Demystifying How to Hire a Lawyer: Part 1

Posted April 22, 2010 in Uncategorized by

The first time you need to hire a lawyer, it may seem like a complicated or confusing process. How do you identify lawyers who are qualified to represent you? How do you know if they’re any good? How much will it cost?

Once you know what you’re doing, you’ll find that hiring a lawyer really isn’t that complicated. I’m going to try to demystify the process for you so that you can feel like a pro when and if you need to hire a lawyer.

Basics of the Legal Profession

Who can call themselves an attorney? To represent clients, a lawyer must have graduated from a law school, passed the bar exam and be a licensed lawyer. Licensing is done on a state-by-state basis. You want to hire a lawyer who is licensed to practice in the state in which you have a legal issue. (In other words, you can’t and shouldn’t hire your cousin’s friend who practices divorce law in California if you’re getting a divorce in New York.)

Hiring a lawyer in your area also has its advantages because your lawyer will be familiar with the local courts and government agencies. When reading a lawyer’s profile on, look for where it says, "Admitted to the bar, YEAR, STATE."

What kind of law does the lawyer practice? Like doctors, attorneys usually work in just one or a few areas of the law. Just as you wouldn’t go to a podiatrist if you had a respiratory infection, you wouldn’t hire an immigration lawyer to handle an automobile accident case.

In general, attorneys in smaller towns are more like to be generalists, or jack of all trades, but will refer you to another attorney if you have a legal issue that’s outside their area of expertise. In larger cities, lawyers are more likely to practice in just one or a couple of areas of law.

What types of lawyers are there? In addition to classifying lawyer by the type of law they practice, you can also classify lawyers by the type of client they represent and by their level of experience.

An attorney who is an outside counsel works at a law firm or for himself and can be hired to handle a specific legal task. An attorney who is an in-house counsel works for a business and only handles legal work for that company. You as an individual could not hire that lawyer to handle your legal issues. There are several types of government lawyers. Similar to in-house counsel, government lawyers only work for the government and cannot be hired by individual clients.

Law firm lawyers are often classified by experience level. Junior attorneys (usually those with less than seven to 10 years of experience) are called associates. Associates usually report to a more senior lawyer, who may be called a partner, shareholder or counsel. The more complex your case, the more likely you’ll be working with a more senior attorney.

How are lawyers paid? When you hire a law firm lawyer to handle a legal issue, you’ll probably pay the attorney in one of three ways: Hourly fee, flat fee or contingency fee.

With an hourly fee, you pay the lawyer for the actual time he spends working on your legal issue, regardless of outcome. You’re also responsible for reimbursing the lawyer for any expenses incurred on your behalf.

A flat fee means you’re paying a predetermined price for a specific piece of work (such as a simple divorce filing). If the issue ultimately expands beyond the original scope, you may be asked to pay an hourly fee on top of the flat fee. Depending on the nature of your legal issue, expenses such as filing fees may be included in the flat fee or may be an added cost. You should ask the lawyer about any additional expenses at the outset.

Contingency fees are most common in personal injury work, when the client—an accident victim—stands to receive a financial award from another party. With a contingency fee, the client pays no money up front but gives the lawyer a percentage of any money that is received, and pays for associated expenses. If the client wins nothing, the lawyer receives no money.

Identifying Potential Attorneys

There are several ways that you can find attorneys who are qualified to handle your legal issue:

  • Ask friends, family members and colleagues if they have used an attorney they’d recommend. Remember that you want a lawyer who is both in your geographic area (or the area where your legal issue is located) and who practices the type of law applicable to your legal issues.
  • Use sources such as to research attorneys who are have the experience to handle your case. allows you to search for lawyers by name, location and/or practice area. can also be used to screen and compare attorneys that your friends and family members suggest.

When you first search for a lawyer (say, for example, a divorce lawyer in Chicago), you’ll see a list of individual attorneys and law firms who meet the search criteria. The list may also include sponsored results from some firms and lawyers who are paying to appear at the top of the search results.

When you click on a search result, you’ll see profile information, contact information and a list of firm attorneys (if you’re looking at a law firm search result). Some attorneys may also include a picture or video in their profile.

Reading the profile you can also see what area of law the lawyer handles, where the lawyer is located, what school the lawyer attended and how recently he graduated. Many lawyers listed in also have client ratings and peer ratings, helping you determine which attorney is best qualified to handle your case.

You can call or email many of the lawyers directly from their profile. Or, if you’re not ready to contact a lawyer yet, you can also bookmark a profile by clicking on the green plus sign where it says, "Add to my lawyers."

In next Tuesday’s post, I’ll explain how to proceed once you’ve found a lawyer you potentially want to hire.

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