After years of flipping past the "L's" in the Yellow Pages, you finally have to hire a lawyer. Visions of Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey and Marcia Clark dance in your head. You can't even envision someone who charges less than $200 an hour. Let's see . . . 10 hours of getting into my problem and coming up with a solution would be . . . $2,000. Time to head to a software store to pick up a copy of "Be Your Own Lawyer (and Sue Yourself for Malpractice)."
Or is it? Remember, this is just another consumer transaction. Sometimes couched in mystery, hiring a lawyer really is no different from finding a hairdresser without scalper syndrome or an auto mechanic who knows a distributor from a drive shaft. Knowing what you're looking for is crucial, but you first need to specifically identify your problem.
Sit down with a yellow pad and ask yourself: What is your situation? Is it fairly straightforward, like incorporating your ice cream parlor, or more complex, like becoming the legal guardian for your 90-year-old great-aunt?
Write the problem out. Describe how it arose, what stage it's in now, and the desired outcome. This brainstorming will help in your hunt for the right attorney.
Naturally, every problem isn't subject to leisurely analysis. (Example: Your 17-year-old son calls from the police station, where he's being booked for driving under the influence.) Most problems, however, allow at least some time to plan a strategy.
Once you have a handle on your type of legal problem and decide to use a lawyer, it's time to find one. Where do you look? How do you find one who's competent and easy to work with? Here are some pointers on launching your lawyer search:
Where to Look
There are lots of places to look. Some are personal (a relative or in-law, for example); others, such as bar association lawyer referral services, are more generic. Networking can connect potential clients with appropriate lawyers. Fairfax attorney Laurie Dolson estimates that 75 percent of her clients are referred by other attorneys.
If you have a friend whose lawyer helped save his chocolate factory from the IRS, get the attorney's name and mention the satisfied friend when you call. Ask your friend about the lawyer's "people skills" and organization as well as professional knowledge. You're looking for a package of skills, including such things as returning phone calls and keeping you up to date on your case. Diplomas and honors blanketing a wall won't do you any good unless they're used to solve your problem.
Ellen Soroka, administrator of the Lawyer Referral Service for the Fairfax County Bar, gets about 18,000 phone calls a year, and she tells clients to "make sure your attorney is knowledgeable and experienced in your area." She notes that "not every situation needs [a] Clarence Darrow." Soroka says there's a competent attorney out there for virtually every need, recalling the time she found an attorney to seek justice for the owner of a $50 dress mauled by a dry cleaner.
What to Look For
First, look for someone who will speak plain English. Lawyers may lapse into legalese and utilize words like "utilize," but you shouldn't need a Berlitz course to understand them. Find someone who can clearly explain your problem and outline an intelligible game plan. Listening is an art. As McLean family law attorney and mediator Frances Fite puts it: "At the end of a marriage, your relationship with your attorney is a close one . . . it's crucial that your attorney find out what's important to you, and ask the right questions."
Once you can understand an attorney, look for someone:
with time for your case. Ask how many clients the attorney has.
you feel comfortable with. Don't ignore intuition -- you may be spending a lot of time with this person. Educator Jessica Flowers, divorcing after a long marriage, knew what she wanted: a female attorney, and one who would act as a "consultant" rather than a dictator. Flowers brought a friend along to a two-hour consultation to get feedback from someone who wasn't emotionally involved in the situation.
who sends you an "engagement letter" outlining just what he will do (and not do) for you, and what fees will be charged, so you have a clear understanding of what to expect.
who sends detailed bills. You want that $2,000 bill broken down into hours worked, name(s) of attorney, type of work done (legal brief, interviews, phone calls, etc.). "Little things," such as photocopying, faxing, long-distance phone calls, also should be listed separately, not lumped together as $407 for "disbursements."
who treats you with courtesy and respect, and returns phone calls within a reasonable time.
who isn't already working for someone else connected to your case, causing a conflict of interests.
who will safeguard the information you share and the confidentiality of the lawyer-client relationship.
The stereotype: You might get the legal solution you were looking for, but by then you'll be living in a refrigerator box.
Actually, legal fees vary widely, based on specialty and type of law firm. A partner in a downtown legal powerhouse probably will cost more than an associate in a suburban office town house. By the hour, legal fees can range from about $75 to $300 and up. Of course, hourly rates aren't the only way to bill. Some lawyers will charge a flat, fixed fee, usually for simpler, more predictable items like an uncomplicated will. Cases taken "on contingency" mean you don't pay the lawyer in advance; the typically 20-40 percent fee comes out of the recovery.
Others will ask for a retainer, a deposit against which upcoming expenses can be drawn. Retainers range from the fee for several hours to thousands of dollars. In this case, ask that you be contacted when your retainer is -- say -- 75 percent gone. This prevents unpleasant surprises and gives you more control over continuing to fund the legal coffers.
Ask your prospective attorney how he bills, and get an estimate of hours it will take to resolve your situation. Be aware that many hours can be spent on negotiating and hammering out the terms of a settlement offer, which attorney Fite considers "time well spent."
What to Ask
Before you get there, ask how long the consultation will be and how much it will cost. Some lawyers offer free consultations. On site or by phone, ask lots of questions:
* Have you handled cases like mine before? How many? Do you have any similar cases now? You want someone who knows the issues involved and won't be learning at your expense.
* Are you familiar with alternative forms of dispute resolution (mediation, arbitration, etc.). An attorney with several options for handling a situation can be more creative and cost-effective.
* Can you estimate how long this might take?
* How much is this likely to cost and what will be included? How often does your firm bill?
* When can I expect you to contact me? Do I need to call/e-mail to check up on things?
* Would you give me a reference or two?
The Good Client
Most lawyers with "dream" and "nightmare" clients try to expand the first group and spin off the second. In all life's arenas, including law, the customer who's proactive, cooperative and solvent gets calls put through first.
Just as you have an idea of what you'd like in an attorney, your attorney has a similar sketch of the "ideal client."
D.C. domestic relations attorney Linda J. Ravdin prefers to work with clients who take an active role in their case. "The best clients," she says, "ask intelligent questions about strategy. They help make decisions, and follow through on correcting documents." Ravdin contrasts this type of client with the "shopping bag people" who bring in reams of unsorted information for the attorney to sort through. "This type of client," says Ravdin, "wants you to do everything for them, even things they could do themselves."
For "AAA" client-status, keep a few rules in mind:
* Your lawyer has other clients. Respect his time and don't call unless necessary.
* Read over your "engagement letter" carefully -- it spells out what your lawyer will do for you. The lawyer is not a magician and can't force judges to sign orders. You have the right to expect professional, courteous service, not miracles.
* Be responsible and helpful, doing as much legwork as you can. Your case will progress more quickly, with fewer legal hours billed. Gather information before its absence spawns a crisis. (Your lawyer's staff may be able to help with this.) If you get asset/liability or other worksheets, fill them out accurately and return them.
* Get to know as much as possible about your situation. Go to the library, visit Web sites, call consumer information agencies. Besides feeling more connected to your own life, you'll save time and money.
* Pay the bill. If you must make financial arrangements or have a cash flow crisis, let your attorney know.
Where to Start
Among sources for finding a lawyer:
District of Columbia
* District of Columbia Bar, 202-737-4700; www.dcbar.org
The D.C. Bar does not have a lawyer referral service, but offers basic legal information on a variety of subjects including family law, housing, employment, public benefits and consumer problems. Refers callers to the Legal Service Source Book, found in public libraries or at the D.C. Bar office.
* The Maryland State Bar Association, 410-685-7878; www.msba.org
* Anne Arundel County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service, 410-280-6961; www.aabar.org
* Howard County Bar Association, 410-313-2030; www.mdlaw.net/howard
* Montgomery County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service, 301-279-9100; www.montbar.org
* Prince George's County Bar Association, 301-952-1442; www.mdlaw.net/pgbar.htm
* Virginia State Bar, 804-775-0500; www.vsb.org
* Virginia Lawyer Referral Service, 800-552-7977; www.vsb.org
* Fairfax Bar Lawyer Referral Information Service, 703-246-3780; www.fairfaxbar.org
* Arlington Bar Lawyer Referral Service, 703-228-3390; adams.patriot.net/~crouch/lrs.html
* Loudoun and Prince William counties use the Virginia Lawyer Referral Service.
* American Bar Association, www.abanet.org
* The National Bar Association, www.nationalbar.org; executive director, John Crump, 202-842-3900.
* National Association for Public Interest Law, provides legal services to low-income individuals, 202-466-3686; www.napil.org
* Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory and M-H Lawyer Locator, www.martindale.com; also sponsors www.lawyers.com, for individuals and small businesses, listing attorneys by location or specialty.
* West's Legal Directory, www.wld.com, similar to Martindale-Hubbell directory.
* Legal Serv, www.legalserv.com, legal directory containing over 500,000 attorneys and law firms.