Below are some tips on how to best work with a lawyer, including information on fee arrangements, preparing for an initial consultation with a lawyer, and attorney-client communication.
Basics of Fee Arrangements
Fees for lawyers vary and are negotiable. When taking cost of legal services into consideration, remember that the most expensive lawyer is not necessarily the best one for your legal issue, and a “bargain” rate is not always a good deal. Look for the best balance of experience and cost.
Below are the most common payment arrangements:
Hourly fee. Hourly rates depend on the lawyer’s location, the type of cases they work on, and the amount of experience they have. An experienced lawyer may charge a higher hourly rate but may complete the work more quickly. At your first meeting, ask for a written estimate of the number of hours necessary to complete your case to get an idea of what your final bill might amount to. Often, unexpected things happen and the lawyer will spend more time on your case than initially estimated. You can also ask the lawyer to produce an itemized bill every month or every quarter to help you better understand what exactly is being billed, but keep in mind this may increase the charges.
Flat fee. Some lawyers charge a flat fee for certain cases or services. With this type of fee, the cost of the lawyer’s services does not change no matter how much time the lawyer spends on your case. This kind of fee is often used for cases that are not complicated, like incorporating your business, handling a trademark filing or reviewing a simple sponsorship agreement. Be sure to find out exactly what the flat fee includes and ask if the flat fee could change if your case becomes more difficult than expected.
Contingency fee. A contingent fee arrangement means your lawyer gets a percentage of whatever money you receive as resolution of your case. If you receive no money, then your lawyer collects no fees. However, you may still owe charges for court fees, copying, and hiring expert witnesses. Before agreeing to a contingent fee, understand that (1) the size of the contingency fee is always negotiable: there's no particular percentage of a client's recovery that constitutes a standard, and (2) the size of the contingency fee should reflect the amount of work that will be required of the attorney: some cases are more straightforward than others. Be sure you know exactly what is covered in your contingency agreement. A lawyer cannot represent you in a criminal case on a contingency fee.
Retainer. Your lawyer may ask you to pay a fee up front. A lawyer can use this fee as a down payment on expenses and fees. If this is the fee arrangement you have, make sure to review your account from time to time to understand how your money is being spent.
Prepare for Initial Consultation
Preparing for your first consultation meeting is critical. Strong preparation will save you both time and money. It will also ensure that all of your questions are answered and that your attorney has all the information needed in order to effectively represent you.
- Create a clear, comprehensive written story of your legal situation in chronological order. Be detailed: provide names, dates, and any important deadlines you're aware of. Try to keep it to one page.
- Try your best to locate any documents that might apply to your case, including contracts, financial documents, correspondence (including emails, text/instant messages, social media contacts), and videos/photos, and employment materials.
- If relevant and possible, get a contact list of relevant witnesses.
If a lawyer sends you a questionnaire to fill out in advance of the initial consultation, fill it out and send it back to the lawyer's office before your meeting so it can be reviewed before your meeting.
Be honest. You and your lawyer are on the same team, and your lawyer cannot share confidential information with anyone unless you give them permission to do so. Explaining both the good and bad of your situation will help them give you the right advice and guidance to ensure the best possible outcome for your case.
Ask Questions. To ensure that you get all your questions answered during initial consultation, try listing them out ahead of time. Your questions may include:
- How many similar transactions/cases have you handled?
- What percent of your practice is in the area of expertise that I need?
- What are the options for going forward, both legal and non-legal?
- What would you (the lawyer) like to see in order to evaluate this case?
- What problems do you foresee with this transaction/case?
- How is the other side likely to respond?
- How long will it take to bring the matter to a conclusion?
- How would you charge for services (for example, hourly or on a contingency or flat-fee basis)?
Ask for explanations. If you find yourself confused by legal terms, ask for clarification. Your lawyer should do their best to explain things in layman’s terms.
Keep your lawyer informed. Things change, and when they do, update your lawyer. Small developments could dramatically change your legal situation for better or worse. And some changes may result in your legal situation taking longer to resolve, so ask about that as well when you provide updates.
Attorney-Client Privilege. We’ve all heard about attorney-client privilege, but what is it and how can it protect you? At its core, the privilege means that any information you discuss with your lawyer that is relevant to your case is not only confidential, but your lawyer cannot disclose or be compelled to disclose such information to third parties. Typically the privilege attaches during an initial consultation with the attorney, even if you choose not to retain the attorney. The privilege remains in place even after the attorney-client relationship itself has ended.
From your attorney. In general, you should be able to expect to get a general overview of your case whenever you request it from your attorney. In addition, you should also expect your attorney to call you back or return your emails in a timely manner. If your attorney does not respond within a business day, they should provide you with a reason why they were unable to answer your question. If your lawyer is working on multiple cases, they may be tied down in court on some days.
From you. There are numerous deadlines in any case that must be met by your attorney. If your lawyer asks for a document or information, provide what is asked as soon as you can. If you cannot respond in a timely manner, be sure to tell your attorney about your situation. It will look much better for your case if your attorney is able to ask for an extension of a deadline rather than just missing it without a good reason.
Although finding yourself working with a lawyer may feel like a stressful situation to be in, being organized and prepared can have a big impact on the future success of your case.