At some point in your life, you’ll need a lawyer. It could be because of something unforeseen, like an accident. Or it could be because you’ve decided to be proactive and do some estate planning. Regardless of your reason for seeking legal counsel, there are a few good questions to ask a lawyer before you decide if he or she is the right lawyer for you.
In some areas of law, such as personal injury or criminal law, it is common for a lawyer to have free consultations. In other areas of law, such as family law, there is usually a small consultation fee charged for your first meeting. There are many reasons for this, but the bottom line is that the consultation fee is minimal compared to the value of the meeting. So don’t let a small consultation fee stand in the way of having an in-person meeting with a lawyer you’re considering hiring. In that meeting, here are a few questions you should ask.
Are you the only Attorney who would work on my case, or do you have backup?
Some lawyers work alone. Others use a team approach to their cases. When you meet with a potential lawyer, ask whether she has other lawyers at the firm who work on her cases too. It is sometimes beneficial for lawyers to be part of a team where they can think about their cases together and brainstorm on the best strategies for their clients. A law office that follows a team approach, as East Coast Trial Lawyers does, might be better at solving their clients’ legal problems, since they can rely on the experience of all the lawyers on the team.
If I hire you, will you put our agreement and your fees in writing?
This one is incredibly important. If you meet with a lawyer who doesn’t give written letters or agreements to clients who hire him . . . run away. After you and your new lawyer verbally agree on the terms of representing you, the next step is for the lawyer to put those terms in writing and give you a copy. Some lawyers do this by simply writing a letter to you that includes all the terms. You won’t necessarily need to sign it. Just keep a copy. Other lawyers do a formal “retainer agreement” that is like a contract you will sign. Either of these methods is perfectly fine. The important part is that the terms of your agreement, including exactly what the lawyer will work on for you, and exactly how he will be paid, are included in a written document and you get your own copy of it.
Have you or your team worked on cases like this one?
You want to work with a law firm that has experience with the type of case you have. Firms with several attorneys will use their combined experience to work on your case, so even if the lawyer you’re directly working with has limited experience, consider the experience of the other lawyers in the firm. This is one benefit of hiring a firm with multiple lawyers. You receive the experience of the team approach rather than just one attorney. So ask your potential new lawyer whether her team has experience with cases like yours, not just whether the particular lawyer herself has that experience.
Do you guarantee you will win my case?
This is a bit of a trick question! If the lawyer says yes, then he or she is violating ethical rules of the Virginia State Bar, and you should not do business with him or her. A lawyer can never promise a particular outcome on a legal matter. This is because every case and every trial is unique, and will be decided on the specific facts and merit of that individual case. What a good lawyer will promise is diligent and consistent work on your behalf in the active pursuit of your goals, and good communication with you during the process. But when asked this question, an honest lawyer must always answer “No, I cannot guarantee any specific outcome on your case.”
How should I communicate with you?
Your lawyer should be able to return your phone calls within a few days if you need to speak with him or her directly. But remember that your lawyer’s time is best spent in court, and hard at work on your case. For that reason, many firms designate a specific paralegal or assistant to address any routine client questions during the course of the representation. During your first meeting, ask who you should call or email if you have any follow-up information or questions.
After hiring a lawyer, working with him or her will be somewhat like working with your medical doctor. Doctors see their patients at office visits, where they discuss your treatment plan. If you call or email your doctor’s office, you’re much more likely to talk with an assistant or nurse than with the doctor himself. This is because the doctor is in surgery, or seeing other patients. Lawyers work in a very similar way. You will have one, or perhaps a few, in-person office visits with your lawyer while she represents you. This is your time to tell your lawyer everything he or she needs to know, and for your lawyer to give you advice for your next steps. From here, your lawyer will start working for you. In the meantime, if you need something or something changes you should call and talk to your lawyer’s assistant or paralegal. They will either explain what to do, or will pass the information on to your lawyer who might set an office appointment for you, or return your call at a time when he or she is not in court or with another client.
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