Decide if You Have Hired the Best Attorney for Your Issue
Hiring an attorney can be a scary proposition. By doing your homework, you can find someone who you trust and gives you confidence in his abilities. However, as the case goes on, you may begin to lose confidence and wonder if you hired the best lawyer for the job. Communication and record-keeping are the keys to maintaining an effective attorney-client relationship.
Evaluating Your Attorney After the Case Begins
- Communicate your expectations with your lawyer. Even though you discussed things like communication policy before your case started, you need to clarify what you expect in how often you will meet with him or hear from him. You also need to understand that some requests may not be reasonable. It is better to understand how your case will work from the very beginning.
- Keep a case journal. This does not have to be fancy, a simple notebook will do. Keep a running diary of every time you talk with your lawyer, instructions you were given (such as producing documents), and any questions or concerns you may have. If you do have an issue with your lawyer, you need to be able to refer to facts, such as missed appointments, rude communication, or anything else that may be bothering you about your case.
- In a domestic case, also keep a record of every time you speak with the other party, exchange children, and deal with property.
- Ask about milestones. There are important times in any case, such as the filing of documents or a major court appearance. Ask your attorney what the milestones of your case will be and when they might occur. There are no guarantees of a timeline, but a competent and engaged attorney can explain the process flow of your case and what to expect. For example, an arraignment will typically be four to six weeks after a first appearance. On the other side, if you are in federal court, it might take six months for the judge to rule on a motion.
- Ask your attorney how he will communicate changes in the schedule and what delays are common in a case like yours.
- Check the public record. If you feel like your lawyer isn't being honest with you, check the public record at the courthouse. If your attorney says he has filed a motion or the other side is the one delaying the case, you can see the documents filed by both sides. Most documents can be copied from the public file for a small fee.
- Once you have copies of the record, you can confront your attorney and ask for an explanation.
Communicating With Your Attorney
- Keep your contact information up to date. Your lawyer can't communicate with you if she can't find you. Contact her if you move, change phone numbers, or have your cell phone disconnected for lack of minutes. Also, if she calls you, return the call as soon as possible.
- Unless it is an emergency, keep your calls to business hours.
- Set up a communication schedule. The ethical rules in all states require your lawyer to "keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter and promptly comply with reasonable requests for communication."
In short, you have a right to have your attorney keep you posted about your case and to answer your questions in a reasonable amount of time.
- To ensure you and your attorney agree on what is reasonable, talk about a communication schedule. In a complicated case, it may be periodic face-to-face meetings. In a longer and slower case, it may be a once-a-month phone call, email, or status letter.
- If you call or write your lawyer with a question, it is reasonable to expect an answer within two business days. The one exception is a question that is time sensitive. For example, if you have a court date in two days, it is reasonable to expect an answer before the court appearance. However, if you make a habit of waiting until the last possible minute to ask questions, it isn't reasonable to expect your attorney to drop everything to talk to you.
- Understand that you will be charged for these discussions. Examine your own motives and determine whether your desire to talk to your lawyer is for information or reassurance.
- If you are the type to need more frequent communications, discuss if the lawyer's clerk or paralegal can be your point of contact. This will keep the billable hours to a minimum and you will be more likely to find the staff member in the office when you call. The staff member is bound by confidentiality and can handle routine questions and requests for information.
- Put your concerns and requests in writing. If you believe your lawyer is not being truthful with you or is not doing a good job on your case, write a letter detailing your concerns. If your lawyer is acting irresponsibly or unethically, these letters can help you prove your case if you file a disciplinary complaint.
- Set a time limit and heed the warning signs. If your reasonable requests for updates, information, or documents are not being honored, put time limits in your written requests. For example, in your letter, put that you expect to hear from him in five business days. If your lawyer consistently does not meet these deadlines and doesn't give you a reasonable explanation, then it may be time to consider replacing your lawyer.
- Your lawyer should be able to break down the legal issues into language you can understand. Ask questions. If you feel intimidated, put your questions in writing.
- It is a red flag if your lawyer makes you feel like she is avoiding your questions or not being honest about your case.
- You need to be aware that court cases often move at a glacial pace and there is nothing your attorney can do to speed up the process. Good communication can clear up your misgivings about the progress of your case. Remember that your lawyer can't read your mind. What is normal for her may be very upsetting to you. Speak up and ask questions.
Severing the Attorney-Client Relationship
- Determine if you still trust your lawyer. This is an intangible quality in the attorney-client relationship, but it is a critical one. If you lose trust in your lawyer, you may be anxious and lose faith in your lawyer's ability to act on your behalf.
- Chat with your lawyer in person. Many issues can be worked out in a face-to-face meeting. Adjust the previously agreed-to communication schedule if needed to clear up the misunderstanding.
- Terminate the attorney's representation. If you cannot work out the problems with your lawyer, write a letter terminating the retainer agreement. Your letter should include the reasons for ending the agreement, a request for the return of your file, a request for a status letter, including any impending deadlines, and a request for a final bill.
- You letter also should ask the attorney to promptly file a motion to withdraw with the court. Your new lawyer can't appear on your behalf until the judge has released your first lawyer. If the fired attorney won't do it, discuss it with your new lawyer.
- If you paid a deposit or a retainer, the attorney has the right to bill a reasonable hourly rate against that retainer. You will be either sent a refund or a bill.
- If you are on a contingency agreement, the attorney can bill you a reasonable hourly rate for the work done to date.
- File a disciplinary complaint. Your reasons to fire your lawyer may not rise to an ethical violation. However, if your believe your lawyer acted negligently and his actions damaged you or your case, you should consider filing a complaint with the state bar association.
- The process is state specific. You should go to the website of the state bar association or call them and ask the procedure. Some states let you file online, others require that you file the application by mail.
- A dispute over fees is not the basis of a bar complaint. If you believe you have been overcharged or a retainer was not returned, it is better to go to small claims court.
- The exception is if you believe your attorney stole or mishandled funds, such as not disbursing insurance payments or other financial awards.
- Attach copies of your correspondence with your lawyer to show that you behaved reasonably and gave your attorney every opportunity to address your concerns.
Hiring a New Attorney
- Evaluate your legal situation and needs. Having a legal problem is stressful, but you need to be able to think clearly about your situation. While many lawyers maintain a general practice and offer legal services for different problems, you want to talk to one who has skill and experience with your issue. A divorce needs a different skill set than a bankruptcy. A criminal defense is different than a civil lawsuit. Your first step is to list the issues you are experience. For example, a divorce may also include bankruptcy or real estate law.
- A complex legal situation may require more than one attorney.
- Ask for a referral. If you are comfortable discussing your situation, ask family, friends, and co-workers for a referral. Make sure their problem was similar to your situation. Ask about the quality of the attorney-client relationship and if they were comfortable with the level of communication and trust.
- Seek out a professional referral. If you do not have anyone with personal experience to ask, consider getting a professional referral. The American Bar Association maintains a directory to the state and large city bar associations. The bar associations will have a referral service where you can be matched with an attorney who practices in the area that you need. After interviewing several attorneys, you can retain the one that makes you feel the most comfortable.
- The state bar association should also have a link to the state's lawyer disciplinary authority. Before you retain a lawyer you should check with this office to see if the lawyer has a current case or a history of attorney discipline.
- Interview potential attorneys. Do not hire an attorney sight unseen. You need to talk to him, verify his credentials, reassure yourself that he has the experience that you need, and evaluate the intangible qualities of chemistry and trust.
- When you make an appointment, ask about the cost of the consultation. Depending on the area of practice, most attorneys will offer a half to full hour consultation for free or a reasonable fixed price of under $100.
- Arrive about 30 minutes before your appointment time. The lawyer may ask you to fill out a general questionnaire to facilitate the interview. You want to be ready to discuss your issue as soon as you sit down. Do not judge the attorney strictly on his office. Some lawyers are always in court and have a modest operation to save money. When you enter a fancy law firm, remember that clients pay for it.
- Questions will vary depending on the issue, but in general ask about years in practice, experience with cases like yours, successful cases, support staff, and his policy on communication.
- Discuss the fee and payment structure. Depending on the type of case, your attorney will work on either a contingency fee or a retainer. In a contingency fee, your lawyer will take a fixed percentage of any cash award. In a retainer agreement, you will pay either a flat or hourly rate.
- It is against the rules of ethical conduct for a lawyer to take a divorce or a criminal case on a contingency fee. If this is suggested to you, you should immediately consider a different attorney.
- Do not turn over any of your documents to the lawyer until you have agreed on a scope of representation, a fee, and have signed a retainer agreement.
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