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WHAT QUESTIONS SHOULD I ASK BEFORE I MEET WITH A LAWYER?
One way to start the process of hiring a lawyer is to call several lawyers to whom you have been referred or about whom you have heard. There are some preliminary questions that you can ask the lawyer or a staff person before committing yourself to a consultation. The answers will help you choose the two or three lawyers you wish to interview. Since this is only a preliminary telephone conversation, ask questions that can be answered briefly, such as those listed below:
* Will the lawyer provide a free consultation for the initial interview on this matter?
* How long has the lawyer been in practice?
* What percentage of the lawyer's cases are similar to your type of legal problems? (A lawyer with experience in handling cases like yours should be more efficient and knowledgeable, and that may save you money.)
* Can the lawyer provide you with any references, such as trust officers in banks, other attorneys, or clients?
* Does the attorney represent any special-interest groups, such as nursing homes or senior citizen groups?
* What type of fee arrangement does the lawyer require? Are the fees negotiable?
* What type of information should you bring with you to the initial consultation?
7. Why should I interview a lawyer?
Whether you are seeking a lawyer for a one-time case or to assist you with a variety of matters over a period of years, you will be sharing details of your life and relying upon this person's expertise and advice. Since this person will be acting on your behalf, it is critical that you feel comfortable with your attorney and have confidence that he or she will hear your concerns in an atmosphere of mutual resect. A personal interview is the best way to make this judgment.
Plan to follow up your exploratory phone calls by scheduling interviews with at least two of the attorneys. Don't feel embarrassed about selecting only the best candidates or cancelling appointments with some of the attorneys after you complete all of your exploratory calls.
WHAT SHOULD I LOOK FOR DURING THE INTERVIEW?
Come prepared with a brief summary of your immediate case (including dates and facts) as well as a list of general questions for the attorney. The purpose of the interview is twofold: to decide if the attorney has the necessary experience and is available to take your case; and, to decide if you are comfortable with the fee arrangement and, most importantly, comfortable working with the attorney. Since this a free consultation, it may not be a lengthy one. Be concise and approach the interview in a businesslike manner. Be prepared to take notes, to listen carefully to the attorney, and to observe the office.
Bring to the interview:
* a brief, written summary of your case;
* a list of questions for the attorney;
* cards or a small notebook;
* a pen/pencil for notes;
* copies of any notices you have received.
IN ADDITION TO ANY UNANSWERED QUESTIONS FROM THE TELEPHONE CALLS, YOU MAY WANT TO CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS:
* How long has this attorney worked on cases like yours?
* Based on your brief description of the problem, ask about the range of outcomes you could expect (rough estimate of length of time, cost for legal services, and size of the award if any). Ask if the case is likely to be settled or will it go to trial.
Remember that there are many factors in how a case is decided. Be wary of any ironclad promises that you will win.
* Ask for an opinion as to the strengths and weaknesses of a case like yours. This should be based on your lawyer's experience with similar cases.
* Ask who will be working on your case. Will this attorney be doing all of the research, case preparation, negotiation, and court work or will associates or non- attorney advocates be handling parts of it? What are the experience and expertise of these other advocates? Will other experts including attorneys be consulted? If so, who will they be? If others will work on the case, what will the fee arrangement be?
* These questions are particularly important to ask of attorneys practicing in large law firms where work is often delegated to associates and/or paralegals.
* Ask about fees and expenses. These are not the same. An attorney's fee is the payment you make for the attorney's time. Expenses refer to a variety of other costs including witness fees, filing costs, copying, messenger service, etc. (See the question on fees below.)
* Will the attorney work out a written fee agreement with you? (The specifics of the arrangement should be in writing.)
* How often will the attorney bill you? Is a retainer required?
* Decide what type of involvement in the case you want and ask if the attorney is comfortable with that. (See the questions below on client involvement and cutting costs.)
* What hours will the attorney be available for meetings? This may be particularly important if you must leave work to meet with the attorney. Will you meet in the evening or on weekends? Will the attorney make house calls or visit a nursing home if needed?
OBSERVE HOW THE ATTORNEY RESPONDS TO YOUR QUESTIONS.
* Does the attorney seem organized (take notes, etc.)?
* Does the attorney respond openly and directly to your questions?
* Does the attorney provide you with written background material on the topics of interest to you?
* Are the attorney's explanations clear?
FINALLY, OBSERVE THE PHYSICAL SURROUNDINGS AND OFFICE STAFF.
* Is parking or public transportation easily available? Would you feel secure coming alone?
* If you are seeking a long-term relationship or currently are experiencing disabilities, consider the following:
* are there many steps to the office?
* are the chairs comfortable and easy to get out of?
* are the forms printed in large enough type to read or is a magnifying glass offered?
* is it difficult to hear what is going on due to excess noise?
* do you look into the glare of the window as you face the attorney?
* most importantly, if you mention problems, is the staff responsive to your needs?
* Does the office staff appear to be helpful?
* Do people identify themselves on the telephone so you know to whom you are speaking?
* Does anyone explain the relative roles of different people with whom you may be dealing?
WHAT FACTORS SHOULD I CONSIDER IN CHOOSING AN ATTORNEY?
After the interviews, review your notes. Look at the strengths and weaknesses of each of the attorneys you interviewed. Decide what is most important to you. Factors to consider in choosing an attorney include:
Cost * Cost is rarely a deciding factor unless it is a simple case which will take little time and that is the only contact you plan to have with the attorney. However, it is always critical that you feel comfortable and knowledgeable about the financial arrangement. Disputes over fees are one of the most common conflicts between unhappy clients and attorneys.
Experience * Does the attorney have the necessary experience for the case you have? For a simple will a relatively new attorney may be a cost-effective choice. However, for a complex estate plan you are likely to prefer someone with more experience. The higher fee is likely to be balanced by not having to pay for the attorney to learn on the job.
Availability * Can the attorney accept the case immediately? Will the attorney be able to devote the time you want to the case? This is particularly important if you prefer a lot of interaction with your attorney.
Your Comfort Level/Mutual Respect * It is important not to choose an
attorney simply because you share an interest in common or you are
impressed by the firm's reputation. You should be satisfied with the
expertise of the people actually working on your case. Will you trust
them enough to tell them private matters (relevant to the case) that you
may not have shared with others? Do you believe the attorney treats
your ideas and opinions with respect?
Excerpted from An Older Person's Guide to Finding Legal Help
from Legal Counsel for the Elderly
601 E Street, NW Washington, DC 20049
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