Preparing to Meet a Lawyer: Questions to Ask

Posted June 17, 2010 in Uncategorized by

Whether you need to hire an attorney to handle your divorce or a custody issue, write a will or represent you in a criminal matter, you should put some care and thought into the process to ensure you hire the right lawyer for you and the right lawyer for your legal matter.

Before hiring an attorney, consider scheduling an initial consultation, or preliminary meeting, to help you learn more about the lawyer’s background, skills, suggested strategy and personality. Many attorneys don’t charge for the initial consultation, but when you make the appointment, be sure to ask whether there’s a fee for the meeting.

Take some time to prepare for your initial consultation by making a list of questions you’d like to ask the lawyer. These questions should all help you decide whether you want to hire the attorney. Focus your questions on several key areas:

  • The lawyer’s professional background and experience handling matters similar to yours
  • The lawyer’s proposed strategy for handling your legal matter
  • How your matter will be staffed and managed
  • How much the lawyer charges for his services, how much you can expect to pay in legal fees and when payment will be expected
  • Whether the attorney meets any special requirements you may have

You should make a written list of the questions you’d like to ask so you don’t forget any of them during the initial consultation.

What Is the Attorney’s Professional Background & Experience?

During the initial consultation, you want to focus on the attorney’s background and experience to ensure the lawyer is a good fit for your legal matter. Just as a foot doctor wouldn’t treat a patient with heart troubles, lawyers, too, focus on only practicing certain types of law. Ideally, you want to hire a lawyer who has prior experience on similar legal matters.

Questions to consider asking would include:

  • How long have you been practicing law? Where and when did you graduate from law school?
  • How much experience do you have handling legal matters similar to mine?
  • What types of law do you practice? How much of your practice is devoted to handling cases similar to mine?
  • Can you put me in touch with former clients for whom you’ve handled legal matters similar to mine?

What Is the Lawyer’s Proposed Strategy for Handling Your Matter?

An initial consultation – particularly a free one – is designed to help you assess the lawyer’s suitability for handling your legal matter. It’s not supposed to be a working session where you and the lawyer are actively addressing your legal matter, particularly since you haven’t yet hired the lawyer to represent you.

It’s perfectly appropriate to ask the lawyer for his proposed strategy for handling your legal matter. The lawyer may, however, be reluctant to give you specific legal advice until you’ve signed a contract, and possibly paid a deposit (also called a retainer) formally hiring the attorney.

Understandably, however, you have a legal issue and you probably want to ask the lawyer how he’d handle it. There’s a fine line to be walked, and you should take some cues from the attorney. If the lawyer seems uncomfortable answering your questions, it may be because you’ve crossed the line and started asking for specific legal advice.

Some questions to consider asking include:

  • What kind of strategy would you recommend for handling my case?
  • What are the possible outcomes?
  • How long do you think it will take to resolve my legal issue?
  • In the case of legal disputes, is a settlement, mediation or arbitration an issue?
  • What potential problems or obstacles could we encounter?

How Will the Lawyer Manage & Staff Your Legal Matter?

Some attorneys work for themselves, with only an assistant or paralegal to help them, others may work in law firms with a dozen, 100 or even 1,000 other lawyers in the firm. Don’t make any assumptions about how the lawyer will staff and manage your legal matter.

Ask if the lawyer you’re meeting will be the only person handling your case or if others will also be working on it. If others are working on it, you should find out what each person will be doing and how much they charge. (When you hire a lawyer for an hourly fee, each person who works on your matter will have his or her own billing rate.)

You’ll also want to make sure you know who the primary point of contact will be on your matter, how they can be reached and how often you can expect to hear from them. Will you receive weekly or monthly reports?

Finally, if your legal matter involves important events such as negotiations or court appearances, ask who will be responsible for handling those.

How Much Does the Lawyer Charge?

Most lawyers charge either a contingency fee, a flat fee or an hourly fee.

Contingency fees are used in legal matters like personal injury cases where the client expects to receive money from another party. As the client, you pay no money upfront but instead pay the lawyer a percentage of any money you receive when your case is resolved. (Contingency fees are not, however, permitted in divorce cases.)

A flat fee is used for predictable legal work, such as handling a simple divorce or writing a basic will. These are most commonly used for work that is straightforward and easily defined.

Hourly fees are used for legal work where the scope or time necessary to handle the work is more unpredictable. For example, you may need a contract written but not know how long negotiations will take or how many times it will be revised. When you hire an attorney for an hourly fee, you pay for the time he actually spends working on your case, plus legal expenses.

When meeting with an attorney, let him know if you have a budget and ask some pointed questions about how much the work will cost. For example:

  • Do you charge a contingency fee, hourly fee or flat fee?
  • How much do you estimate my legal matter will cost?
  • Will there be any legal expenses? Approximately how much will they be?
  • Approximately how much are my total out-of-pocket legal costs?
  • Is there any way to reduce the total legal expenses?
  • Do you require an upfront retainer payment? If so, how much is it?
  • How often will you bill me and when will payment be due?

Does the Lawyer Meet Your Special Requirements?

You, as a client, may have some special requirements when you hire a lawyer. For example, you may need a lawyer who is bilingual or one who offers evening appointments.

If possible, ask about these items when you call to make an appointment. This will keep you from wasting your time and the attorney’s time. In some instances—for example, if you need to make special payment arrangements—the person who takes your call may be unable to give you a definitive answer. But you should be able to get answers to simple questions like, "Does the attorney speak Spanish?"

Wrapping Up the Meeting

At the end of your initial consultation, you should have enough information to decide whether the lawyer is the right person to handle your legal matter, and whether you’d feel comfortable working closely with the lawyer until your matter is resolved.

Before wrapping up your meeting, ask the lawyer if there were any questions you should have asked, but didn’t.

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