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Life challenge checklist: I think I need a lawyer

Judge's Gavel

Are you dealing with a complicated business situation? Were you in an accident resulting in someone’s injury? What do you do when you have a legal issue, and you’ve reached the limits of what you can figure out by Googling? If you’ve hit that limit, it’s time to involve a lawyer. Here are tips to help you find the right attorney for your case.

Where to find an attorney-at-law

There are more than 100 areas of law practice, so first you’ll need to figure out which area of law covers your legal issue. Then, look for an attorney with specialized expertise and local knowledge. Here are some places to start your search:

  • Get referrals from people in your network. Ask family, friends, neighbors and coworkers. Ask your accountant, doctor or insurance professional. Ask if your business associates or partners know someone. See if someone in your book club, country club or parent association knows the right type of attorney.
  • Check the local chamber of commerce. There may be members who are attorneys as well as other members who can give referrals.
  • A law school in your area is a source of practicing attorneys who also teach.
  • A law library can direct you to attorneys who have written books or articles in their area of practice.
  • Ask organizations and groups whose interest is the subject of your issue. For example, men’s and women’s support groups will know family and divorce attorneys.
  • Attorneys know attorneys. If you’re familiar with one, ask for a referral.
  • Look for attorneys presenting at bar association events or continuing education programs.
  • Look for attorneys who are board certified. New Mexico and Texas have state bar-sponsored specialization programs for certain areas of law, and websites you can search.
  • Look for attorneys who belong to specialized organizations within their practice areas. For example, the American Health Lawyers Association has members who are expert in issues of the health field.

If you prefer to keep your search online, beware of outdated and inaccurate advice. A reliable site to start with is nolo.com.

How to choose an attorney

Find three candidates to meet in person. Different attorneys have different styles and personalities. Look for someone you feel compatible and comfortable with.

The candidate should have experience, and should practice the area of law that’s the subject of your issue. Avoid someone who says they practice all areas of law.

Your potential attorney should treat you with respect. Discuss your expectations for communications and outcomes. He or she should be a good listener and address any concerns you have. The attorney should explain your options along with the pros and cons of each.

Ask about the billing practices and get an estimate based on your situation. An experienced lawyer can give you a ballpark estimate. Keep in mind fees may differ between attorneys, and there may be room to negotiate.

Don’t pay to educate an attorney. This means footing the bill for an attorney needing to get up to speed in an unfamiliar area of concern. Avoid this by hiring an experienced attorney in the right practice area to handle your case.

An experienced or high-profile attorney might cost more up-front. But experience translates to efficiency, so an attorney with a high rate may bill you fewer hours and could even get better results. An attorney with a low rate who has to take time to get up to speed might bill more hours.

Set yourself up for success

One of the most valuable services an attorney can offer is guidance. When you’re not sure about a decision or situation, stop and get advice.

Do what your attorney asks

You’re paying for good advice, so follow it. Guess what the biggest headache is for attorneys? Clients not doing as advised and making matters worse. Trust the professional you hire, and communicate promptly if they need your input, information, or decisions.

Be flexible and realistic with your goals

Despite what you see on TV, most of what attorneys do is negotiation. Your attorney is your advocate and will work to get you the best result possible. Be ready to compromise to achieve an outcome everyone can live with, even if it’s not ideal.