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Finding a Lawyer

So you’ve decided that you need a lawyer.  You have a case– perhaps a family matter, like a divorce, paternity action, modification of an existing court order, or an adoption.  Or maybe you have a contract issue.  Or problems with creditors.  Whatever it is, there are a few things that you should ask a lawyer when you are meeting with him/her for the first time.

1)  How can you contact the lawyer?  Do they prefer email, or should you call?

2)  Following up on Question #1, how long is it going to take for the lawyer, or at least the office, to get back to you?

3)  What is her hourly rate?  And how is that billed?  Some lawyers bill in 15 minute increments, some in 6 minute increments.  This is something you REALLY need to be aware of.  When you call your lawyer, the call may have only lasted 4 minutes, but you will still be billed in whatever the minimum increment is.

4)  What is the retainer required up front?  Your retainer is basically a lump sum payment for (hopefully) all of the services you’ll need for whatever you hired the lawyer to handle.  It’s typical for an attorney to ask for whatever s/he believes the entire case is going to cost to complete from start to finish.  If your case is going to become a major battle, for example, the retainer requested up front may be higher than if you believe you’ll not get any resistance from the other party.  The money from your retainer is deposited into an account, and the money doesn’t get transferred to the attorney until the attorney has actually earned it, generally by doing work for you and billing at the hourly rate, whatever that is.  It’s not common for there to be money left in a retainer that is paid up front–however, if there is, you may get a refund on it. ***Just because you paid a retainer does NOT mean that’s all you’ll end up paying on your case.  A $1500 retainer, for example, doesn’t last very long if you’ve got a situation with a lot of conflict.  Expect to be billed in addition to your paid retainer in most cases.

5)  Related to #4…Is the retainer refundable?  Some attorneys have within their retainer agreements that the retainer is deemed “earned upon receipt.”  So even if they don’t do enough work to justify keeping the full amount, the contract says it’s all theirs anyway.  You want to know this before you plunk down a chunk of cash on your case.

6)  Does the attorney do the type of work you need done regularly?  If not, is it going to cost you anything for her/him to get “caught up,” so to speak, on the law that governs your case?

7)  Is the attorney licensed in the jurisdiction you need to bring your case?  In any case one might be pursuing, there are statutes that state what court and what state the case can or must be heard in.  For example, an attorney who is licensed in California, but not in Utah, cannot represent a client in a Utah matter, though s/he may represent a client who lives in Utah in a case that has to be handled in California.  An attorney can only do legal work for cases that are to be heard by the court in the jurisdiction(s) the attorney is licensed in.  You can find out if an attorney is licensed in your state by going to the state’s bar association website.

More often than not, finding an attorney who practices the type of law you need help with can be done online.  You can simply search for “Utah family lawyer,” for example, to find a lawyer close to you.  Many have websites with the attorney’s experience listed.  It can be very convenient to put together a list of different lawyers you can contact to find the one that is right for you.  You can also go to the state bar’s website.  Many state’s are now making search engines available to search the type of lawyer you need.  Some lawyers charge for a consultation; others do not.  Be aware of whether the lawyer you’re choosing to consult with is going to charge for that time.

While it’s always nice to have a friend recommend a lawyer, you may not have the same experience with that same lawyer that your friend did.  For example:  I had a woman come in for a consultation a few weeks ago.  Her divorce had taken 6 YEARS to complete–and she hated the lawyer she had hired to handle it.  I asked her how she found the lawyer.  A friend of hers had recommended him.  This particular attorney had handled the friend’s divorce, and in the words of the friend, “He made my ex-husband cry.”  The woman I was speaking to hired that attorney on that recommendation.  It was NOT a good choice for her.  Make sure that you are comfortable with the lawyer yourself before you hire him/her to do legal work for you.  Ask the questions, and make sure the attorney has answered your questions to your satisfaction.

Having a lawyer with lots of experience does not necessarily mean you’ll be happy (or at least not miserable) with the outcome of your case.  It is common for experienced attorneys to be more expensive, which could cloud your view of the work they do for you.  And as in the example above, the attorney, for whatever reason, may not give your case the attention it needs.  A less experienced attorney may be less expensive as well, and in many cases, particularly basic domestic law cases, could do just as good a job as a more seasoned attorney.  Recommendations of friends can help you decide if the lawyer you’re interviewing is going to work well for you.  Again, make sure that you’ve done your own research as well, and haven’t just depended on the opinion of a friend.

Bottom Line:  Lawyers are still human.  Some are jerks.  Some simply have personalities that do not jive with that of the client.  Particularly in family law, you want a lawyer you can at least like.  Ask the attorney the pointed questions, and expect direct answers.  You likely will be paying this person thousands of dollars to represent you.  Make sure the lawyer you choose is a good fit for you.

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