It is not always easy to know whether you have a legal problem requiring a lawyer’s assistance. In a complex society, there are many situations in which legal advice is necessary or desirable. Nearly everyone at some time is faced with legal questions. Those untrained in the law may not always be able to recognize the existence of a legal problem or know how to analyze a legal issue. The best way to determine whether you have a legal problem or need legal assistance is to ask a lawyer. The sooner you ask, the better. The longer you wait to determine whether you have a legal problem, the more likely it is that you will have fewer options or that your situation will have worsened by the time the legal issue is addressed. Lawyers frequently do not charge for an initial consultation or for answering simple questions prior to undertaking the representation of a client. Lawyers are trained to recognize and analyze legal issues and can be expected to tell you if your problem warrants legal action. Sooner or later, almost everyone needs to see a lawyer. Many people turn to a lawyer only as a last resort -- after the contract has been signed, or the creditor is threatening, or the spouse has walked out. The saying that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" is as true with legal matters as it is with regular medical checkups. Good legal advice is one of the greatest preventive measures a lawyer can provide. Early consultation with a lawyer may prevent serious problems later. Common situations where you should consider consulting a lawyer include: buying or selling a home or other real estate, making a will or planning your estate, signing a contract involving a lot of money or calling for financing, organizing or buying a business, changes in your family status (marriage, adoption, divorce, guardianship), an arrest or criminal charge, an accident in which there is personal injury or property damage, tax problems or questions, problems with unpaid bills or bill collectors, problem that requires a legal solution.
Just as early consultation is important in determining whether you have a legal problem, it is also important in deciding which lawyer can best deal with your particular legal issue. The selection of a lawyer should be based on several considerations including experience, cost and convenience. A key factor should be your ability to work effectively and comfortably with your lawyer. The relationship established between you and your lawyer should be based on trust. Your lawyer owes you the full benefit of his or her legal training and experience. You owe your lawyer a full and fair disclosure of all the facts and nuances concerning your case, both the unfavorable and the favorable sides of the issue. Without these components of a good lawyer-client relationship, your lawyer cannot effectively advise and represent you. Remember, when you hire a lawyer, he or she will be working for you. The lawyer should be genuinely interested in your problem and in giving you the best possible advice. The lawyer may not be able to accomplish everything you want because of the facts or the law that applies in your case. Many times a good lawyer will advise you to avoid court action. A lawyer should be able to explain, in terms you can understand, what he or she hopes to accomplish for you and how he or she plans to do it. Think about how the lawyer responded to your questions, about his or her experience, and about whether you will be able to work with the lawyer in the way you would like. Based on your initial consultation, you should consider the following factors before agreeing to hire a lawyer: Personality -- Do you get along well with and trust the person? Experience -- Are you satisfied with the amount of experience the lawyer has had with your type of problem? Communication skills -- Could you talk with and understand the lawyer easily? Ability to pay -- Can you afford to pay the lawyer according to the fee arrangements you discussed? If you are satisfied with your answers to these questions, it is likely that a sound basis for working together has been established between you and your lawyer.
In your first meeting with a lawyer, you should discuss how much your legal work is going to cost and how your payment is going to be made. You need this information to make an informed decision about how to proceed. Often, a lawyer cannot tell you exactly what the total charge will be because it is hard to estimate how much work is going to be involved. However, lawyers can usually estimate the minimum and maximum limits of the fee for that particular work, or give you some idea of the problems involved and the time that will be required. The timetable for paying legal fees depends on arrangements between you and your lawyer. Usually, lawyers require an advance payment, often called a retainer, to cover the initial work and court costs paid on your behalf. In other matters, you will be billed at the end of each month or at the completion of the services. You should never hesitate to discuss fees at any time during the handling of your legal matter. If you receive a statement that isn’t clear to you or believe the fee isn’t proper, talk it over with your lawyer. Misunderstandings about fees usually result from the fact that the client is not aware of the extent of the lawyer’s work on the case. This is by no means the client’s fault. If you do not regularly see your lawyer, you may understandably believe that the activities of the lawyer are limited to those which you do see. Yet, you should remember that a lawyer, unlike a doctor or dentist, performs many professional services when the client is not present. For example, clients are expected to pay their lawyer for time spent on phone calls, writing letters, or drafting and reviewing documents.
When retaining a lawyer, it is important that you establish how the lawyer will set his or her fee. This should be agreed upon before you get too far into the details of your legal matter. In determining a fee, a lawyer may take into account the complexity or difficulties involved in the work, the amount of time required, scheduling constraints imposed by the client or other circumstances, whether or not the fee is contingent, and the nature of the issues involved and the results obtained. Lawyers, like others, incur expenses to maintain their offices, provide support services, purchase materials and equipment, pay employees, and support themselves and their dependents. Many lawyers maintain law libraries and continually expand them to keep up with changes in the law. Failing to come to an agreement on the subject of legal fees and expenses early in the lawyer-client relationship can result in misunderstandings at a later stage of the relationship. Lawyers generally charge in one of several different ways: – On a flat fee basis, for handling a particular type of matter. The lawyer may quote you a set amount or standard fee for a routine legal matter. You also usually are expected to pay court costs and to reimburse the lawyer for out-of-pocket expenses, such as travel or copying costs. For example, many wills and simple divorces are handled on a flat fee basis. – On the basis of a percentage of the amount recovered, which is called a contingent fee arrangement. This means that if your lawsuit is successful, the lawyer receives an agreed upon percentage of the amount recovered, plus out-of-pocket expenses and court costs. Cases involving personal injury are often handled on a contingent fee basis. – On an hourly basis for time spent and expenses incurred on your behalf. Hourly rates of lawyers generally depend upon the lawyer’s experience and the demand for his or her services. There is no set hourly rate, and the rates vary. Many business matters are charged according to hourly rates. – On a retainer basis, where an individual or business employs a lawyer by giving him or her a down payment toward the fee for specified legal services. In return for the retainer the attorney will work for you on any matter for which you may need his or her services. Additional costs may be added to the final bill for services involving extra time and effort from the lawyer. Always request that your lawyer give a receipt to you for the advance on the fee.