Summarize Your Problems Before Selecting a Lawyer
In the last column, we suggested some legal legwork you should do when you first start to look for a lawyer. When you’ve completed your lawyer-shopping research and narrowed down the list of potential lawyers to a few, you’re ready to interview the candidates. What should you say?
First, remember that you are the client--the boss, the person paying the bills. Don’t let a little Latin and a juris doctor diploma intimidate you. Demand that the lawyer speak in understandable, simple English. If the candidate doesn’t take kindly to your questions or if you can’t get understandable answers, try another lawyer.
List of Questions
Be prepared. Bring along a written summary of your legal problem and a list of questions.
If you are retaining a lawyer to file a personal-injury suit arising from an auto accident, for example, prepare a memo to the lawyer summarizing the facts of your case in advance. Describe your medical problems, including medical fees incurred, witness accounts, possible defendants and anything else you think might be relevant.
List questions that naturally relate to a case of this type, such as: Have you handled many car-accident cases before? What is your success rate? Do you usually settle these cases before trial? If they go to trial, how long does that take? Have you personally handled many jury trials? What would be a reasonable settlement figure based on the facts described?
Meet the Lawyer
Find out who will actually do the legal work. At larger firms, young associates work while senior partners get the credit. That’s not necessarily bad, but you should approve it. And you’ll probably want to meet any lawyer who will be working on your case.
Make sure you discuss how much it will cost. Will you be billed on an hourly basis? If so, ask what fraction of an hour will be the minimum billing time. Some lawyers bill in minimums of 15 minutes, others break a billable hour into 10 six-minute segments. Because lawyers will charge you for every five-minute phone call, the minimum can make a big difference, especially when the rate is more than $100 an hour.
For most personal-injury suits, lawyers charge a contingency fee, which means that they get paid only out of the money that you win. (Though you still have to pay court costs from your own pocket, win or lose.) The percentages can vary widely. Negotiate for a lower percentage, especially if the case is settled in advance of trial, which means less work for the lawyer.
Ask if the lawyer will provide monthly billing statements. Insist that the bills be itemized. You want to know how how much time each lawyer is spending on your legal problems and whether it is legal research, phone calls or appearing in court.
Discuss the lawyer’s education and training, particularly if you are looking for a specialist. Say you’re a struggling writer and someone has plagiarized your new screenplay. You want a lawyer who knows about copyright law. Find out what classes the lawyer took on the subject in law school. Is he or she a member of any copyright societies? And probably, most important, has the lawyer handled much copyright litigation in the past?
Feel comfortable with your selection. If you walk out the door and feel confused, snookered, taken or unimpressed, keep looking--especially if this is a legal matter that will last for some time, like a divorce or other litigation.
Once you’ve selected the right attorney and signed a written fee agreement--which you should always do--don’t let the lawyer completely take over your legal affairs. The best client is an informed client. Demand that the lawyer send you copies of all correspondence, research memoranda and court filings. Read them promptly and carefully. If you don’t understand, ask questions, and even do a little research on your own to help formulate the right questions. Daniel R. White’s book, “What Lawyers Do . . . and How to Make Them Work for You,” published by E. P. Dutton, is a valuable resource.
White compares a well-informed client to an experienced taxi passenger. If you let the cab driver think you know where you’re going, he’s less likely to take a few costly wrong turns. So too it is with lawyers, he says. “The more you know about what your lawyer is supposed to be doing for you, or at least the more your lawyer thinks you know about what he’s supposed to be doing for you, the better off you are.”
Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, The Times’ senior staff counsel, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal View, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.