Selecting an attorney to represent you is not always an easy prospect, especially if it’s your first time needing legal help. You may not know how to find the right attorney for your needs, or what questions to ask.
Selecting the right attorney and understanding expectations on both sides will hopefully lead to a successful attorney-client relationship. As you can probably guess, not all attorneys are the same and you will have to do some research to narrow your list down.
Find an attorney. The first question you might ask yourself is, “How do I find attorneys to talk to?”
One good place to start is with your state’s bar association. State bar listings may allow you to narrow down your search to attorneys who practice in specific areas of law.
Another way to find attorneys specializing in the field of law you need is through other legal professional organizations. For example, the American Agricultural Law Association is a national professional organization with attorneys who practice in the field of agricultural law.
Also, ask friends, neighbors and those you work with about attorneys they have used and how the experience was. If they know any of the attorneys on your list, ask them whom they would use.
Interview prospects. Once you have developed a list of possible attorneys, interview them. You should talk to them about you expect your case to be handled, how you will get updates, and how you will be billed, as well as payment plans.
If you have never hired an attorney before, you may have some initial fears. Interviewing the attorney and getting a feel for how the process works will ease many of those concerns.
Always ask about payment and billing because this can vary depending on the attorney and the issue. It’s essential to understand what the attorney will charge you in order to eliminate surprises when you get the first bill. Plus, it will help you know if you can afford the attorney.
For simple matters like estate planning or title opinions, the attorney may bill you a flat fee. For more complicated issues you could be paying a retainer with the attorney charging you an hourly rate, which could change if the case goes to trial.
We all communicate differently, so make sure you understand how the attorney will communicate with you. You may prefer phone calls, text messages or short emails.
Ask questions early on to know how they will communicate with you and how often you will receive updates. Understanding how you and the attorney will talk to each other will also help your attorney when asking you for additional information, such as other documents or responses to questions.
You may think all attorneys can handle any legal problem you present to them, but this is not the case. Many attorneys focus on a specific area of law, such as environmental law, taxes, succession planning or bankruptcy. During the interview, ask the attorney if he or she typically handles cases like yours. Ask for the attorney’s track record in similar cases — wins, losses and settlement record.
While this should not be a determining factor, it can help you understand the types of cases and clients the attorney handles typically.
See if they’re up to date on issues. Consider following up by asking about the attorney’s professional associations. Specializing in an area of law requires the attorney to keep up with the latest developments in that field.
Professional organizations, such as sections within the American Bar Association, state bar association or associations in the local area, can be one way for the attorney to keep up on the latest developments.
Being a member of a professional organization can be one way to determine if the attorney is keeping abreast of changes in that area of expertise.
Ask about past clients. Have the attorney describe a typical client. This is an important question that many people forget to ask.
When specializing in a law field, attorneys may only represent one kind of client, such as corporations or large businesses. They may not have experience working with smaller, family owned businesses such as a farm. By asking this question, you get a sense of the kind of client the attorney typically handles.
How will they handle your case? An attorney who regularly practices in the area of law your seeking help should have no problem discussing how to manage your case.
For example, if your request involves environmental contamination, then the attorney may want to consult experts they regularly use to establish a defense. The attorney may also generically discuss the steps in how the case will proceed.
Finding the right attorney is not always as simple as hiring the first attorney you interview. Take time to do research, talk to multiple attorneys and find the one who makes you feel comfortable. These questions are starters for you; you should consider adding other questions that address your specific concerns.
Goeringer is an Extension legal specialist with University of Maryland.