By Steven M. Wyatt, Esq.
In follow up to our post on getting counsel involved in your matters early (See An Ounce of Prevention) there are several considerations to be made when selecting which attorney to hire for your matter. Here are some of those things to think about:
What is the Problem?
Possibly the most difficult task is identifying the problem that you need help with. Whether you’ve just been sued or just want to talk with someone to see if you are doing all you can and should be doing for your business, it is helpful to narrow your focus as much as possible as you begin the process of choosing a lawyer.
The more complicated the situation the more likely you’ll need someone with experience and expertise in that area. A need for experience and expertise is not limited to complex matters or matters involving large sums of money. For example, if you are seeking a lawyer to help you with estate planning, the important issues you’ll need help with may include selecting the right executors/guardians/trustees, planning for special needs children, addressing the treatment of a non-citizen spouse, or handling property located outside of Alabama or overseas. You want to select a lawyer that can do all of the drafting you need, while at the same time being skilled enough to avoid drafting you do not need.
Specialization and Focus
A wise attorney should know that he or she is not capable of handling every type of matter that may arise. It may be that the attorney who represents you in a complicated litigation matter is not well suited to advise you on a large commercial transaction – and vice versa. As such, you want a lawyer who understands his or her limitations and who will involve other lawyers that have more expertise in a given area of the law. This can be an efficient way of dealing with your matter but could leave you with a sense of being “passed around” the law firm. If that is the case, we recommend establishing one lawyer as your relationship manager with the firm. That person can serve as a contact point for you regardless of the type of work you need at any given point.
Temperament and Style
To encourage you to be as open and honest with your lawyer as you can be, the law gives special privileges to your communications with your attorney. Lawyers are ethically bound to keep the confidences of their clients. Nevertheless, it can still be difficult for some clients to effectively communicate with some lawyers. You should find an attorney that you feel comfortable talking with and whom you can be completely honest with about your situation and your goals. Some factors to consider include:
- Does the attorney communicate well?
- Does he speak in plain language and avoid legal terms when possible?
- Does she explain the legal terms she uses?
- Do you feel at ease with him?
- Do you feel you can ask her questions?
- Does he seem to read from a script when discussing your matter? Is she listening to your questions and responding appropriately?
- Does she give focused attention, make eye contact, and seem fully present?
Does the lawyer have resources at hand to run the firm like a business? Is there a person who answers the phone, makes copies, handles billing, and lets the lawyer stay focused on handling legal matters and communicating with you about them? This doesn’t mean you have to hire someone with a large work staff. However, it does mean that you should have someone who runs their business well and can do all of the tasks associated with handling your legal matters. At the same time, you don’t necessarily want to work with a firm that is so big that you are really just dealing with front-end people and never get to speak with the lawyer. A good lawyer will seek a balance with staff that will handle the clerical and administrative tasks so that she’ll be able to give you her full attention.
We all want to know or at least have some idea of what a service is going to cost, and legal services are no different. In some ways, shopping for legal services is no different than shopping for a car or clothing. You have to have a sense of what you want between the high price sector and the low price sector, and then find the fit that works for you. It is never wrong to ask about cost in any meeting with your attorney, and the earlier the better. Many lawyers will initially meet with you for an hour or so mostly for you to determine whether you are comfortable with them, but be sure to ask whether there is any consultation fee for that meeting if you ultimately decide not to use that lawyer’s services.
Lawyers sometimes ask for some money up front before beginning to work on your legal matters, and it’s not because they don’t trust you. Most lawyers are very busy, and they may want to know that you are fully invested in a matter before they are willing to allocate their limited time and resources. In any event, lawyers are required to hold any up-front money in trust for you as a “retainer”. You are entitled to get back any unused retainer upon the conclusion of the matter or representation, subject to the payment of fees and expenses to that point.
Payment structure is distinct from pricing structure. Whether at the low or high end of the cost range, it’s appropriate to ask if they accept credit cards. Do you have to pay a fee upfront? Is it a flat fee structure, pay by the hour, or another type of billable rate? Those are all very reasonable questions to ask. You want to make sure the lawyer you are going to work with has an arrangement that you understand and that fits your budget and style.
Will your lawyer work well with your other advisors? If you’re in the process of getting a life insurance policy, this could be a key factor, especially if you are creating a trust. Will the lawyer work well with your accountant and insurance agent to fashion a plan tailored to your specific situation? Keep in mind that if you are just hiring an lawyer, they probably know less about you and your situation and your other advisors, so it is important that the lawyer understand that and be willing to listen before offering advice. As the old saying goes, two heads are better than one, and it certainly applies to your team of advisors.
Think about the question of long-term fit: Where is this lawyer or firm in the life cycle of the practice (which may or may not be as obvious as the lawyer’s age)? For example, if you are young and starting a family and beginning to build wealth, you probably want to build a relationship, so your needs may not be compatible with a lawyer who is at the end of their career. However, keep in mind that with age and experience comes great wisdom, so consider whether a given firm has both more experienced lawyers to help now and younger lawyers who may grow into the role of your counselor over time.