Law Matters / Ask tough questions before hiring a lawyer
Published 6:35 am, Thursday, January 24, 2013
You need a lawyer, and you have heard the horror stories. You fear the cost. You feel intimidated. Daunted. How to choose?
You ask around, you Google, you get some names, you make the calls. You have the appointment, and you are ready to explain your case. You know your need intimately, you have been living it. But have you enlisted the right attorney?
Not all lawyers are created equal. And not all problems call for the same lawyer.
First, you must make sure the attorney you interview has experience in the area of law in which you need help. Assuming your choices meet the rudimentary criteria, how to select? Do not select on fee or credentials alone.
Remember, when you engage an attorney, you are creating a relationship. Make sure you create a good relationship, one in which you are comfortable and works for you. Look for three things: Communication, cost, and trust.
One of the most common complaints I hear is about communication. "My lawyer never calls me back" or "I can never get hold of my lawyer." Ask prospective attorneys how they handle communication with clients once retained. Do they have policies of trying to return every phone call on the same day placed? What is their policy regarding returning phone calls? Keep in mind that lawyers need to triage clients and return calls in order of urgency, so if yours is a routine phone call, it may not be returned until other fires are put out first.
How about email? How frequently does the attorney check his/her emails and respond? Will you have access to his/her cell phone? Are there set hours within which to call? Will you have access outside of office hours, in case of emergency?
Establishing a reliable manner and method of communication with your lawyer is key to a good working relationship. Make sure you are able to state what your communication needs are, and ask whether the lawyer feels comfortable meeting them on your terms.
The next area of contention after "communication" is cost.
Make sure you, the client, understand completely what is expected of you before engaging your lawyer. Many attorney-client relationships break down unnecessarily when it comes to money. If the attorney's fees are set forth up front, in a written engagement agreement as required by the Rules of Professional Conduct (the ethics code that governs lawyers), there should be fewer misunderstandings and disagreements.
I frequently hear people discussing whether they feel they can trust their attorney. You need to be able to trust and respect your lawyer, and you need to be able to confide in your lawyer. You need to be able to feel you can tell your lawyer anything. You need to feel your lawyer listens to you, and cares about you and your problem. And that your lawyer understands.
I often meet people who have a serious problem. They have chosen a lawyer with excellent credentials on paper, but they do not feel heard, listened to, understood, or cared about. Clients commonly become frustrated and discouraged when they do not feel they are getting personal attention from someone who cares. Make sure the lawyer you hire is someone you feel comfortable talking to, someone you can reach when you need to, someone you trust, and is someone who understands not just the law but what you are going through.
A great lawyer has knowledge, skill, experience, and great relationships with clients. Ask the hard questions. And then go with your gut.