Many lawyers specialize in areas of law, like contracts, personal injury, real estate, or civil rights. Here’s how to find a lawyer who has relevant experience to help you:
- Ask family, friends, or co-workers for recommendations.
- Check with your state and local bar associations.
- Consult lawyer referral services offered by your union or community group.
- See if you’re able to get free or low-cost legal help.
After you have some names, plan to talk with more than one lawyer before you hire someone.
The first consultation with a lawyer is often free, but before you meet, ask the lawyer if you have to pay for their time. When you meet, give a short summary of your legal situation and the solution you want. Here are some questions to ask a lawyer:
- What is your experience with my kind of case?
- How will you get the solution I want?
- What are the chances of getting the solution I want?
- Who will do most of the work on the case? Will it be you, other lawyers in the firm, or paralegals?
- What are the fees for each person who will work on my case?
- How long could it take to resolve my issue or case?
- How will I be billed?
After you find the right lawyer, ask questions until you’re sure you understand what you both agreed to. Then, get the agreement in writing. Talk about your expectations, possible approaches to your case, and the work to be done. And find out how you will exchange information:
- How often will you update me? How will you send updates?
- What information or documents should I send you to help with the case?
- Make copies of original documents before you send them to the lawyer. Ask the lawyer to send you copies of important documents from your case.
When you choose a lawyer, you’ll talk about how to pay for their services. Get the fee agreement in writing. Your lawyer may ask you to pay money for a deposit, called a retainer, before they start work on your case. Review the bills the lawyer sends to track how your money is being spent. Ask the lawyer to explain any charges you don’t understand. There are different kinds of fee arrangements.
Hourly rate. You pay the lawyer’s hourly rate for every hour, or part of the hour, they work on your case. A lawyer’s hourly rate depends on their skill and experience. An experienced lawyer may charge a higher hourly rate than a beginner, but they may take fewer hours to do the job.
Before you agree to pay by the hour, get a written estimate of the number of hours it will take to complete your case. Your final cost depends on how long it takes to complete your case.
Flat fee. You pay the lawyer a flat fee to do a service like writing a will. Many lawyers charge a flat fee for uncomplicated services like drafting incorporation papers, handling an uncontested divorce, or filing a simple bankruptcy.
Before you decide to pay a flat or fixed fee, find out exactly what services the fee will cover, and what will happen if your situation needs more work than the lawyer expected.
Contingency fee arrangement. You pay the lawyer a percentage of the money you get if you win your case, and also pay for depositions, expert witnesses, filing fees, and other expenses related to your case. If you don’t have money to pay a lawyer’s retainer or hourly fees when you start a case, look for a lawyer who will use a contingency fee arrangement. In a contingency fee arrangement, the lawyer takes on the risk that your case might be unsuccessful. If you don’t get any money, your lawyer won’t get attorney’s fees, but you still might have to pay for expenses related to your case.
Before you sign a content fee agreement, be sure you know exactly what your agreement covers and what it requires you to pay.
If you’re thinking about a contingency fee arrangement, know that
- Most states limit the kind of cases that are allowed to have contingency fee arrangements. For example, many states don’t allow contingency fee arrangements in criminal cases.
- There is no standard amount or percentage for a lawyer’s contingency fee, but most states limit the attorney’s fee to a “reasonable” percentage (33%, for example) of the total amount you recovered.
- You can negotiate the size of the contingency fee.
- The size of the contingency fee should be based on how much work the lawyer will do. You may be able to negotiate a fee agreement that will give the lawyer a lower percentage if the case settles quickly and a higher percentage if the case takes more time and goes to trial.
- You may be able to negotiate a sliding scale fee, like an arrangement that pays the lawyer 30 percent of the money you get up to $10,000, then 20 percent of additional money you get up to $50,000.
Legal aid offices give free legal help in landlord-tenant, divorce, and other cases to people with low and moderate incomes. You can get free information, forms, and guides online about legal rights in your state on bankruptcy, debtors’ rights, employment, and other issues. State bar associations and legal clinics run by accredited law schools give free or low-cost legal help.
Lawyers must follow state ethics rules and are required to charge reasonable fees. If you think your lawyer didn't treat you fairly, didn’t handle your case effectively, or overcharged you, talk to them and try to work out an agreement. You might be allowed to fire your lawyer when you want, or you might need a judge’s permission. If you can’t resolve things with your lawyer, or you believe they did something wrong, consider filing a complaint with your state or local bar association.