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How to Get Your Money's Worth When Hiring a Lawyer
Hiring a lawyer is almost always expensive. Most lawyers charge an hourly rate between 0 and 0. If you are careful in how you select an attorney and how you manage the case, you can make the most out of your money and still get good legal representation. However, when it comes to quality legal representation, you often get what you pay for. If you are starting a company and need to file for an important patent, you might not want to hire the cheapest patent attorney. Additionally, if you are the defendant in a criminal case, you may want to hire the best attorney that gives you the best chance of walking away.
Selecting the Best Attorney for the Job
Decide if you need a specialist.Many attorneys practice more than one kind of law. A general practitioner in a small office may charge less than a specialist who works as part of a large firm. You need to decide if a specialist is best for your needs. You may pay a higher hourly rate, but the expertise you get may pay off in requiring less time.
- If a small amount of money is involved, you can probably get by with an attorney who is more of a general practitioner. For more money, you will want a specialist.
- There are some legal issues, like a simple divorce, for example, that the parties can often handle themselves. But if your case is contested and particularly acrimonious, or if a great deal of money is involved in the marital estate, you will want to get an attorney who specializes in divorce cases.
- For criminal defense matters, you almost certainly want to hire an attorney who specializes in criminal defense law. You can even find attorneys who specialize in particular types of crimes (murder, drugs, DUI, white-collar, etc.).
- If you expect that a case is going to go to trial, you will want to ask any attorney about his or her experience with litigation.
Select an attorney who is solution oriented.When you are selecting an attorney, take some time initially to get to understand his or her working style. Your attorney should be willing to consider alternative solutions at any point, not just doing things one way.
- For example, if you hire an attorney to litigate a negligence case, that attorney should always be open to considering a settlement. Be cautious if your attorney insists on going all the way to trial.
Shop around for someone who will suit your needs.When you need an attorney, do not just accept the first one you see on television or in the phone book. Do some research online or among friends and colleagues. Get several recommendations. Ask about billing rates, and don’t just assume that the most expensive attorney must be the best. Similarly, don’t just choose the least expensive to suit your budget. Make an informed decision and choose the best attorney for your needs, with an eye on the expense.
Use the initial consultation to get to know the attorney.Many attorneys will meet with you for an initial consultation at no cost or for a set fee. The purpose of this meeting is to get to hear your problem, to help you decide if you need legal representation, and to get to know each other.
- You can make the most of the initial consultation if you come prepared with a statement of your case or problem, a written outline of questions you want answers for, and copies of any relevant documentation.
Staying within your Legal Budget
Look for situations where attorneys' fees can be awarded for winning.In a small subset of legal cases, the law allows you and your attorney to collect legal fees from the other party if you win. If your case falls under one of these categories of cases, your attorney will have the opportunity to collect fees from your opponent, which will save you money. Ask any lawyer you talk to if this is an option for your case. If it is, ask if you will still have to pay fees upfront or whether the attorney will agree to collect the fees at the end.
- These types of fee shifting arrangements are common in certain types of consumer law claims (e.g., debt collection disputes), contract disputes, and anti-SLAPP actions.
Discuss finances in the beginning.Too often, people are embarrassed to discuss finances with their prospective attorney. There is no reason for this. Hiring an attorney is like hiring any other professional service, and you are entitled to know what you are paying for. Ask about the attorney’s billing practices, and if there is anything you do not understand, ask the attorney to explain it to you.
- It is common for an attorney to request a retainer at the beginning of your case. This is a flat fee that the attorney will hold on account and then bill against as he or she spends time on your case. You should receive monthly statements with itemization of the work the attorney has performed.
Negotiate the hourly rate.Too many clients meet with an attorney and accept the hourly rate as a simple “take it or leave it” proposition. While this may be true for many attorneys, you might find that some attorneys are open to some negotiation. If you make it clear that you are on a limited budget, you may be able to reduce the fee. Attorneys need your business as much as you need their services.
- Particularly if you are looking to hire an attorney for ongoing legal representation, as counsel to your business, for example, you may be able to negotiate a lower hourly rate in exchange for steady work.
Ask about a contingency fee agreement.Particularly for personal injury, negligence, wrongful termination, sexual harassment, and racial discrimination cases, your attorney may be willing to consider a contingency fee. This is an agreement whereby the attorney works on your case for no fee unless you win. When the case is over, the attorney will take a percentage of the amount you win.
- A typical contingency fee agreement is about 33% of the verdict or settlement. This generally does not include expenses, which you may need to negotiate separately.
- Some states have passed laws that limit contingency fee percentages. For example, in Massachusetts, a lawyer may not set a contingency rate of more than 40% on the first 0,000 recovered, 33% of the next 0,000 recovered, 30% of the next 0,000 recovered, and 25% beyond that.
Be aware of upfront fees associated with contingency cases.While contingency fees sound appealing, there are often substantial costs associated with these types of cases that your attorney will not be responsible for paying. These fees include filing fees, discovery fees, expert witness fees, forensic expert fees, and private investigator fees. In these cases, you will be responsible for paying these fees to keep the case going. These fees can accumulate quickly and run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
- While some lawyers may front these fees for you, most will not. Lawyers often have a hard time recouping these fees if they pay them up front. Additionally, clients that have a financial interest in the case will often be more engaged than clients who do not.
Do some of the work yourself.Depending on the case, you may be able to cut your legal costs by doing some work yourself. You may be able to call witnesses, collect statements or evidence, research bank records, or do other types of things to help your case. Before counting on this, discuss it with your attorney so that the work you do does not interfere with the work the attorney is doing.
- You need to be careful about contacting witnesses. You don't want to do or say anything that could be construed as unfairly influencing a witness's testimony. Discuss your plan with your attorney first.
Ask a prospective attorney about a flat fee billing arrangement.Some attorneys will perform certain jobs for a flat fee. With an arrangement like this, you do not need to worry about the length of time the attorney takes working on your case. You agree to a reasonable fee at the beginning, and then the attorney is responsible for getting the job done.
- Some issues that lend themselves well to flat fee billing are simple divorces, bankruptcy cases, filing articles of incorporation, or probate matters.
- In addition, criminal defense lawyers do most of their cases through flat fees. While some criminal defense lawyers will work for an hourly fee, getting paid upfront is usually more attractive. If you do not have enough money to pay the upfront fees, attorneys will often take property in lieu of cash. In these circumstances, your attorney will accept homes, cars, paintings, and any other valuable property instead of taking cash.
Working Together with your Attorney
Be efficient in your meetings or conversations.Attorneys typically bill hourly for the work that they do. This means that if you take a full hour to explain your problem, the attorney will bill you for an hour. If you can say the same thing in a half hour, the attorney will bill you for only a half hour. Be concise. Be efficient. Don’t waste time when you are together.
- If there are documents or other items that would be helpful to the attorney to understand your case, have them ready and organized for your first meeting. Take an extra copy of everything to leave with the attorney.
Develop a plan for your case.Early on, you and your attorney should discuss your objectives and the strengths and weaknesses of your case. Then as you proceed, you should keep focused on that initial plan.
Try to help your own case.You will need to discuss this with your attorney when you are developing the plan for your case. If you can do some things for your case, like delivering documents, making telephone calls, or conducting some factual investigation, you may be able to lower the overall cost. Just realize that not all attorneys will be open to this sort of arrangement, but if it works out, it can save you significant money.
Stay involved in the case.As your case progresses, keep in touch with your attorney regularly about decisions that need to be made. If keeping costs down is important to you, then your attorney should check with you before incurring substantial costs.
- For example, the decision about whether or not to hire an expert witness is something that the attorney should check with you. Expert witnesses can add great expense to your overall legal fees. In the end, you may decide that it is necessary, but your attorney should discuss it with you first.
Respond to your attorney’s requests for information.Many people are concerned with whether or not an attorney will be responsive to them. While this is important, it is equally important for the client to be responsive to the attorney. If your attorney is trying to file something for you before a deadline, you can help keep the fee down by responding quickly with information that the attorney needs.
- In a litigation case, for example, certain items have short deadlines. Discovery requests usually must be answered in 30 days or less. If your attorney has to chase you for information, your bill is going to increase. If you are especially slow, you may force your attorney to file special motions to accept late responses, which would be a great waste of time (and your money).
Challenging Disputed Legal Charges
Review your monthly statements.When you receive statements from your attorney, read over them. Don’t just accept everything that appears. If you believe that your attorney is charging you for work that was not performed or that was not necessary, you should ask about it. You would not want to pay a doctor for medicine that you don’t need. Similarly, you should not pay an attorney for legal research that does not directly apply to your case.
Be aware of your rights as a legal client.There are certain charges that are inappropriate for an attorney to include in your legal bill. You should be aware of these and check your monthly statement regularly. If you see charges that should not be there, contact the attorney and question them.
- The attorney should not bill for overhead, office operating expenses or clerical services.
- Your bill should not include time spent discussing billing.
- You do not have to pay for tasks that took excessively long to complete. This may be difficult to prove if the matter ever goes to court, but if you think a charge for something is excessive, ask your attorney to justify it.
- A senior partner should delegate tasks to junior attorneys. If you are paying the senior partner’s fee for everything, you should question whether more work could be delegated.
- The attorney should not increase his or her hourly rate without first informing you.
Consider fee arbitration if you can’t resolve a dispute.If you have raised your concerns to your attorney regarding a billing issue, and the two of you cannot resolve the dispute, you may be able to take the matter to an arbitrator for a decision. Many state bar associations offer fee arbitration programs specifically to resolve disputes between attorneys and clients. Check with your state or local bar association to see if something like this is available.
- An arbitration is like a mini-trial. You present your case in an informal setting to someone with expertise in the field, and that person will issue a decision.
- Arbitration is often more attractive than litigation because your confidential information (divulged through the attorney/client privilege) will be kept confidential. The only party who might hear your confidences will be the arbitrator.
Go to court.Going to court to fight a fee arrangement is an uphill battle. Not only do lawyers have a lot of leeway when it comes to charging people for services, you will lose a lot of rights by going to court. For example, if you sue your attorney, you will jeopardize your lawyer/client privileges. If things you told your lawyer could lead to criminal or civil charges, you might want to think carefully about suing that lawyer.
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