Hiring and working with lawyers

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I’ve regrettably had a couple of occasions to hire lawyers before, and I’ve also assisted relatives who were involved in lawsuits. I am not an expert on this stuff, but this article is a collection of tips I’ve learned through experience. Until I actually had these experiences, I thought you went to lawyers and they told you what to do. After all, that’s how it looked on TV. But it’s not quite like that in real life. Here’s what I’ve learned about working with lawyers.

Law book open on desk

Choosing your lawyer

Whether you pick a lawyer based on a friend’s recommendation or from a web search or from a TV ad, there are a few things you need to know.

  • You’ll need an attorney who’s licensed to work in the state where your case would go to trial, if it goes that far (many suits settle out of court). So if you live in Texas but a Maryland court has jurisdiction over the case, you’ll have to hire a Maryland lawyer and handle things mostly by phone and email. Also opt for a lawyer who’s in the same county or a neighboring one to the court where your case would be heard, so you won’t have to pay her travel expenses. (Note: divorce/custody modification cases are always handled by the court where the divorce first took place.)
  • Look for specialists in your area of law rather than general attorneys. Specialists can cost a little bit more, but they are more familiar with the area of law and can give you an edge.
  • When looking for a lawyer, check out their resume/CV. Many post these on their websites. Look for someone with experience and the right background. For example, in a divorce case where the spouses co-owned a business, a family law attorney with a B.A. in Accounting might be more knowledgeable about the complex business issues better than a family law attorney with a B.A. in sociology.

Interviewing your potential attorneys

Most attorneys offer an hour of consultation so you can decide if they’re right for you. Before the consultation, do some research about your case, as if you were going to try to handle it yourself without a lawyer. Some of what you discover online or in books be wrong or misleading, but you need to know at least something about the law on your case to judge whether the lawyer you’re talking to has a clue or not. Whether this is in person, over the phone or over Skype, take note of the following:

  • Does she seem to know what she’s talking about and offer suggestions, ideas or knowledge that match what you researched, and hopefully go beyond that? If so, good.
  • Does she make predictions about how the case will turn out? Responsible attorneys do not do this. More on this in the next section.
  • Also avoid lawyers who tell you you don’t have a case. While they may be telling you the truth, attorneys often say that when they don’t want your case. Why? Well, I’ve heard from attorneys I know that  that they are legally not allowed to turn cases down, so when you call them with a case they don’t want, they may try to convince you it’s a bad case to get out of taking it. In any case, you don’t want someone who doesn’t want your case. Even if you convinced them to take it, they probably wouldn’t try hard enough on your behalf.
  • Now, if, say, 3-4 lawyers are telling you that you don’t have a case, then you probably don’t and should try to negotiate with the other party. Just because something seems unfair to you doesn’t mean it’ll be a winnable court case.

The process of a lawsuit

Working with lawyers is not as simple as phoning them up and letting them take care of everything. The following tips are sort of random, but what they all have in common is that they will save you billable hours and frustration.

  • While lawyers can provide suggestions and tell you your options, it’s not their job to tell you what to do – it’s actually your place to tell them what to do (as long as it’s legal). Listen carefully as they outline your options instead of collapsing in a panic and demanding they tell you what to do. Keep asking for clarification as needed – i.e., “It sounds like you’re saying Option 1 would cost a lot, and Option 2 might work just as well for a fraction of the price?” That is the kind of question they can answer, and then it becomes clear which option you should choose.
  • If your lawyer is at all responsible, they’re going to tell you all the bad stuff that could happen (based on legal precedent and how the laws work), even if they’re secretly thinking you have a 99% chance of getting a really good result. Don’t take a “This could happen” statement and read into it that your attorney thinks that’s a likely outcome. They have a duty to prepare you for the worst; chances are, it’ll turn out better than that.
  • Don’t ask your attorney for odds. They can comment on how good they think your case (or how strong your opponent’s case) is, but they can’t lay odds on what will happen in court, or how the other party will respond to a particular settlement offer (for example). There are just too many unknown variables – it wouldn’t be responsible for them to speculate on what might happen.
  • Don’t cry on your attorney’s shoulder. Friends and even therapists are much cheaper, so save your anxieties and venting for them and stick to business when talking to your attorney.
  • Your attorney should advise you on what’s the cheapest way to communicate. The ones I’ve dealt with prefer email, because they can often read and respond inside 6 minutes, which is 1/10th of a billable hour. Meaning, 6 emails (1 billable hour) might accomplish a lot more than an hour on the phone. Stick to what your attorney prefers as often as possible.
  • If there’s research to be done, you can do it yourself and save the lawyer some time. It’s not difficult to look for case law online, and also articles written by experts who address the topics you need.