younger lawyers. That may be fine, but you should approve of this arrangement in advance. You may also want to confirm that there is a less-expensive billing rate for a less-experienced attorney.

Before you make the final cut, there should be a clear understanding about the fees that the lawyer will charge.

There are several basic fee structures--flat fees, contingency fees and hourly rates--with all sorts of variations.

The flat fee is like buying a product in a store. You want a simple will prepared, you pay $500 and you get your will. It is easy to compare prices if your legal need falls into one of these easily defined categories; unfortunately many legal problems are not that simple. That's why for most jobs lawyers either charge by the hour or want a percentage of the take.

Paying a lawyer by the hour is not much different from paying a plumber who works on your drainage pipes. Of course, the hourly rate is usually higher for the lawyer. But the principle is the same. One difference is that the plumber is usually working in your home--you can sometimes watch over his shoulder while keeping an eye on your watch--but the lawyer may spend hours and hours in the law library without your knowledge or approval.

Request a time estimate before the lawyer begins his work, and require him to obtain your approval before he puts in extra time.

You should also find out what fraction of an hour will be the minimum billing time. Some firms refuse to record time for anything less than 15 minutes. That means if it takes five minutes for your lawyer to review a letter, or talk to you on the phone, he will charge you for a quarter-hour. Other firms will break a billable hour into 10 six-minute segments. At rates in excess of $100 an hour, the difference can be significant.

And don't forget, under a hourly billing system, every time you call your lawyer, the meter is running, so try to use the lawyer's time wisely and efficiently.

In a contingency-fee structure, most common in personal injury lawsuits, the lawyer gets paid a percentage of the money damages you win; if you lose, the lawyer does not get paid.

Some lawyers may agree to a sliding-scale percentage, which could be calculated on a variety of factors--whether the case is settled or goes to trial, the difficulty of the case, the amount of the damages. Don't be afraid to negotiate about the fee arrangement. Although the percentage varies widely, a payment of a third of your money damages is common.

Most lawyers will require you to pay court costs and out-of-pocket expenses, win or lose.

In any event, be sure both you and your lawyer understand and agree on what your arrangement will be. And get it in writing. The State Bar Assn. publishes a free pamphlet, "How Can I Find and Hire the Right Lawyer?" which will be sent to you upon request if you include a self-addressed, stamped, business-size envelope. Write to State Bar Pamphlets, 555 Franklin St., San Francisco 94102.

Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, a member of The Times' corporate legal staff, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Legal View, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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