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We are going to start a new series this week that will probably run every other week. The theme is the “top three questions you didn’t ask.” This week we will concentrate on the top three questions you should ask before hiring an attorney. Future articles will concentrate on certain aspects of a case such as trial or certain areas of practice such as family law, contracts or mortgage foreclosure. The intent is to provide you with the tools to find the perfect attorney for you.
There are a lot of good attorneys. However, not all attorneys are good for you. Before we get to the questions that you should ask, there are some pieces of information you absolutely must obtain before you even call for a consultation. We will call this the:
Research the attorney first. I know a potential client found me on a “Google maps” search versus one that researched my website, profile, or was a personal referral. The “Google maps” client types in “family law attorney” or whatever practice area they want into their phone or on a computer. A list of attorneys pop up and the client then calls the first one on the list and continues down the list until they reach a human being. I can tell when they are just cold-calling without any previous research because they usually say, “I need to talk to an attorney about xyz issue.” This is like playing attorney roulette.
Here is the dirty little secret on Google searches. Attorneys, like most businesses, who use Internet marketing spend a lot of time and money to be at the top of the list. We hire SEO technicians (what is SEO, anyway?), “click ad” campaigns, Facebook experts, and so forth. We know that we can get a large percentage of the market by being at the top. I often see where my search comes up, and I have noticed that some attorneys that are above me do not even practice in the areas that I searched.
If you really are going to make the investment in an attorney, spend a few minutes researching them. See if the attorney has a website so you can see what areas the attorney concentrates on. I do not put a lot of weight on the quality or existence of the website. Many very experienced and seasoned attorneys simply do not have to have websites for their business.
You can find information for every attorney at the Florida Bar’s website. You will find out how many years the attorney has practiced, contact information, practice areas, and whether the attorney has ever been sanctioned.
QUESTION 1: How long have you been handling cases similar to mine?
Notice that I did not start with the question of “how long have you been practicing.” If you follow my guide, you already know the answer to this question.
When you ask the question, do not simply ask, “how many divorces have you handled” or “how many contract cases have you done.” You need to be specific: “How many divorce cases involving newborn children have you handled” is a much better question. For contract cases, mortgage foreclosure defense and landlord/tenant cases both involve contracts, but they are radically different.
Additionally, an attorney may have just started taking one type of case to increase revenue. Some attorneys may have been divorce attorneys for decades, but they may have only started litigating domestic violence cases 6 months ago. This does not mean that a new attorney is not a great attorney, but I believe you should at least know.
QUESTION 2: What is your telephone policy?
I would ask the question as simple as that. The response you get will be very interesting. What you want to listen for are three things: (1) whether the attorney charges for phone calls; (2) who answers the phone when you call; and (3) how long until you can expect a return call.
Most attorneys charge for phone calls as well as they should. What often happens is that a client hires an attorney, pays a retainer, gets very excited and calls the attorney every day, and then they receive their first bill: WHOOPS, the retainer is gone, and the entire amount was spent on phone calls. If you pay your attorney by the hour, you need to know what to expect. You simply have to know the policy.
Second, almost all attorneys have someone answer their phones for them. Have the attorney introduce you to the person who answers the phone so you can make an immediate personal connection. This will be the first person you talk to, so start off positively.
Finally, and most importantly, ask the attorney how long it will take to expect a return call. All attorneys know or should know that the No. 1 reason a formal complaint is filed against them starts with not returning phone calls. However, in order to maintain a business, almost all attorneys need more than one client. Some attorneys have a policy to return phone calls by 5 p.m. on the same day. Some attorneys have a policy to return calls in 24 hours. Other attorneys have the receptionist tell the caller when to expect a phone call. You need to know the policy.
QUESTION 3: What is your fee structure in detail?
Before you hire an attorney, you will receive a basic understanding of how the attorney intends to make his or her money. In personal injury cases, typically the attorney is paid a percentage of the recovery. In hourly cases, the attorney charges you by the hour – more accurately the 1/10th of the hour. Many criminal attorneys, but not all, charge a flat fee for the entire case. But that is just the beginning. I can tell you there is nothing more frustrating than winning a case for a client, and then we get into a disagreement on how I am supposed to be paid. Consider asking:
1. For personal injury, are the costs to the attorney (the amount actually paid by the attorney for filing fees, experts, and etc.) taken out before or after the attorney is paid a percentage? If the attorney also is entitled to receive payment from the losing party, does that affect the attorney’s percentage?
2. For hourly attorneys, if more than one attorney is appearing at a trial or hearing, do both attorneys bill? Is travel time factored in as an hourly rate? How much for postage, copies, paralegals, and file set up fees?
3. Usually a flat-fee is exactly that, one fee to accomplish one job. Sometimes the attorney makes a very large profit and sometimes an attorney loses a ton of money. I have been on both sides of this scenario. I have had a flat fee where I resolved the case favorably with one simple letter. I have also taken cases to trial and spent 10 times as much time than what the flat-fee was for.
Does the flat-fee include all costs such as filing fees and deposition fees? If the case is resolved early, is there a refund (likely not)? If you win money damages, does the flat-fee cover collections after the judgment? Some attorneys will only cover certain motions or events and then revert you to an hourly rate if something unexpected occurs. For flat-fee cases, especially in bankruptcy and uncontested divorces, you need a very clear understanding of what is NOT covered.
4. For all cases where you give a retainer (like a deposit for attorney’s fees) at the beginning of the case, is the unused portion of the retainer refundable or not?
Question 3A and 3B: The theme is three questions, but there are two interesting questions that you can ask that will give an idea on the attorney’s professionalism:
3A: “Do you mind if speak to other attorneys before I retain you?”
I love this question. My answer is always, “I encourage you to interview and consult with as many other attorneys as you need to. I want you to have the right attorney for you more than I want your business.” I think most attorneys stay in this business because they like doing what is best for the client. If a potential client interviews other attorneys, and chooses another attorney, I am perfectly OK with that because they will still remember me. I just wasn’t the right choice on that case. If they interview other attorneys and come back, the level of trust increases.
3B: To the attorneys that read this, I know you know the answer, but you would be surprised that some people have actually received the answer “yes” to the following question: “Can you guarantee that I will win?” If any attorney says yes, stand up politely and leave. Only a judge can guarantee the outcome of a case.
If you need an attorney, you have a large pool to choose from. Finding the perfect attorney for you takes work. Come to your consultation prepared. Remember, while attorneys call your first meeting an “initial consultation,” it is also very much an interview. We will tell you outright whether we can take your case – that is part of the consultation. Make no mistake you are interviewing us too – very similar to interviewing the most qualified employee for your business.
During the writing of this article, I have already upset two attorneys with the information. However, I am not suggesting, for example, that attorneys should not be able to charge for phone calls, or that attorneys with less experience in certain practice areas are any less competent. There is no right or wrong way to set up your agreement with an attorney. But you need to be informed first and foremost to prevent frustration or surprises in the future.
The hidden question last week was how many angry birds are there for android. The question was hidden in the middle of the article. There were no contest winners last week. The answer was three (but I would have accepted four or five based on other formats available on smart phones that are not apps).