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Most problems that people have with their lawyers fall into four categories: communication problems, competence problems, ethical problems, and fee problems. It’s rare, however, that clients have just one problem — usually, problems spill over into two or more categories.

Here are some basic rules on what you have a right to expect from your lawyer in each of these areas.

Communication

Communication problems can cause you to think you have a bad lawyer when you don’t, or that your lawyer is doing a bad job when she isn’t.

Your lawyer should give you a basic description of your legal matter and let you know what problems to expect, how they’ll be handled, and when things will happen. And of course, your lawyer should promptly return phone calls and answer your questions — basic courtesies that many lawyers commonly ignore because they are so busy.

Competence

It’s a big shock to most people that there is no guarantee of competence when you hire a lawyer. Sure, all lawyers have passed a bar exam, but one test, given at the very beginning of a lawyer’s career, isn’t all that significant. And if you complain to a bar association that your lawyer is incompetent, all you are likely to get in return is a shrug. Bar associations go after lawyers who steal or violate specific ethical rules — not lawyers who just aren’t very good.

If, however, your lawyer makes a mistake in handling your legal matter that no reasonable attorney would have made and you lost money because of it, it is called malpractice, and you can sue. The mistake can be a failure to do something, such as not filing a lawsuit on time, or doing something the lawyer should not have done, such as representing a business in bankruptcy while representing an investor negotiating to buy the business. Malpractice suits, unfortunately, are expensive to bring and tough to win.For more information, see Suing Your Lawyer for Malpractice.

Ethics

Each state has ethical laws that bind lawyers. Commonly, these rules require lawyers to:

  • represent their clients with undivided loyalty
  • keep their clients’ confidences
  • represent their clients competently
  • represent their clients within the bounds of the law, and
  • put their clients’ interests ahead of their own.

Each state has a lawyer discipline agency that is supposed to enforce these rules. If a lawyer violates a rule, the agency can impose monetary fines, require the lawyer to make restitution (such as pay back stolen money), suspend a lawyer’s license to practice law for a while, or disbar the attorney. disbarment, however, is exceedingly rare, and is usually reserved for lawyers with a long record of stealing from clients.

Fees

Lawyers’ bills, unsurprisingly, are one of the most common areas of contention with clients. Most complaints sound like one of the following:

  • My bill is too high, and it’s not what we agreed to.
  • My bill isn’t itemized. I have no idea what my lawyer claims to have done to earn it, and she won’t discuss it with me.
  • My attorney did a terrible job, and I don’t want to pay a big bill.
  • My attorney billed me top dollar for her time when I know a paralegal did most of the work.
  • My attorney padded his bill — he billed me 30 minutes for every two-minute phone call, even when I called to protest earlier overbilling.


When you hire a lawyer, make sure that your fee agreement is in writing. That’s the law in some states, and it’s always a good idea. The agreement should specify how often you will be billed and should obligate the lawyer to provide an itemized statement. If you’ve agreed to pay your lawyer a contingency fee (the lawyer collects only if you win), be sure you know exactly how the fee is calculated and who pays for costs that arise while the lawsuit is in progress. For further information, see Attorney’s Fees: The Basics and Creating a Fee Agreement With Your Lawyer.

If your legal problem is complex or involves lots of money, you might not want to attempt to handle the entire matter without a lawyer. After all, lawyers do more than dispense legal information. They offer strategic advice and apply sophisticated technical skills to legal problems. Ideally, you’ll be able to find a lawyer who’s willing to serve as your legal “coach” to help you educate yourself to the maximum extent possible and to take over as your formal legal counsel only if necessary.


How to Find the Right Lawyer

Locating a good lawyer who can efficiently help with your particular problem may not be easy. Don’t expect to locate a good lawyer by simply looking in the phone book or reading an advertisement. There’s not enough information in these sources to help you make a valid judgment.

Personal Referrals

A better approach is to talk to people in your community who have experienced the same problem you face — for example, if you have a claim of sexual harassment, talk to a women’s group. Ask them who their lawyers were and what they think of them. If you talk to half a dozen people who have had a similar legal problem, chances are you’ll come away with several good leads.

But don’t make a decision about a lawyer solely on the basis of someone else’s recommendation. Different people will have different responses to a lawyer’s style and personality; don’t make up your mind about hiring a lawyer until you’ve met the lawyer, discussed your case, and decided that you feel comfortable working with him or her.

Also, it may be hard to find lawyer through a personal referral with the expertise you need (for instance, if your friend had a great divorce lawyer, but you need incorporation advice, the referral may not do you much good).

Online Services

Many sites, including Nolo.com, offer a way to connect with local lawyers based on your location and the type of legal case you have. You answer a few questions about your case and your contact information, then the right type of lawyers contact you directly. Talk to a local lawyer.

Nolo’s Lawyer Directory

Nolo offers a unique lawyer directory that provides a comprehensive profile for each attorney with information that will help you select the right attorney. The profiles tell you about the lawyer’s experience, education, and fees, and perhaps most importantly, the lawyer’s general philosophy of practicing law. Nolo has confirmed that every listed attorney has a valid license and is in good standing with their bar association.

Business Referrals

Businesses who provide services to key players in the legal area you are interested in may also be able to help you identify lawyers you should consider. For example, if you are interested in small business law, speak to your banker, accountant, insurance agent, and real estate broker. These people come into frequent contact with lawyers who represent business clients and are in a position to make informed judgments.

LAWYER REFERRAL SERVICES

Lawyer referral services are another source of information. There is a wide variation in the quality of lawyer referral services, however, even though they are required to be approved by the state bar association. Some lawyer referral services carefully screen attorneys and list only those attorneys with particular qualifications and a certain amount of past experience, while other services will list any attorney in good standing with the state bar who maintains liability insurance. Before you choose a lawyer referral service, ask what its qualifications are for including an attorney and how carefully lawyers are screened.

What you may not get from any lawyer referral service, however, is insight into the lawyer’s philosophy — for instance, whether the lawyer is willing to spend a few hours to be your legal coach or how aggressive the lawyer’s personality is.

Other Sources

Here are a few other sources you can turn to for possible candidates in your search for a lawyer:

  • The director of your state or local chamber of commerce may be a good source of business lawyers.
  • The director of a nonprofit group interested in the subject matter that underlies your lawsuit is sure to know lawyers who work in that area. For example, if your dispute involves trying to stop a major new subdivision, it would make sense to consult an environmental group committed to fighting urban sprawl.
  • A law librarian can help identify authors in your state who have written books or articles on a particular subject — for example, construction law.
  • A women’s or men’s support group will probably have a list of well-regarded family and divorce lawyers.

Consider a Specialist

Most lawyers specialize in certain areas, and even a so-called “general practitioner” may not know that much about the particular area of your concern. For example, of the almost one million lawyers in America today, probably fewer than 50,000 possess sufficient training and experience in small business law to be of real help to an aspiring entrepreneur.

It can pay to work with a lawyer who already knows the field, such as employment discrimination, zoning laws, software design issues, or restaurant licensing. That way you can take advantage of the fact that the lawyer is already far up the learning curve. Sometimes specialists charge a little more, but if their specialized information is truly valuable, it can be money well spent.

Interview the Prospective Lawyers

When you get the names of several good prospects, the next step is to talk to each personally. If you outline your needs in advance, many lawyers will be willing to meet to you for a half-hour or so at no charge so that you can size them up and make an informed decision.

Personality

Pay particular attention to the personal chemistry between you and your lawyer. No matter how experienced and well-recommended a lawyer is, if you feel uncomfortable with that person during your first meeting or two, you may never achieve an ideal lawyer-client relationship. Trust your instincts and seek a lawyer whose personality is compatible with your own. Look also for experience, personal rapport, and accessibility.

Communication and Promptness

Ask all prospective lawyers how you will be able to contact them and how long it will take them to return your communications. And don’t assume that because the lawyer seems friendly and easy to talk to that it’s okay to overlook this step.

Unfortunately, the complaint logs of all lawyer regulatory groups indicate that many lawyers are terrible communicators. If every time you have a problem there’s a delay of several days before you can talk to your lawyer on the phone or get an appointment, you’ll lose precious time, not to mention sleep.

Almost nothing is more aggravating to a client than to leave a legal project in a lawyer’s hands and then have weeks or even months go by without anything happening. You want a lawyer who will work hard on your behalf and follow through promptly on all assignments.

Willingness to Work With You

When you have a legal problem, you need legal information. Lawyers, of course, are prime sources of this information, but if you bought all the needed information at their rates — $150 to $450 an hour — you’d quickly empty your bank account. Fortunately, many lawyers will work with you to help you acquire a good working knowledge of the legal principles and procedures you need to deal with your problem at least partly on your own.

If you are hoping to represent yourself and use a lawyer only for advice, make sure the lawyer is open to that type of set-up. Likewise, if you’re going into business and will draft your own bylaws or business agreements, ask the lawyer if she’s open to reviewing your drafts and making comments. Virtual law practice is revolutionizing the way the public receives legal services and how legal professionals work with clients. Stephanie Kimbro’s practical guide teaches lawyers how to set up and run a virtual law firm. It provides case studies of individual

Further Resources

For more tips on choosing and working with a lawyer, see the eBook The Lawsuit Survival Guide: A Client’s Companion to Litigation, by Joseph Matthews (Nolo).


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