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When you need to lawyer up

Don't end up with Cousin Vinny when you want Perry Mason

Last reviewed: September 2011

Whether you're buying a house, preparing your estate, or suing a merchant that did you wrong, it's helpful—and sometimes necessary—to have some legal muscle behind you. But how do you go about finding a competent lawyer to handle your case?

Here are six steps to help you find the right attorney for your needs.

1. Ask a lawyer

If you already have an attorney but need one with specialized expertise, ask for a referral.

2. Get a verdict from someone you know and trust

Has a friend purchased a house recently? Has a sibling gone through a divorce? Who prepared your parents' will? Ask your family members, friends, co-workers, and others you trust for recommendations. But don't just collect names. Ask probing questions about what it's like dealing with the attorney they suggest. For example, was he or she on time for appointments and reasonably available to answer questions? "One of the main complaints you hear from consumers is that the lawyer doesn't get back to them," says Stephen Zack, president of the American Bar Association.

3. Consult a bar association

Click on your state on the map at the American Bar Association website, for state-specific information, including a lawyer finder service, license verification, access to free legal resources, and a guide to court systems. Clicking on the "Learn More/FAQs" button takes you to a page with advice that includes tips for hiring, using, and paying a lawyer.

4. Check legal specialty groups

Some specialists have their own professional associations, which can help you find attorneys; in some cases, they also offer information and tips. You can find a list at the website of the legal information provider HG.org. Not all specialty groups publicize their membership directory or have a find-an-attorney feature. Here are a few that do:

American College of Real Estate Lawyers

Click on "Member Roster" on the home page to find a real-estate lawyer.

American College of Trust and Estate Counsel

Click on "Fellows" to locate a specialist.

National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys

Find a lawyer who focuses on Medicare rights, estates and trusts, and other issues.

National Association of Consumer Advocates

Find a lawyer specializing in consumer matters such as predatory lending and forced arbitration.

National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys

Here you can find an attorney who specializes in protecting the rights of debtors.

5. Go to independent legal referral websites

There are many that can help you find a lawyer based on your location and legal issue. Unlike the professional associations, these sites might have reviews by clients. As with all user reviews, remember that you can't tell who is posting and for what reason. Someone who lost a case is not likely to be happy, no matter how well the attorney performed. Check more than one site and be cautious if there are only one or two comments, which might not give an accurate picture.

Some independent sites provide attorney background information, a record of disciplinary actions, and details about fees. You might also find legal dictionaries, tips, and forums where visitors can post questions and get answers from legal experts. Some sites, such as LegalMatch.com, don't produce referrals when you visit. Instead, you must provide some personal information and details about your case, and the site gets back to you if an attorney in your area is interested. If you think that's too much of an intrusion, you might want to check these sites, which directly provide attorney names and other information:

Avvo.com

Find lawyers by location and areas of practice. Includes lawyer ratings, background, and disciplinary history, as well as articles on legal topics and an ask-a-lawyer feature.

FindLaw

Find lawyers by location and expertise. Includes information on legal topics, blogs, and news.

LawHelp.org

Find free or low-cost legal aid programs for low- and moderate-income people by state. State pages provide legal help guides by subject. Some states let you post questions.

Lawyers.com

Find lawyers by location and subject. Includes ratings, helpful articles, a legal dictionary, a law blog, forums, and an ask-a-lawyer feature.

6. Do a cross examination

Once you've found a potential candidate, set up a face-to-face meeting. Many lawyers don't charge a fee for this first visit; be sure to ask. The attorney will probably ask you a lot of questions, but you should be looking for some answers of your own, either by asking directly or just listening and observing. For example, does the attorney seem organized? How well does he or she listen to what you have to say? This is where you need to trust your instincts.

"Nothing replaces that visit to the office," Zack says. "The moment the hair on your neck stands up, you ought to be moving on to another lawyer."

You'll also want to know how your case will be handled and how you'll be charged. (For a list of questions to ask, see the box on the facing page.) Ask for references, but be aware that you're not likely to be put in touch with former clients who are dissatisfied. Don't hesitate to interview other attorneys as well.

Once your questions are answered and you're ready to hire someone, insist on a written agreement. Read it thoroughly to verify your understanding of the terms and to make sure there are no surprises. If you're not certain about something, have it clarified in writing.

Raising objections

If you're unhappy once your case is underway, speak up and give your attorney a chance to explain or correct the problem. You generally have the right to fire your lawyer, though you might need a court's permission in some cases. Ditching your attorney can be expensive, since you'll probably have to pay whatever expenses you owe up to that point. You'll also need to find a new lawyer who will have to get up to speed on your case. Your fired attorney is obligated to provide your file to you or your new counsel.

If you think the attorney has acted unethically or illegally, contact your state's disciplinary organization. Depending on your state, complaints can be filed with state or local state bar associations and/or the courts. Complaints can cover such issues as lying, misappropriating money, and conflicts of interest. Disciplinary committees can't help you recover fees but they can reprimand, fine, and in some cases, suspend or disbar an attorney.

Along with disciplinary committees, some state and local bar associations have attorney-client mediation and arbitration panels to handle fee disputes and other issues. Most states maintain funds to help clients recover misappropriated money. Check with your state bar association for more information. If the lawyer belongs to a specialty association, try complaining there as well.

In extreme cases, you can sue your attorney. Of course, that means having to find yet another one. Attorney malpractice suits can be very difficult to win.

Questions to ask

If you're looking for a master attorney like Perry Mason, you'll need to do some legwork or you might end up being represented by Cousin Vinny instead. The North Carolina State Bar Association advises people to ask the following questions before hiring a lawyer:

  • Does the attorney specialize in your type of case, and have a track record handling such issues or any special credentials?
  • Who will handle your case, an attorney or a paralegal? Who will be your contact person?
  • Roughly how long will it take to resolve your legal matter?
  • How will you be kept up to date about the progress of your case?
  • What's the best way to communicate, and will you be billed for phone calls and e-mail correspondence with the attorney or other staff members?
  • How will fees be calculated—hourly, flat fee, contingent? If it's hourly, will you be billed for portions of an hour?
  • What expenses are you responsible for?
  • How will you be kept up to date on the amount you owe, and how often will you be billed?
  • Is an advance payment required, and if so, what happens to the payment if you terminate the case before it's resolved?
  • Will you receive copies of all documents filed in your case?

This article appeared in Consumer Reports Money Adviser.

Posted September 2011 — Consumer Reports Money Adviser issue: September 2011