If your car needs to be repaired, you look for a good auto mechanic. Even if you don't have any specific questions, you know you don't need a boat mechanic. If you have a legal issue, you want a good lawyer. You may not know all the details, but you should know the area of law you need. A divorce needs a family lawyer, not a patent attorney, and vice versa.
Your first meeting with an attorney is like a job interview, except you're the one who is hiring. You're asking the same interview questions that anyone should expect during the hiring process. After all, you'll be paying the lawyer a lot of money to provide skilled legal services for you. It's reasonable to want them to meet your expectations.
Many potential clients are too intimidated by the attorney or preoccupied with their legal matter to question their lawyer during their first meeting. You can always ask follow-up questions during later meetings. You should try to discover these facts about your potential lawyer as soon as possible.
Think of yourself as an employer during the interview process while you ask these questions:
1. How long have you practiced law?
Some attorneys decide to hang up their shingle right out of law school. A long legal career does not guarantee success or failure in the courtroom. You can follow up with questions about where they went to school, where they practiced, and their other legal experience.
For instance, someone might only have practiced law for a year or two, following a 20-year stint as a circuit judge's clerk. A legal professional may have plenty of work experience, even with a new degree.
2. What is your primary practice area? What other cases do you handle?
There are very few attorneys who handle a single practice area of law. For instance, even boutique law firms specializing in family law must handle divorce, child support, child custody and visitation, and related legal matters.
Ask a few questions about what areas of law the attorney covers and how much they spend on each area. If you're there for a DUI case, ask what percentage of the practice they devote to DUI cases and how much on personal injury or contract law.
3. Who is your typical client?
If you found your attorney with a Google search, you may not know much about the lawyer or the firm. You may need to ask these questions before you ever meet with your prospective attorney — even before you make your first appointment.
Some types of cases have private attorneys on both sides, such as landlord-tenant disputes. Some attorneys only represent landlords and will not represent tenants. Some divorce firms only handle high-net-worth clients and will not take summary dissolutions. Asking the right questions can save everyone time.
If the attorney does not handle your type of case, be sure to ask for a referral. Firms often take these calls and should be able to provide a referral number.
4. Have you handled cases like mine before? How many? What were the results?
The attorney can't give you specifics, of course. But feel free to ask about the attorney's track record with similar cases. Ask if these cases go to trial, if they settle, and how many the attorney sees in a year.
Ask about the attorney's caseload. The office may be overloaded if the attorney has several hundred cases pending. On the other hand, with too few cases, you may wonder why this attorney cannot attract new clients to the office.
5. Do you have other legal knowledge that may help?
You may want an attorney with extra skills, depending on your legal issue. A law degree is good for legal matters. If your case involves intellectual property, an attorney with a computer science background or IT knowledge gives you an edge. Ask any relevant questions that come to mind.
6. What is your fee agreement?
Don't hesitate to ask about legal fees. Ask about the attorney's retainer and hourly rate. If cost is an issue for you, say so upfront. Ask about payment options such as flat fees or alternate payment plans. The attorney can tell you if this is a contingency fee case.
Ask if paralegals, new associates, or legal assistants will handle your case. In larger firms, it is common for other legal workers to manage the paperwork overseen by senior attorneys. The billing rates for these workers should be lower.
You should also ask if they bill for phone calls and emails. If they do, be sure to include this in your fee agreement.
7. How would you describe your legal work style?
You need your attorney to match your legal needs. If your attorney prefers a laid-back approach to negotiations, and you know your spouse has a junkyard dog of a lawyer in their corner, that might not work in your divorce. On the other hand, that same laid-back approach might work for you if you're facing an insurance company that wants to wear you down in a personal injury case.
8. Are there other methods you recommend for this issue?
One of your questions for your lawyer candidates should be whether they know of non-litigation resolutions for your legal issue. Your candidate should inform you if arbitration, mediation, or even a sternly worded letter might resolve your problem without resorting to more intensive legal methods.
9. Will you tell me what's happening with my case?
One of the major causes of client complaints against attorneys is lack of communication. Of course, many cases like personal injury claims go long periods without much happening, but that's no excuse for poor communication skills. Ask the lawyer how often you can expect to hear from them and what they need from you.
10. What are the possible outcomes for my case?
Ask your attorney upfront what may happen in your case. An honest attorney should give you all possible outcomes, good and bad. In a criminal case, for instance, the attorney should explain what can happen if you get acquitted, possible plea bargains, and the minimum and maximum sentences. They should review the facts in your case and tell you their opinion of the probable outcome.
There are no guarantees in law. A good attorney will not give you any. They should tell you what they will try to do for you and the best-case scenario. If an attorney tells you, "We've got this beat, no sweat!" you should find another attorney immediately.
Finding the Right Lawyer
There are no "right" answers to any of these questions. Your relationship with your lawyer has as much to do with how you work together as with the attorney's legal skills. After you've used FindLaw's attorney directory, ask the attorney these questions to see if they're the right lawyer for you.