How to Choose the Right Lawyer
Part 2 – Negotiating the relationship with your new attorney.
In Part 1 of this series, I reviewed the steps associated with identifying and choosing an attorney qualified to handle your specific situation. Once you’ve decided on the best attorney for your needs, you will need to agree on and formalize the terms of your relationship, preferably in writing.
Before entering into an agreement with your new attorney, spend some time verifying the attorney’s credentials and track record. Look up the lawyer on the State Bar’s website (membership) to confirm that there have been no public disciplinary issues. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to view information about complaints which were dismissed, or confidential discipline outcomes. Also, look for membership in professional organizations. The best lawyers tend to be involved in specialty organizations or have extra credentials earned through experience, special testing and peer review.
Contact references provided to ask about their experiences and outcomes. You can also verify communication style, general availability, and follow-up with the references to ensure that you’ll have a positive working relationship. If you were not able to receive references, ask the attorney’s peers. It’s a well-networked community.
A well-defined contract is critical
Once you’ve confirmed your choice, your attorney should formalize the relationship with some sort of agreement documenting your mutual expectations and working relationship. A detailed, well-defined contract will help you avoid miscommunications and potential problems later. Here are some guidelines to follow:
- Get it in writing! Do it now, rather than waiting until the process has started. If there’s no contract, consider finding another lawyer. Some states require that all contingency (%) fee contracts are in writing.
- Review the contract and make sure you understand the terms. If not, ask for clarification. It’s actually your lawyer’s responsibility to ensure that the communication is clear and that you know what you’re signing. Don’t be shy.
- Check to ensure that all services offered (and not offered) are clearly identified, along with the fee structure (see below). Consider documenting other expectations like timing, communication, and reporting.
- Negotiate, if appropriate. Each situation is unique, and may require some deviation from a standard contract.
Attorney Fee Structure
Fees, or at least fee structures, are typically negotiable. Generally, the Rules of Professional Conduct that govern attorneys require that the fees and expenses must be reasonable. You can click here to see the full Georgia Rule 1.5 details, but here is a summary of the factors that the Georgia Bar uses:
- Time and labor required in relation to other client work or your imposed deadlines
- Difficulty of the situation, along with the skills and experience required
- Customary fees (fixed or contingency) charged in your area for this type of situation and the results you seek
Depending on your particular situation, there may be several ways to structure the financial terms of the relationship with your lawyer. You can work together to determine the best compensation for the achievement of your legal goals. Here are the most common types of fee structures.
- Retainer – An advanced payment, often the down payment of a larger total fee. As hours are billed against the retainer, you may be expected to replenish the balance. A retainer may or may not be refundable if not completely used.
- Contingency – The lawyer earns a percentage of the final settlement or judgment. This is most often used in personal injury cases. Contingency fees cannot be used in many family law (divorce, alimony, child support, etc.) matters, as well as when representing a defendant in a criminal case.
- Hourly – Before you throw up at the hourly fee, remember that you are paying for the years of experience as well as the actual hours spent on your situation.
- Fixed – Specific fee for specific service. Goals and expectations need to be very well-defined for this type of structure to work.
- Mixed – There are no pre-set parameters for legal fees. Be creative and work toward an arrangement which is beneficial to both you and your attorney.
Take the time now to establish a well-researched and documented relationship with your attorney. In doing so, you will be completely aligned as you work closely together through the process to reach a positive outcome in your claim, case, trial or business deal. Hopefully you’ll be less likely to have complaints later.