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How Do I Pick the Right Lawyer?

Where to start when you need legal help

Whether it’s because you were hurt in an accident, need a will, or are getting a divorce, odds are you’ll come face-to-face with a lawyer at some point in your life. When you do, it’s likely you’ll feel burdened by the unknowns: How do I hire an attorney? How do I know it’s a good fit? What will the services cost?

“A lot of people find meeting with a lawyer to be somewhat intimidating,” says Kathryn Grant Madigan, an estate planning attorney and past president of the New York State Bar Association. “I find sometimes clients are embarrassed to talk about things—whether it’s an addiction in the family, whatever it may be. I’ve learned that there are really no functional families. It’s heartening for clients to learn they’re not alone, that it’s a common issue and experience.”

Before arranging an official meeting, lawyers recommend reaching out to a couple of attorneys to find one that fits your both case and personality. “It’s sort of like your wedding planner—you want to be comfortable with someone,” says Dori Foster-Morales, a family law attorney and past president of The Florida Bar. “You need to ask questions about your case, not to be afraid, and then see how you are able to communicate with that lawyer.”

For Paul Kiesel, a personal injury attorney and former president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, compatibility is the number one selection criterion. “The key to selecting a lawyer is finding an attorney who you feel comfortable with. That’s it,” he says. “It’s just like finding the doctor who has the bedside manner that you’re comfortable with.

“The number one complaint that state bars have across the country is, ‘My lawyer is not getting back to me,’” he continues. “I believe that you have to set out, from the very beginning, what your expectation is in terms of communication. And that lawyer or firm needs to either reflect your level of communication, or you need to go to a different law firm.”

Some clients may find it helpful to get an initial consultation with a lawyer they may not be able to afford, simply for what Foster-Morales calls the “60,000-foot overview of how the case is going to be handled.”

Most lawyers do not give free consultations, adds Madigan, “because most clients walk away after an hour or so with a treasure trove of information and a plan. [However], if clients are resistant because they feel they want to shop around, I think most attorneys would be willing to talk with them for five or 10 minutes on the phone.”

Once you have selected your attorney, you’ll sometimes do a screening with a firm staff member before meeting with the lawyer themselves. For example, if you’re looking to begin an estate plan, the staffer will explain how billing works, and let you know what documents you’ll need to bring when you meet with an attorney for the first time.

Similarly, if you’re seeking an attorney about an injury, there will be a screening first. As Kiesel notes, personal injury attorneys work on a contingency basis—meaning their only payment will be a percentage of any possible verdict or settlement—though most turn down the majority of cases.

Foster-Morales says it’s good to be up front and ask your attorney about costs, though lawyers may only be able to give you an estimate based on their hourly rates. If you’re headed toward litigation, a good lawyer will give you a retainer letter and explain it to you.

If you’ve already retained an attorney, and it feels like things are heading south, lawyers say they won’t be offended if you seek counsel elsewhere. “You have to feel out how realistic people are being with you, how honest they’re being,” says Foster-Morales. “We all have credibility detectors, and you want to be wary of someone who is just going to agree with you. … You need real legal advice.”

“You want your clients when they walk out the door, to have some peace of mind knowing that their legal issue has been resolved,” adds Madigan. “And that the lawyer they worked with really cared about them and their problem.”

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