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Legal Tips — Working with Your Lawyer

Click one of the links below for more information on finding a lawyer.
1. You found a lawyer. Now what?
2. Why establish ground rules?
3. What's a strategic plan?
4. Are you getting your money's worth?
5. What should you know about lawyer's fees?
6. What expenses can you expect to pay?
7. What should you look for in your monthly bill?
8. How do you evaluate your lawyer?

1. You found a lawyer. Now what?
It is important to not only find a lawyer with the fairest price, but also find the one most qualified to handle your case.

Here are 11 important questions to ask before agreeing to hire any lawyer:
  • Is the lawyer a generalist, or a specialist in one type of law?
  • Has the lawyer handled cases like yours before?
  • What different outcomes can the lawyer predict for your case?
  • What alternatives to a lawsuit might be considered?
  • Should mediation or arbitration be considered?
  • How long should you expect to retain the lawyer's services?
  • How often will you be billed, and what's the lawyer's estimation for fees and services?
  • How will the lawyer inform you of the case's progress?
  • What style can you expect from the lawyer: aggressive or open to settlement?
  • Will others be assisting in the case?
  • Is the lawyer covered by malpractice insurance?
The lawyer-client relationship is stronger when the lawyer and client understand each other. Using a service such as LegalMatch may assist you in finding the lawyer who is the most qualified, affordable, and understanding of your needs.

2. Why establish ground rules?
Legal matters can have a variety of outcomes. None are ever predictable. Once you've chosen a lawyer, you need to communicate your expectations before you begin discussing strategies to win. Your lawyer needs to know what your "dream outcome" for the lawsuit is, and your lawyer needs to explain all other possible outcomes that could happen if you pursue the case in court. Even if your "dream outcome" seems ridiculous, your lawyer needs to be aware of it. After explaining your "dream outcome," you need to list all other possible outcomes that you would accept in the order that you would accept them. This will give your lawyer something to shoot for as well as keeping him or her from settling for less than you expect.

Here are some things to bring up with your lawyer as you discuss the possible outcomes you'll accept in your legal matters:
  • What is the maximum amount in legal fees you want to pay?
  • When is the latest/earliest you want the legal matter attended to?
  • What is the minimum amount of settlement you will agree to?
  • What i's the worst way you think your case can end?
  • How much are you willing to disrupt your life to pursue this matter legally?
By ranking acceptable outcomes with your lawyer, you avoid the possibility of your lawyer not obtaining the best possible outcome that you'll accept. Be sure to give the lawyer a chance to voice an opinion about your ranked outcomes.

3. What's a strategic plan? 
After you and your lawyer understand your ground rules, it's time to discuss the plan for winning your case. In most cases, the better plan with the better follow-through generally wins. Your lawyer needs to be able to explain how he or she plans to win the case, and after your initial meeting should be given the opportunity to draft a strategic plan. The strategic plan, for the most part, forces your lawyer to give immediate attention to your case, encouraging creative and proactive thinking. A strategic plan explains all of the following:
  • what the plan is and what results it should probably produce
  • why it's the best possible plan
  • how long the plan will probably take, from beginning to end
  • how much it will probably cost to implement the plan
  • what special circumstances might require deviation from the plan
Your lawyer will charge you for the time it takes to draft a strategic plan. You might decide it's an unnecessary cost, especially if you're not expecting to need a lawyer's services for long or you're paying a lawyer with a flat fee agreement. Still, some legal matters take a longer amount of time than a client expects. Knowing this ahead of time is exactly why a strategic plan might be in your best interest. In the long run, you might be saving yourself a good deal of money. As for the cost of drafting the plan, you can instruct your lawyer up front to spend only a certain amount of money on drafting the plan.

Finally, don't hesitate in modifying the plan that your lawyer comes up with, if necessary. The strategic plan, when agreed upon by lawyer and client, will keep your lawyer on the right path for the duration of your lawsuit.
Tips 1-3 excerpted from the original LegalMatch article:
Working with Your Lawyer

4. Are you getting your money's worth?
If you're not paying a flat fee to your lawyer, this information is for you. A lawyer's services are rarely cheap. A client has the right to be in control, and to fully understand how his or her money is being spent. You should monitor how your money is being spent. Do the following to minimize your costs:
  • Right from the start, tell your lawyer all that you know. Remember, lawyers must maintain confidential relationships. Waiting until the last minute to communicate something with your lawyer wastes money.
  • Brush up on matters related to your legal affairs. Ask good questions and establish intelligent communication. Keep copies of important documents in your own files.
  • Be certain you've found the lawyer who's right for you. Changing lawyers after the legal process has started can be very expensive.
  • Understand the fee agreement you and your lawyer agree upon, and question unclear charges before you pay them. Insist your lawyer honors thrift if out-of-pocket expenses are part of the fee agreement.
  • Ask if there's anything you can do or gather to help the process. Be prepared and honor deadlines at all your meetings.
  • Ask your lawyer about all alternatives to the dispute's resolution.

The lawyer-client relationship is a two-way street, and these simple steps can help to insure your money is being spent in your best interest.

5. What should you know about lawyer's fees?
You should feel comfortable when discussing fees with a lawyer. Many lawyers may explain their fees up front, but you may want to question the matter in further depth. Talking money with your lawyer is an excellent way to judge how he or she treats clients. The types of fees a lawyer can charge are discussed below.

Hourly rates are the most common type of fee. Depending on a lawyer's experience and location, an hourly rate can vary quite a bit. Cheaper might be better, but a more expensive and experienced lawyer could very well handle your case faster and better. At the consultation, remember to ask for an estimate of how many hours you can expect to pay for.

Flat fees are usually charged when the services being provided are more predictable. It is important to ask the lawyer exactly what services and expenses are and are not covered in a flat fee. Common sense should guide you to ask lawyers to explain these expenses when responding with a flat fee.

A contingent fee means the lawyer charges no fee but instead earns a percentage of the settlement or judgment, if any is awarded. Contingent fees — typically one-third of the settlement or judgment — can be negotiated. In some cases, contingent fees are prohibited.

Retainer fees are advanced payment based on an hourly rate. Clients put money into a special account, and the lawyer deducts fees as services are completed. The client is responsible for reviewing the account periodically. The client should be aware that the retainer fee is generally non-refundable.

A statutory fee is a fee set by law. Some legal work requires the court to set or approve the fee.

Regardless of the type of fee agreed upon between you and your lawyer, always obtain proof of the agreement in writing.

6. What expenses can you expect to pay?
In addition to a lawyer's fees, you might be expected to pay certain expenses. These should be discussed before hiring a lawyer, and the lawyer should be willing to provide explanations of these charges with each monthly bill. Review your response carefully to see which expenses are included in your legal fee and which expenses are separate.

A client generally pays for the following expenses:
  • photocopying charges
  • long distance telephone charges
  • courier, postage, and overnight delivery charges
  • filing fees
  • court reporter and expert witness charges
  • reasonable travel and transportation charges
A client usually does not pay the following expenses, unless under special circumstances:
  • standard secretarial and office staff services
  • standard office supplies
  • local telephone charges
  • in-town meals
  • first-class travel costs and out of town meals without restrictions
Ensure that you're not taken by surprise with the hidden costs of expenses. Discuss them with a lawyer before you hire.

7. What should you look for in your monthly bill?
A monthly bill from a lawyer takes time to look over. It is in your best interest to take the time so that you completely understand where your lawyer is coming from. This can only strengthen the relationship between the two of you.

It is important to ask for specifics if your itemized bill seems unclear in some area. Your bill should show your lawyer's fees and your lawyer's expenses. If you've been charged for five hours of research time, your bill should tell you what exactly was being researched; if it doesn't, you need to ask. All items on your bill should have some degree of explanation.

Track specific time and activities that you are billed for each month. Keep your eye out for time billed that seems repetitious with other bills. If something seems out of the ordinary, don't accuse your lawyer, but question him or her. Even if it's a justified expense, by bringing it up you let your lawyer know that you're paying close attention, which is completely within your rights.

Finally, everyone makes mistakes in math — including lawyers. Don't be afraid to get out the calculator and check the addition.

8. How do you evaluate your lawyer?
The LegalMatch service allows clients to evaluate a lawyer's service online after a case is over.

A good lawyer is, above all, a professional. In evaluating your lawyer, evaluate his or her ability to:
  • provide case updates regularly
  • return your phone calls within one business day
  • honor deadlines, with a reasonable amount of flexibility
  • maintain a loyalty to you while maintaining honesty, even if critical of your wishes
  • honor confidences
  • discuss openly all billing matters while honoring the original agreement for services
  • refer you to talk to someone else when specialized expertise is needed
  • appear prepared at meetings or court appearances
If you are unhappy with your lawyer, remember that firing your legal counsel can be costly. If you are in the middle of a lawsuit or criminal case, it may also require the court's permission. Act fast, but be certain it's what you want to do.
Tips 4-8 excerpted from the original LegalMatch article:
About Legal Fees
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