How to Hire a Trial Lawyer
Lawsuits have become a fact of life these days. And there’s a reasonable chance you may be involved in one yourself at some point. Whether it’s the result of an auto accident, business dispute, or even criminal charges, you’re most likely going to need a trial lawyer to represent you. The key to potential success is finding the right trial lawyer for your particular case.
Finding a Trial Lawyer
Determine the kind of trial lawyer you need.The fact that a lawyer does trial work doesn’t mean that he or she is able to handle every type of court case (litigation). For example, some lawyers who specialize in personal injury law may not be qualified to try a case that involves a complex business issue. So look for a trial lawyer with a practice that encompasses the kind of case you’re involved in.
Use lawyer referral services.There’s a wide variety of these services available, both online and locally. But you need to check to see what the referrals are based on. For example, some may carefully screen the lawyers—only listing those with certain qualifications and experience. Others will list any lawyer who has liability insurance and is in good standing with the state organization that oversees lawyers. Some lawyer referral sources are:
- . This is the national organization that represents lawyers.
- . This publication has been in existence for many years, and provides a comprehensive search engine.
- State and county bar associations. Both of these probably have their own websites, and will try to match you with a lawyer who specializes in your type of legal matter.
Consider someone you’ve used in the past.If you’ve been involved in litigation before, and were comfortable with, and confident in, the lawyer who represented you, you’re one step ahead of the game. The rapport between lawyer and client is an important factor in getting through what is usually a very stressful time. But, again, make certain the lawyer is up to handling your specific type of litigation.
Ask friends or relatives for a referral.Pretty much everyone these days knows someone who’s been involved in a lawsuit. Having a person you trust give you a referral is definitely a plus. But make sure the person you speak with has had first-hand dealings with the lawyer. If you’re getting information passed on to your friend or family member by a third party, you need to speak directly with that third party.
Check with local business organizations.If your case involves a commercial (business) matter, or even something like a municipal zoning dispute, you may be able to get a lawyer referral from some of the local business owners, or your town’s Chamber of Commerce.
Checking a Lawyer’s Qualifications
Find sites that rate lawyers.Once you’ve gotten a few names, you’ll want to see how the lawyer’s credentials stack up. Hopefully you’ve eliminated some of the guesswork through your referral sources, but it’s a good idea to dig deeper. One of the oldest and most well-recognized rating sites is Martindale-Hubbell, the publication referenced above. Here, lawyers are anonymously rated by other lawyers and judges, both as to competency and ethics.You should also look for membership in the in the American Association for Justice.
Research your state’s records for disciplinary actions.Someone may be a talented trial lawyer, but if he or she has certain ethical deficiencies, you’re probably going to want to think twice about hiring this person. Most states have public lists of lawyers who have been disciplined for ethics violations. You can usually find this information on your state’s website.
Look on the lawyer’s website.These days it’s probably more common than not for a lawyer to have a website. Here you can usually learn more about the lawyer’s background (such as education) as well as his or her areas of practice.If the website doesn’t mention that the lawyer does trial work, or more specifically reference the type of litigation you’re dealing with, it’s very possible this individual won’t be a good fit for you.
Use search engines to gather additional information.This is a good way to find out if there’s anything in particular the lawyer may be involved in that’s made news—good or bad. It’s also an ideal vehicle to find:
- Any articles, white papers, or other informational pieces the lawyer may have written about the type of litigation you’re involved in, and
- Whether the lawyer participates in any online chats, blogs, or discussion boards regarding your type of case.
Observe the lawyer at work.This could be a little difficult to arrange, since most trial lawyers actually aren’t in court every day. But try calling his or her office, telling them you’re thinking about possibly hiring the lawyer, and asking if there’s any way you could watch him or her in a courtroom setting. If you’re able to, you can see first-hand how the lawyer relates to a judge and/or jury. Friendly and easygoing is a plus. Abrasive and arrogant isn’t.
Don’t buy into the hype.Avoid basing any hiring decision solely on television commercials or print advertising. That’s not to say that some lawyers who advertise aren’t extremely qualified. But the reality is that all you’re seeing is an orchestrated pitch for your business. Finding someone to represent you in a potentially life-changing event deserves and requires a deeper inquiry than that.
Interviewing the Lawyer
Consider speaking with more than one lawyer.If your quest for the ideal trial lawyer leaves you with a few possibilities, don’t have any qualms about speaking with some or all of them. Many lawyers won’t charge a fee for a short initial consultation. And even if he or she does, it may be worth it if you’re impressed with the information you’ve obtained on this individual.
Meet with the lawyer personally.Don’t communicate with the lawyer exclusively by phone or email. There’s really no better way to determine if this person will be a good match for your needs than by sitting across from him or her. As mentioned above, don’t underestimate the importance of the rapport between a lawyer and client, especially in litigation matters.
Ask the lawyer about his or her success rate.It’s easy to equate experience with competence. But in the law—as with so many other professions—that’s not always the case. Someone can be practicing law for 20 years, and still be mediocre. While another individual, just a couple of years out of law school, can be a very competent practitioner.That’s why you shouldn’t hesitate to ask the lawyer about his or her successes with your type of litigation.
Confirm who’ll be handling the case.If the lawyer you’re interviewing is in a firm with other lawyers, find out who will actually be in charge of your case. With large firms especially, you may meet with a partner, but your case will then be handed off to an associate. The associate may be very skillful as a trial lawyer, but you’ll need to meet with this individual, and also do the same background check you did on the person to whom you were originally referred.
Determine the fee.Once you’ve exchanged pleasantries and talked with the lawyer about the facts of your case, the discussion is going to turn to money. You need to know how—and how much—the lawyer is getting paid. There are three main types of legal billing methods:
- Hourly fee. Here the lawyer bills you at an hourly rate for all work done on your behalf.
- Lawyers will normally bill a minimum of 10 or 15 minutes for any work they do.
- With an hourly fee arrangement, you’ll usually receive a monthly bill for the work performed during that time period.
- Contingent fee. In this situation, the lawyer doesn’t get paid until the case is resolved. At that time, he or she receives an agreed-upon percentage (usually one-third to 40%) of whatever amount is awarded to you as a settlement of your case, or by way of a verdict after a trial. This is most commonly seen in personal injury. Worker’s compensation contingency fees, on the other hand, are substantially less than 1/3 of the settlement (set by state statute). If you get nothing, the lawyer gets no fee.
- Flat fee. With this fee arrangement, the lawyer charges you a set amount of money for handling the case, usually payable at the time you retain his or her services. This is frequently used in criminal cases, and with some matrimonial cases (usually uncontested divorces).
- Hourly fee. Here the lawyer bills you at an hourly rate for all work done on your behalf.
Find out if the lawyer requires a retainer.Primarily in hourly-rate fee arrangements, you’ll pay the lawyer an up-front amount, called a retainer, which is normally used to pay your monthly bills. (There’s no standard amount for a retainer. It really depends on the lawyer.) If and when this amount is used up, you’ll deposit another retainer, and so on.
See if the lawyer is willing to let you do some of the legwork.This is particularly relevant in hourly fee arrangements. Sometimes there may be certain aspects of a case that you can handle:
- Ask if you can contribute by doing such things as gathering information (like sifting through and collating financial records), handling some non-legal research (for example, finding public records like a deed or a company’s business filings), or even hand-delivering documents to the court or another lawyer’s office.
- Anything that can save you money helps. If your lawyer isn’t receptive to having you pitch in where you can, it doesn’t mean you necessarily need to find someone new. But expect higher legal fees.
Finalizing the Relationship
Request a written fee agreement.When you finally find the right lawyer for your needs, hiring that lawyer amounts to entering into a contract. And as with any contract, it should be in writing. This goes a long way to avoiding problems down the road if there’s ever a disagreement about the details of your arrangement. Many states require written fee agreements in certain situations, such as when employing a contingency fee.
Review the fee agreement at home.Don’t sign a fee agreement at the lawyer's office if you’re seeing it for the first time. You may feel pressure to sign it right away, even if that’s not the lawyer’s intention. You don’t want to sign something, and then later realize you have questions. Study the agreement in a more relaxed atmosphere. It might be helpful to have a family member or friend look at it with you, in case he or she sees something you may have missed.
Look for key items in the agreement.The fee agreement will probably contain quite a bit of information. But there are some major elements you should be on the lookout for:
- The agreement should make clear if the lawyer will represent you in all legal proceedings, up to and including trial. For example, if there’s an allegation of domestic violence in a matrimonial case, you need to know if the lawyer will handle the separate domestic violence hearing.
- The document should confirm who’ll be handling the majority of the work on your case, which legal procedures that lawyer will handle personally, and which tasks will be delegated to other lawyers in the firm.
- Whether the fee arrangement is hourly, contingent, or flat fee, it needs to be spelled out. The agreement should also state if the lawyer charges interest—and how much—on overdue bills.
- Clarify who’s responsible for out-of-pocket costs. Most of the time that’s your obligation, even in contingent cases. Some of these costs may be for things such as court charges (like document filing fees) or expert and consultant fees (such as doctor opinion reports).
- The responsibility for making decisions during the litigation process needs to be addressed. Many times the lawyer will retain the sole right to make determinations on trial preparation and strategy. Decisions involving large out-of-pocket expenditures, or whether or not to accept a settlement offer, should require your authorization.
- The agreement should specify how you or the lawyer can terminate the agreement. It should state whether the lawyer can stop representing you at any time, or whether this can only occur in certain circumstances (such as failure to pay overdue legal fees). You should have the right to end the relationship at any time.
Discuss the fee agreement with the lawyer.Once you’ve had an opportunity to thoroughly review the agreement, schedule an appointment with your lawyer to discuss it. Ask any questions that you may have thought of during your review.
- Even if you had no questions, have the lawyer go over all the terms of the agreement with you, in case you may have misinterpreted something.
- If there are items that you believe should be in the agreement, but aren’t included, ask the lawyer to add them. If the lawyer refuses, you may want to consider finding someone else.
Sign the agreement.When you’re sure that all your questions have been answered, and you’re comfortable with the terms of the agreement, you can sign it. Make sure the lawyer signs it as well, and that you get a copy of the agreement with original signatures.
- It may be helpful to find a trial lawyer who’s familiar with the court that’s handling your case. A local lawyer probably knows most of the other trial lawyers practicing in this court. He or she will also have a good idea of what to expect from certain judges. A good relationship with other lawyers and court personnel may not ultimately impact the final outcome of your case, but it certainly can make the litigation process a bit less stressful.
- If a lawyer does charge you a consultation fee for your initial visit, expect to pay anywhere between and 0. However, don’t be shocked if it’s higher. It all depends on the going rate for your particular locale.A consultation will normally be between a half-hour to an hour.
- Make sure the lawyer is putting your retainer in the law firm’s trust account, and deducting money from the account only at the time you’re billed. That way, if you and the lawyer part company at some point during the case (or even after it’s over), any money that hasn’t been used is readily available to be returned to you.
- See if your lawyer will consider using a sliding scale in a contingent fee agreement. For example, if the contingent fee is 40% of the award, maybe the lawyer will consider reducing that to 25% if the case settles without going to trial.
- With an hourly fee scenario, the specific fee rate for all individuals who’ll be working on the case should be included in the fee agreement. For example, in most law firms there are different hourly rates for partners, associates, and paralegals. (Partners will charge the most, and the rates descend from there.)
- Many states will not allow contingent fees to be used in matrimonial cases.
- If your lawyer doesn’t handle appeals (taking the case to a higher court) or other post-trial proceedings (such as collecting a judgment you’ve won), the fee agreement should say so.
- Sometimes the lawyer will front out-of-pocket costs for you, and then recoup them from the settlement or judgment amount when the case is over. But the lawyer has no obligation to do that. So find out when out-of-pocket costs will be billed, and whether they’ll be deducted from your retainer, if you’ve deposited one. Note also that if you’re responsible for the out-of-pocket costs incurred during the lawsuit, you may be liable to pay for them, or reimburse your lawyer, even if you lose the case. The agreement should address this.
- If you’re being billed hourly, see if the lawyer can give you a ballpark estimate of what the total fee will be. In litigation, including divorce, this can be difficult to do, because you never really know what complications may arise. However, even an outside figure would give you a chance to prepare for the financial outlay for which you’ll be responsible.
- If you feel you might want to attempt to handle the case yourself, you could see if a lawyer will work with you behind the scenes, to give you advice as needed. A lawyer acting in this capacity is sometimes referred to as a “lawyer coach”. The reality is that most lawyers would not be comfortable with a supporting role, because they’re relinquishing control of the case to a layperson, but still possibly subjecting themselves to professional liability if things don’t go well.
- If you decide to fire your lawyer, you'll still be responsible for legal fees incurred up to that point. Also, the decision to part ways with your lawyer will probably be subject to court approval if the litigation has already started. And the court has no obligation to go along with your request.
- If a lawyer tells you that your retainer will be “non-refundable”, say “thanks anyway” and walk out the door. Because if that were the case, if you decided to end your relationship with the lawyer before your retainer was depleted, he or she gets to keep your money without doing anything to earn it (assuming the law in your particular state permits that practice).
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