By Christine E. Springer
Years ago when I started Desert Edge Legal, I was the only legal professional that many small business owners had met. I did a lot of networking here in Phoenix and met a lot of people. Ultimately, my strong network is what led to my work in foreclosure defense and was a big part of my success.
There were hardly ever any attorneys at the networking events I attended. I could write a whole series of posts about why lawyers should learn how to be better marketers. The point is that a lot of people don't know any lawyers personally, and they may be intimidated by the idea of working with them.
This post is to share my tips for consumers on hiring the right lawyer for your needs, and how to minimize what you spend on lawyers. This post was inspired by a friend who is considering hiring a lawyer and since she’s never done this before, she asked me for help.
Legal services are expensive, and interacting with the legal system can be emotionally and mentally exhausting. These are solid reasons why you should hire the right lawyer.
As a paralegal, I've worked with attorneys AND clients, and this is the same advice I gave my friend. I hope it helps you, too!
1. Consider hiring a female lawyer
Let me just say this up front: I’m NOT saying that male lawyers are a bad choice.
I think women are better at compromise.
If you are a woman, this may not be a surprising suggestion.
If you’ve looked around lately, you have noticed that women are doing a lot better in the new economy than men are. I could write a whole post about this, but it boils down to this: the masculine-feminine balance is shifting in the world and the patriarchy is dying.
The infrastructure, especially in this country, is crumbling and a lot of the male dominated structures in power are not only uncomfortable with their perceived loss in status, but they are also under-equipped to handle the changes that have happened as a result.
Technology is the great equalizer of the 99%. You might miss this shift happening if you aren’t looking closely, but I assure you, it IS happening.
The patriarchy has, for thousands of years, told us that “might is right” and that wars solve problems. The legal field is VERY adversarial, and I think the patriarchal, strong armed approach in law is the main reason people hate dealing with the legal system.
This shift is changing our relationships too -- if you'd like to read another angle, check out this post I wrote on my spiritual blog about the end of the patriarchy and relationships.
It is much more difficult than it should be. It is changing, though, and eventually I think it will be more equitable for everyone.
In the meantime, consumers should understand that when the parties cannot compromise, it costs more money.
There is plenty of evidence that women are better at problem solving, emotional intelligence, collaboration, flexibility and compromise.
Litigation is a wild card. Compromise is good.
The sooner you reach a compromise or settlement, the better.
Since you’ve probably got a difficult situation on the horizon, you want to pay attention to who is on your team, whether that's a man or a woman.
Don't rule out hiring a woman to be the star of your legal team.
2. Don’t hire a “pit bull” attorney
A lot of people believe that you need to hire an a**hole attorney to make sure you are treated fairly. I have heard this countless times as a paralegal.
This is only a good idea if you like spending thousands of dollars more than you need to.
But don't let your need for revenge override your common sense.
Revenge = expensive legal bills.
Find another outlet for your emotional difficulties. It’s cheaper to hire a counselor to deal with your rage and anger.
While you can’t control who your opponent hires, you can hire someone to represent you who is willing to compromise. A compromise doesn’t necessarily mean you will get everything you want, but given the situation, a compromise is usually a very good alternative.
If your opponent hires one of these kinds of lawyers, you can expect delays, lots of motions filed, stalling, rude behavior, having trouble scheduling depositions and hearings, and lots of other incivilities. Often, these people will do everything they can to drag out the situation.
If you have never been through this before, you could be completely caught off guard.
It’s good to be prepared for this, and I think you should discuss it with the lawyer you eventually hire.
Make it clear that you expect them to be a strong advocate but you don’t want to drag things out.
You want reasonable, professional representation and not a circus act.
3. Interview multiple attorneys
If you have a legal plan that offers benefits, start there. If the consultations are free, great – but you should be willing to pay a reasonable consultation fee to the attorney in order to get to know them.
Asking for referrals is good too, but I would suggest you also do your own independent research. I like lawyers who blog, but you might hear about a lawyer through something you read about.
4. Do your due diligence on the lawyer you have selected BEFORE you hire them
I think asking for references from one or two former clients is reasonable, although an attorney might tell you there is an attorney-client privilege concern. That’s reasonable, but they probably have a procedure in place for reference requests.
An important question is whether the attorney PROMPTLY returns phone calls. In my experience, not returning phone calls is the SINGLE BIGGEST issue that clients have with lawyers. It leads to a lot of bar complaints.
Most of the time, clients can get their questions answered through a paralegal, but there are times when the client needs to hear back from the attorney. Ask about their policy or procedures for returning phone calls and how communications are handled.
Next, check their disciplinary history with the bar association. Most bar associations have the disciplinary histories of their members on their website. If not, make a phone call and find out about their history. If you find out about something, ask the attorney about the issue and see how they respond. People make mistakes and lawyers are human too.
Also, check sites like LinkedIn, Avvo.com and their social media information.
I love it when a lawyer blogs because you can get a very good idea of whether you like their approach. And, blogging works, or I wouldn't still be doing it.
5. Understand that EVERY call, e-mail or letter that your lawyer receives related to your case will probably cost you money
Don’t call you lawyer to rant about your emotions. While I do think lawyers can do more to help clients understand the emotional toll of interacting with the legal system, you are paying your lawyer to handle a legal matter. Go see a counselor if you need emotional support.
It will be cheaper, I promise.
You obviously can't control what the lawyer receives from the opponent in your case, but I've seen legal bills where the client is doing the bulk of the e-mailing and calling.
The point is, be smart about what you send to your lawyer, and don’t send it unless it’s necessary if you are worried about your costs.
A lot of people wind up being surprised by huge bills because they don’t understand that they are billed for the lawyer’s time, even in small increments, and that it all adds up.
6. Read the engagement letter and ask for REASONABLE changes if you need them
If you’ve arrived at the engagement letter phase of hiring an attorney, you have probably already decided you like them and want to work with them. So, don’t be pushy, difficult or unreasonable at this point. Be polite!
You'd be surprised at how many people want to play hard ball with their lawyers BEFORE they hire them.
If the lawyer has a full case load and you’re making a lot of unreasonable demands, they can always choose to decline your representation.
As I said in #1, above – this strong armed approach doesn’t work very well anymore. The same goes for clients! Be reasonable and polite!
Second, hard ball negotiating at this point means your working relationship starts off on a tense note.
You don’t want your lawyer pissed at you early on because you were unreasonable. And, you chose this lawyer for a reason. Why would you want to make unreasonable demands and leave them thinking you are going to be a pain in the ass?
Here are some examples of REASONABLE requests:
Ask the lawyer to delegate the bulk of the work on your case to a paralegal
Paralegal tasks include making phone calls to schedule meetings and motions, drafting and revising discovery, motions and other documents, arranging for court reporters and dealing with court personnel, and similar tasks.
Most law firms use standardized forms for these documents so unless there is a special set of interrogatories, most of these documents can be drafted by a paralegal and refined by an attorney.
I don’t think a lawyer charging $400 an hour should be drafting form discovery responses.
Legal advice, analysis of a case, going to court, conducting depositions, going to trial are all things lawyers should do.
That’s only about 20% of the work involved in managing a case, however. Much of the work involved in handling the case is administrative and clerical work.
However, some lawyers are solo practitioners or work in smaller firms. These days, younger lawyers are typing and preparing their own work. They may not have a paralegal or a legal secretary.
I think it’s reasonable to ask about a lower administrative rate or if they can outsource that work to a contract admin or paralegal.
If nothing else, just be sure you understand how you will be charged and how much.
Ask the lawyer’s office about flat fee options, lower hourly rates for administrative work and other options to keep your fees as reasonable as possible
I think there are more lawyers offering flat fee and other creative options these days because of the economy.
If you've conducted your due diligence on the lawyer, you’ll probably already know about a lot about their approach at this point, so this might not be an issue.
You might also think of other things that are specific to your situation.
The point here is to talk to your prospective attorney about them.
The attorney knows you don’t have thousands to spend and they’ve probably heard a lot of requests from clients. A lot of people are being more cost conscious with lawyers these days so I doubt you’ll catch them off guard unless you are being unreasonable.
Whatever terms you agree upon, make sure the changes are reflected in your engagement letter BEFORE you sign them, because once you sign the engagement letter and pay the retainer, those terms will govern your relationship.
It’s better to have all these terms resolved so that you have one less concern to worry about during what could be a difficult situation.
I hope this helps!
CHRISTINE E. SPRINGER IS NOT AN ATTORNEY AND THIS POST IS NOT INTENDED TO BE LEGAL ADVICE.