Hiring the Right Attorney

Define your needs

If you’re like the average American, you may only hire an attorney a few times in your lifetime. Or, you may have special business and legal needs that lead to an ongoing relationship with a lawyer. In either case, it’s important to ask the right questions before hiring an attorney.

Before you start getting recommendations or placing calls to prospective lawyers, find a way to briefly describe—in one or two sentences—your reason for needing a lawyer. For example, “We recently had a baby and we want to draft wills,” or, “I was seriously injured in an auto accident and think I may be entitled to payment for my injuries.”

This will help you find helpful advice from friends and business associates, and help you find lawyers who have experience with your specific issue.

Find the right type of lawyer

Once you have clarified what you need, you need to know where to look and what to look for.


  • Look for lawyers or firms who list themselves in your subject area on listing services, such as Martindale.com, Lawyers.com, West Group Legal Directory, or other web sites.
  • Ask for recommendations from trustworthy friends or business colleagues.
  • Review attorneys’ web sites, advertisements, and phone listings.
  • Ask an attorney you know. Even if she doesn’t usually handle cases that are similar to yours, she can refer you to someone who does.


You will want a lawyer or law firm that has experience with your issue. Not all lawyers are the same; some exclusively litigate, some have office practices focused on estate planning, etc.

Also, decide what level of service and skill you require. If you have a simple legal problem, you may be able to use a more moderately-priced lawyer. But if you have a “life-and-death” or “bet the firm” legal problem, you probably want to spend more money to hire an attorney with greater expertise with your issue.

You can get a sense of an attorney or firm’s specialties by visiting their web site, getting a biography from their office, and descriptions on listing services like Martindale.com and Lawyers.com.

You want a lawyer with a solid professional reputation, which includes being responsive to clients and acting competently and ethically. Personal referrals are the best source of this information, but peer rating services like Martindale.com also try to meet that need.

Call and schedule meetings with your good prospects

Once you’ve found a few potential attorneys, call or email them to briefly describe your issue and set an appointment.

Be sure to ask whether there’s a charge for the first meeting: not all attorneys have the same policy regarding fees for initial consultations. For example, our firm does not charge initial consultation fees for estate planning, but we do have modest fees for initial consultations in some other practice areas.

Your goals at the initial consultation

Your initial consultation allows you to explain your legal issue at greater length, and get a sense of whether the lawyer is a good fit for you.

You will want to accomplish several things during this meeting:

  • Explain your goals to the lawyer. What are the “deliverables” that you’re looking for? An updated estate plan that reflects some “new additions” to your family? Documents that set up an orderly succession in your family’s small business? A judgment clarifying the property lines with your neighbors? An order of eviction for your tenants? An order forcing a former “key employee” to honor the covenant to not compete with you? A judgment of divorce that keeps your small business viable?
  • Clearly communicate your deadlines and timelines. Do you want to have your estate plan executed before you fly to your vacation in one week? You need to let your lawyer know these types of important time constraints.
  • Determine whether the lawyer has enough experience or expertise to handle your projectDon’t be embarrassed to ask whether the attorney has handled this type of case before, or whether she can work with other qualified attorneys at her firm to meet your needs.
  • Get the lawyer’s quick assessment of the likelihood of solving your problemThe more information you provide, the better this assessment will be. If what the lawyer is saying seems too good to be true, it probably is. America’s legal system is complex and always evolving: this makes it difficult for a lawyer to guarantee a particular result.
  • Explain who is involved. If you are being sued, you should have a copy of the lawsuit paperwork that you’ve already received. You should be able to tell the lawyer who the relevant personalities are (witnesses in a lawsuit, family members in an estate planning project). Attorneys’ ethical rules prevent them from representing adversaries (such as spouses in a divorce), so it’s important to an attorney know right away if they have a potential conflict of interest.
  • Explain your budgetWhat added value will the lawyer’s involvement give you? How much will the project likely cost?
  • Ask about how the lawyer bills. This varies from lawyer to lawyer, and by the type of project.

At the meeting, please tell the truth, good, bad, or otherwise. When you talk to a lawyer, even if you haven’t hired them, you are protected by the attorney-client privilege. That means everything you discuss with him is confidential. A good lawyer understands that no one is perfect, and wants to help prepare you for your legal issue. But if he starts working on a case for you and then finds out that you haven’t been truthful, it could seriously hurt your case. If you seriously mislead your lawyer, they could even withdraw from your case.

Legal fees.

Most lawyers charge for their work in one of three ways:

  • Hourly rateUnder the hourly rate, you’ll be charged for the time the lawyer is working on your problem. Hourly rates are often used for legal work that includes unpredictable elements. For example, if your attorney is negotiating your employment contract, it may take more or less time depending on how amenable the company is to your requests, and how many times the contract has to be redrafted. If your attorney charges an hourly rate, ask about estimated costs (both the hourly fee and additional expenses), and let the attorney know how much you can afford to spend.
  • Flat fee. For predictable legal work—such as business incorporation or a real-estate closing—many lawyers charge a flat fee or fixed rate, because they can predict with a high degree of certainty how long it will take to finish the project. For example, our firm usually charges flat fees when preparing estate plans and most simple business documents. The advantage of a flat fee is that you know exactly how much you’ll be spending. Flat fees are uncommon in litigation, because the involvement of outside parties makes it difficult to estimate how much work your case will be. An experienced lawyer can, however, give you a rough estimate of the total cost of your kind of hourly case.
  • Contingency feeA contingency fee is most often used when you are suing another party and expect to settle the case or receive a cash award if the case goes to trial. Under a contingency-fee agreement, your attorney receives a percentage of the money you receive from the lawsuit. The attorney’s expenses, for things such as court filing fees and photocopying expenses, may be billed separately, and you may still be responsible for these expenses even if you lose.

Sign a retainer agreement

After you’ve chosen your attorney, ask for a retainer agreement. A retainer agreement is important, because it sets the most important parts of your relationship, including the nature of your project and the cost of legal services.

Our attorneys are ready to discuss your legal rights: please contact us today to set up an initial consultation.