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Tips for selecting and working with your lawyer

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Recently, I had the opportunity to present a class for Pybus University focused on assisting businesses and individuals in selecting and communicating cost effectively with a lawyer.

At some point, most of us can benefit from hiring a lawyer, whether for writing a will, buying/selling a business or real estate, writing or entering into a lease, handling a divorce, pursuing a personal injury claim, or for an array of other reasons.

While there are a lot a lot of legal resources on the Internet, in today’s world of confusing laws, regulations and local ordinances, you might want to talk to someone who both knows the lay of the land, but can also offer strategic advice and apply professional skills to legal problems.

If this is your first time experience in looking for a lawyer, where do you start?

Some tips for selecting the right lawyer for your needs include:

♦ Take your time. This means doing some research. Talk to friends/relatives, check with business acquaintances, use the Internet (with a caveat— don’t select a lawyer based on advertising).

♦ Choose a lawyer with excellent reputation and stellar ethics. Outstanding integrity and experience are a cornerstone for selecting a good lawyer.

♦ Decide on what type of lawyer you need, civil versus criminal. Are you looking for advice or do you have a dispute that needs professional assistance to resolve?

♦ Select a lawyer based on proven experience within the specialty you need. Lawyers, like doctors, focus on particular practice areas, i.e., estate planning and probate, trial work, domestic relations, general business, real estate, criminal, etc.

Once you narrow the field, plan on interviewing several lawyers. In addition to finding someone who knows a particular area of the law, you want someone who is professional and you are comfortable with their communication style and manner.

You should ask if the lawyer offers free consultations (many do), about the lawyers current work load, along with the expected turnaround time to deal with your issue or matter.

Also inquire what expectations both of you have for frequency of contact and updates.

It may help if you can access an computer application like Nolo’s Plain English Law Dictionary to help you navigate some of the legal jargon you may encounter, maybe not from your lawyer, but from others you may end up dealing with.

Once you have selected a lawyer, some tips on communicating and working collaboratively and cost effectively with that individual include:

♦ Discuss payment arrangements. Understand whether you will be paying on an hourly rate basis and the amount charged by the attorney or anyone else working on your matter, or on a contingent fee (usually a percentage of an award or settlement), or on a fixed fee for a particular project. Usually, there is the opportunity for negotiating the amount of fees to be paid. Remember you are the client and the attorney works for you. You should feel comfortable you are getting value the legal services provided.

♦ Prepare well for the initial meeting. Do your homework and anticipate possible questions. Be succinct and clear. Organize your documents ahead of time. Provide detailed information.

♦ Be truthful. Share all the facts — good or bad. Do not withhold any information. You have an attorney-client relationship, which means the attorney will honor the confidentiality of the information, but without full and complete information your attorney cannot provide effective legal advice or counsel.

♦ Remember this is a professional relationship. Don’t waste your or your attorney’s time to vent.

♦ Ask for a formal engagement letter. This letter should set out, in understandable terms, what you are hiring the lawyer for, the payment arrangements and frequency, if there is a retainer and if it is a refundable or non refundable retainer. Read the letter carefully and ask questions until you are comfortable you understand all the terms. Understand the difference between fees and costs. Don’t be shy.

♦ Agree, to the extent feasible, on a budget for the requested work and decide on how much work the lawyer can do before checking in with you again.

♦ Identify probable costs, like filing and copying fees, postage, expert witness fees, and the like.

♦ Determine anticipated frequency of contact (weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or other) and method of contact (phone, letter, email, text message). Remember you are likely to be charged for each email, particularly if it requires a response (most do).

♦ Set expectations and timelines, if appropriate. Track progress regularly; however, remember every contact can come with a cost.

♦ Be patient. Legal matters take time. Most attorneys are very busy, plus they often cannot control response times from other parties.

♦ Ask about use of paralegals or legal assistants. This can be a very effective cost control technique, as good assistants can handle more routine matters, at lower costs, and are often easier to reach.

♦ Be a good client. This is a two way relationship.

Remember your lawyer works for you — not the other way around.

You have the right to ask questions and to understand what’s happening, and it’s your lawyer’s job to explain it to you.

Hiring a lawyer can seem a bit daunting the first time, but with adequate research and preparation, you can find a qualified professional advisor to help you navigate our legal and judicial system.

(The class was filmed by NCWLife and shown on our local TV stations. The entire presentation can be accessed on YouTube at the following address: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GGlLv60ZEs.)

Gil Sparks is an attorney in the Wenatchee offices of Ogden Murphy Wallace, PLLC. His practice focuses on employment and labor law representing both private and public sector management clients.