Disclosure: This blog does not constitute legal advice nor establish an attorney client-relationship. Also, I am opinionated and not omniscient. But I am a lawyer and I am trying to help.
So you think you need a lawyer. But how do you find one? Billboards? No! Please no.
Lawyers are as specialized as doctors. Really! You would not make an appointment with a cardiologist for a broken bone. But lawyers’ areas of expertise can be a little harder to find.
This article will help you identify what kind of attorney you need and give you some pointers about how attorneys get paid.
Bottom line: a “good” lawyer is one that is:
Here’s some common scenarios and the type of lawyer that generally does that work:
Prepare a simple will
A Trusts and Estates attorney licensed in your state of residence
Advice on the sale / purchase of real property
A real estate lawyer licensed in the state where the property is located
Advice on starting a business, forming an LLC, drafting an operating agreement, etc.
A business or corporate attorney
Someone is in jail / has been charged with a crime
A criminal defense attorney who practices in the state (and ideally has an office in or near the county)
You want to sue someone on a contract (e.g. a contractor messed up your house)
A business litigation attorney, if possible one who has experience in the general type of claim (e.g. contractor litigation). If it’s relatively small dollars, research small claims court in your area.
You are being sued on a contract (e.g. a contractor is suing for non-payment)
A business litigation attorney, if possible one who has experience in the general type of claim (e.g. contractor litigation)
You want to bring a suit against your employer for workplace harassment, unlawful termination, etc.
Plaintiff’s side employment attorney licensed in the state where the job was
You want a divorce
A family law attorney licensed in your state of residence (or, if amicable, look for one that does mediation)
Now that you have the key terms in hand, do a Google search for lawyers in your area with those key terms. Read the biographies of the lawyers on their law firm websites, and make sure their website talks about your issue as one of their key practice areas.
Also note the size of the firm (i.e., the number of attorneys). In general, fees are lower at a solo practitioner or small firm, as long they have the expertise you need. (It is usually expensive to pay someone by the hour to get up to speed in an area. You want someone who does your type of work all the time.)
Couple more notes: There are aggregators of lawyers that will come up in your search (Martindale, Avvo, etc.) They are usually inaccurate or not useful, unfortunately. The best way to tell what areas a lawyer practices in is to read their law firm biography.
You could also ask your network for recommendations for a lawyer. Your lawyer friends may or may not have the expertise you need, but we are often asked to help find someone who does. For better recommendations, include the type of lawyer and jurisdiction needed in your reaches. Remember, lawyers are highly specialized. Your friend from church who is a lawyer probably does not have the expertise you need – but if you aren’t sure what they do, or would appreciate their help finding someone, reach out. We do this all the time.
In the U.S., lawyers get paid in three main ways: by the hour based on their actual work on the matter, a “flat fee” for completion of the work, or on “contingency”, meaning they get a portion (often 1/3) of any monetary award at the end of litigation rather than the client paying directly.
Only a few areas of law are regularly billed on contingency: employment discrimination/harassment is the only one in my list above, and you also see it in plaintiff-side injury litigation. Expect that a lawyer who accepts a case on contingency will do their own evaluation of the strength of a case before agreeing to take it on, and may decline if they don’t feel that the facts and existing proof (e.g. documentation of the discrimination) make it a case likely enough to win.
Sometimes lawyers are willing to negotiate a flat fee for specified services, meaning they would charge you a set price for representation in an uncontested divorce, forming an LLC, or preparation of a will. That gives you greater certainty about how much this will cost. However, the flat fee is usually subject to various conditions so that if the matter turns out to be more complicated (now the divorce is contested!), the client will have to pay more.
The main way U.S. lawyers are paid is by the hour. Fees range widely but expect at least $100+ per hour. When I was in private practice, my large regional law firm billed my time at $350/hour. Any lawyer you are considering can tell you what their rate per hour is and whether they provide a free consultation. Feel free to ask for a rough estimate or range of how many hours your issue might take, and for them to give you notice once the fees add up to a certain pre-agreed amount. All of this is documented in an engagement letter which the attorney will ultimately send the client at the beginning of the attorney-client relationship.
For flat fee or hourly billing, it is common for a lawyer to be paid a retainer and/or an advance on fees, to make sure the client can pay before starting the work.
Now you have the information you need to reach out to the lawyers who seem, based on their website, to have the expertise you need. Call their office, introduce yourself as a potential client, and ask for a meeting (confirm there will be no charge for this meeting).
Then, you should ask questions about how they would bill this matter and how much that might cost, their experience and how they would approach your matter. Get a sense of how they work and whether you feel comfortable with them.
They, in turn, will be interviewing you to understand your needs / the strength of your litigation position / whether they want to take on the matter. They will need some preliminary information in order to evaluate whether this is a good fit for them and their firm, including to be able to run a conflict check. (A conflict check is a search that a law firm does before taking on a new client, to make sure they are not representing an adverse party in a different lawsuit or other disqualifying facts.)
Remember at this point you are a potential client, and so not yet protected by full attorney-client confidentiality. They also may advise you at this point, or you may conclude, that your case is not very strong or it is not monetarily worthwhile to bring a lawsuit.
Once both sides agree to work together, the attorney will most likely require a retainer from you, beginning the full attorney-client relationship.
Part II of this article will look at some of the lower-cost legal and legal-adjacent providers that are popping up, like Hello Divorce, Legal Zoom, and our legal forms at Sandwich Smarter. It will also round up some of the free or low-cost legal resources out there, like LegalAid, and their low-income requirements.
To get Part II when it comes out, subscribe now!