Once you’ve decided that you need an attorney to assist you with a legal matter, there are several questions you should ask before retaining an attorney to represent you. The following are examples of questions you might want to consider asking your potential lawyer, but this list is by no means exhaustive. There may be many additional questions you should consider asking depending on the unique circumstances of your legal matter.
Look for an attorney who has experience handling cases such as yours. If you are consulting an attorney to file a lawsuit, you may want to ask if he or she has ever handle a lawsuit with the same party on the opposing side, or similar facts. You may also want to ask if he or she has filed lawsuits before in the court where your case will be filed and how often he or she has appeared before the judges of that court. Someone who has been practicing for several years will be more experienced than someone who has recently graduated from law school. Additionally, some attorneys are certified by the California State Bar as specialists in their field and may have special training and expertise to help you with your legal matter.
Find out whether the attorney will handle your case personally. Aside from the attorney that you choose to retain, your attorney may assign junior associates, paralegals, and other support staff from his or her firm to work on the case. Be sure to ask the lawyer about the experience level and billing rates of anyone working on your case.
During your initial consultation with a lawyer, the subject of fees will usually be addressed. Be sure to ask your lawyer how he or she assesses fees. Lawyers can charge fixed fees for certain services like drawing up a simple estate plan. Some lawyers charge hourly for their services. Some lawyers may take matters on contingency, where they would collect their fees from any amount the client recovers. Depending on your legal matter, you may be able to recover the fees you pay to your attorney from the opposing side because the fees are recoverable by statute or by contract. Be sure you understand exactly how fees will be assessed before retaining an attorney.
In addition to the lawyer’s fees, you may be responsible for administrative costs such as copying, faxing, word processing, postage, service of process fees, filing fees, travel expenses, bills for investigators, experts, court reporting services, etc. Be sure you understand what other out-of-pocket costs you could potentially incur during the course of the lawyer’s representation. If you are retaining a lawyer on a contingent fee arrangement, be sure to ask the lawyer if you will be responsible for paying costs on a monthly basis, when the case is resolved (win or lose), or whether the attorney will only collect costs from any recovery he or she succeeds in obtaining from you.
It’s a good idea to ask the lawyer to give you an estimate of how much it will cost to resolve your legal matter so you understand how much money you will be potentially investing in your case. However, unless you agree in writing that your legal matter will be handled for a firm, fixed amount, be aware that any estimate that the lawyers gives you is just that—an estimate. If you retain your attorney on anything other than a fixed fee basis, be sure to check in regularly to make sure that the fees are staying within the range that you expect them to be.
There are often many things you can do to help your own case and minimize your attorney fees such as providing all relevant documents and information to your attorney, providing contact information for all persons relevant to the matter, and putting together a timeline of events related to the case. The time you spend doing these things is time your attorney does not have to spend, and this will ultimately save you money.
Your lawyer should lay out your options regarding the case and not necessarily guarantee a certain outcome. Ask your lawyer to identify for you the strengths and weaknesses of your case and to explain the pros and cons of each of pursuing each of the options he or she says you have.
Although a lawyer should not necessarily guarantee a specific outcome, you should ask your lawyer about your chances of prevailing. The answer to this question may determine how you proceed with your legal matter, depending on the nature of your matter – what claims you might pursue or how you might defend claims against you, whether you want to mediate, arbitrate or file a lawsuit in court, or whether you want to proceed with the matter at all.
It’s also a good idea to ask your potential lawyer how long he or she thinks the case will take to resolve. Again, this will help you better understand how much time and money you could be investing in your legal matter. Keep in mind, though, that there are many variables that could prolong your case—especially in litigation where your attorney will not always be able to control what the opposing counsel may do.
You should discuss with your attorney how you and he or she prefer to communicate regarding case status. Some clients prefer verbal updates by phone, some prefer email updates, while others prefer to receive a status update by mail. The number one complaint the State Bar receives about attorneys is that the attorney is not being responsive to the client. Be sure that your attorney is aware of your expectations in terms of responding to your calls and emails, updating you regarding the status of your case, and including you in substantive decisions about the handling of your matter. Keep in mind, though, that your attorney will likely charge you for any time you spend communicating by phone, email or correspondence about your case.
In addition, you can go to the California State Bar's Web site (www.calbar.ca.gov) to find out if the lawyer has ever been publicly disciplined by the State Bar. Go to Attorney Search and Attorney/Member Search, then type in the attorney's name or bar number.