This is a consumer advice column written by the Better Business Bureau of Northern Indiana. It appears Thursdays in Business.
Life situations can occur that requires an attorney’s expertise. Friends or family members might be a starting point, but lawyers specialize in specific areas. For example, the attorney who did a terrific job with your friend's divorce may not have the expertise to take on an auto accident injury.
Law firms can range from a single lawyer to a larger team. Smaller firms can offer a personal one-on-one relationship while larger firms may have greater resources.
If possible, meet with more than one attorney before choosing who to hire. Your goal is to find an attorney with whom you are comfortable. Your case may involve very personal information and your attorney will often need to know many confidential details about you or your business. Provide a clear summary and bring any documents or materials that help the attorney understand your situation. Know the fee arrangement, including hourly fees, expenses, billing, and payments. Ask:
• Is there a charge for a consultation?
• What is your experience with similar cases?
• How will I contact you throughout the process? How often will you update me about the case? Who else will work on my case?
• Can you estimate a timeframe for resolution? Chances of success?
• Can you provide a preliminary outline for how you would handle the case?
• Do you have malpractice insurance?
Some attorneys will provide you with the cost before taking your case while others will provide costs shortly after. Ask for costs and fees to be broken down in writing. The three main methods for compensating a lawyer are:
• Contingency compensates the lawyer by giving them a percentage of monies received from the case. The percentage should correspond with the amount of time and effort required of the lawyer. The size of the contingency fee is always negotiable but check with your state’s bar association as there may be rules on maximum contingency fees.
• Established or flat fee is a set fee attorneys charge to perform a certain service, like preparing a will.
• Hourly rate. Attorneys have a set rate they charge for each hour spent working on the case. Hourly rates may depend on the lawyer’s experience, so a more experienced lawyer may charge a higher hourly rate but complete the work quicker. Get an estimate in writing for the number of hours the case will require.
A retainer may be requested as a down payment on expenses and fees. Keep track of how the money is spent and when you will need to pay more.
Have the attorney draw up an agreement stating all terms and details of the case and your client relationship. Read the agreement thoroughly before signing and ask questions if there is any confusion. Save a copy of the agreement and other important documents. Understand that if you are unhappy with your lawyer’s services you have the right to fire him or her at any time. Attorneys are subject to strict professional conduct rules. You can do a search for attorneys at BBB.org.
Marjorie Stephens is president/CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Northern Indiana. Before you make a purchase, go to the BBB website at BBB.org/northernindiana or call 423-4433 or toll-free 1-800-552-4631 to check out a business.