How to Interview and Hire a Lawyer

You've decided that you need a lawyer. Perhaps you need a document reviewed, or an assessment of your legal rights. Perhaps you were injured or have been sued for allegedly causing an injury. Perhaps you are trying to stop unwanted behavior, or to collect a debt. Whatever your reason for needing a lawyer, how do you find one who will properly and ethically serve your needs and protect your interests?

When you meet with a lawyer, among your objectives for the meeting you should:

  • Evaluate whether you like, trust, and can work with the lawyer;
  • Provide the lawyer with information about your situation and legal needs;
  • Determine the legal services that the lawyer will provide; and
  • Agree upon the fee that you will pay in exchange for those services.

The only way to determine how much a lawyer will charge you for specific legal services is to ask that lawyer. Most attorneys will not quote a price before scheduling a consultation, through which they can learn the facts of your case and get an idea of how much time and money will be involved in litigating the case. Some lawyers advertise flat fee legal services, in which case you will know a fee in advance, but you need to confirm during your consultation that the fee will cover all of your legal needs.

This article describes how to hire a lawyer for most legal matters. We also provide specific instruction on how to hire a personal injury lawyer and how to hire a criminal defense lawyer.

Interviewing a Lawyer

When you meet with a lawyer, you should try to get a sense of your comfort level with the lawyer. Lawyer-client relationships work best when the lawyer and client trust and respect each other. If you don't feel comfortable with your lawyer as you start your relationship, there's a strong possibility that you will never have an effective working relationship with your lawyer.

There is no list of questions that will be suitable for all initial consultations, or that can guarantee that you will hire the right lawyer. However, asking a good set of questions will increase the odds of your finding a lawyer you can work with, and that is qualified to handle your legal matter or case. Questions that may be useful include:

  • Background and Experience

    • What are your areas of practice and specialization?
    • Do you have any certifications or similar credentials for your legal specialty?
    • Do you attend any continuing legal education programs or seminars? If so, what programs have you attended in the past few years?
    • Are you a member of any specialty bar associations or legal organizations? If so, which ones?
    • Have you ever been disciplined by an ethics committee or suspended from the practice of law?
    • What is your experience with cases similar to mine?
    • What outcomes have you achieved in cases similar to mine?
    • How often do you go to trial?
  • Services to be Provided

    • What legal services will you provide?
    • Am I likely to require additional legal services, in addition to those you provide?
    • Will you be the only lawyer who works on my case?
    • If other lawyers will work on my case, who are they and what services will they provide?
    • How long is it likely to take to resolve my case?
    • If I we receive a settlement offer that I believe is insufficient, but you want to settle, will you go to trial?
    • If we receive a settlement offer that I want to accept, but you believe we could recover more by continuing to trial, will you agree to settle?
    • What should I do over the course of my case to help you better represent me or get a better outcome?
  • Communication

    • How will you keep me informed about the status and progress of my case?
    • If I inquire with your office with questions about my case, how quickly should I expect a response?
    • If you become ill, are on vacation, or are otherwise unavailable, who may I contact with questions about my case?
    • Will I be able to reach you after hours in the event of an emergency?
  • Legal Fees

    • How much is my case likely to cost, in total?
    • Will you accept my case on a contingency fee basis?
    • What is your retainer or engagement fee?
    • Will I get a refund of any part of my initial fee if we end our relationship?
    • Are there tasks that I can perform on my case to help keep the legal costs and fees down?

You can ask your lawyer for references to past and current clients. For some areas of legal practice, such as contract law, a lawyer may be able to readily provide references. For other areas of law, it may be difficult or impossible for a lawyer to give references due to concerns about client privacy or confidentiality. Your lawyer may need to contact possible references and obtain their permission before providing you with their contact information.

You Don't Have to Hire the Lawyer You Consult

Prior to meeting with a lawyer, ask the lawyer if the firm will charge a fee for the initial consultation. If you agree to pay a consultation fee, you are obligated to pay that fee whether or not you hire the lawyer. Whether or not the consultation is paid or free, once the consultation ends you have no further obligation to work with the lawyer or firm.

  • You have the right to take time to think about whether or not you want to hire the lawyer.
  • You have the right to interview other lawyers and law firms.
  • You have the right to hire a different lawyer.

Hiring a lawyer is a big step and can involve an enormous financial commitment, and you have the right to fully investigate, explore and consider your options before you commit to a specific lawyer.

Legal Fees and Retainer Agreements

How Much Does a Lawyer Cost

The cost of an attorney can vary substantially depending upon factors including:

  • The nature of the case,
  • The size and complexity of the case,
  • The number of parties involved in the litigation,
  • The amount of money involved, and
  • Whether the case is likely to go to trial.

Some types of cases are more costly to litigate than others. For example, hiring a lawyer to fight a traffic ticket will cost a lot less than hiring a lawyer to fight a felony criminal charge.

Representation for a lawsuit over damage caused when a lawn service driver backed over a mailbox will cost a lot less than for a lawsuit alleging patent infringement. Also, different lawyers charge different rates, both flat fee and hourly, so even if two lawyers agree on how many hours it is likely to take to complete a case their retainers and anticipated fees may be very different.

Discussion of Fees

It is not necessarily true that the best lawyer will cost the most money, but the best lawyers usually do not charge the lowest rates.

When discussing fees, please remember that a retainer quoted by a lawyer is not the total fee that may be charged. A retainer is the amount you pay to start working with a lawyer, and the lawyer's fees are charged against the retainer.

  • Some lawyers quote a retainer that reflects the amount that they believe the case will cost to litigate.

  • Some lawyers instruct the client that a retainer is likely to cover only a portion of the case, and that additional retainer amounts may be required if the case does not settle and proceeds to trial.

  • Other attorneys quote a very low retainer in order to get the client to hire them, and then bill the client for additional work.

Make sure you understand whether you are paying a retainer or a flat fee and, to the extent possible, get a sense of how much the total fee is likely to be if greater than the retainer.

Negotiation of Fees

Don't be afraid to negotiate for a lower hourly rate. Although most good attorneys tend to have the opportunity to take more work than they can handle, and thus may not be willing to reduce their fees, the worst they can do is say "no".

If a lawyer takes offense at the very suggestion of a lower fee, that's probably not a lawyer you want to work with. You can also challenge how you will be billed. For example, if the lawyer bills in 15 minute increments, you can ask to be billed in 5 minute increments. Be careful about the rounding upward of legal fees. The larger the billing increment, the more likely it is that you will pay an effective hourly rate that is much greater than the contracted rate: If a one-minute phone call or two-sentence email is billed at fifteen minutes, your legal bill may become very large, very quickly.

In some situations you may want to negotiate a flat fee, a fixed fee that will cover all of the lawyer's services through the conclusion of the case. Flat fee arrangements may also be worked out in stages, for example with their being one agreed fee for cases that settle before trial, and an additional agreed fee for the cost of trial if the case is not settled. The purpose of a flat fee is to provide peace of mind, not to save money. Most "flat fee" arrangements will end up costing you more than an hourly agreement. Many criminal defense lawyers operate on a flat fee basis.

It is possible to form a fee agreement that has elements of both an hourly billing rate and a fixed fee. For example, you may ask the attorney to quote a maximum fee for a case that is being billed by the hour. Asking the lawyer to set a maximum fee that can be a good way to test the reasonableness of an attorney's retainer. If an attorney quotes you a $500 retainer that you are told is likely to cover the entire cost of litigation, but refuses to quote a maximum fee, you probably should go elsewhere.

While a case may have complexities that render it impossible to quote a maximum fee, such complexities should also be reflected in the retainer. Unless the lawyer has agreed to accept a reduced retainer due to your inability to pay a greater amount, a $500 retainer normally indicates that the lawyer views the case as simple.

Contingency Fees

Attorneys who accept certain types of civil suits, particularly personal injury cases, will normally take those cases on a contingency fee basis, meaning that the fee is contingent upon the outcome of the case. Lawyers who accept cases on contingency do not charge an attorney fee unless they recover money for their clients, in which case the fee is normally a percentage of the amount recovered.

Sometimes the amount charged as a contingency fee will depend upon how the case is resolved. For example, the contingency fee might be smaller for a case that is expected to be resolved through alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation or arbitration, but increase in the even that the case is not resolved in that manner and is instead litigated in the courts.

Almost every state limits contingency fees for personal injury and workers' compensation cases. If your case is potentially worth a lot of money, particularly if you're in a state that allows contingency fees of 40% or more, you may be able to negotiate a reduction of the attorney's fee. However, the best personal injury attorneys are sometimes able to recover substantially more money for their clients than attorneys with lesser skills, resulting in a greater award to you regardless of the percentage taken by the attorney, so it's possible to agree to a higher contingency fee and still end up with a greater recovery after payment of the fee.

The costs of litigation fall into two general categories, legal fees and legal costs.

  • Legal Fees - The amount paid to the attorney as the attorney's fee.

  • Legal Costs - Additional costs of litigation, including filing fees, motion fees, transcript costs, expert witness fees.

Contingency fees cover the lawyer's fees, but costs are repaid from the amount recovered and the client is normally required to repay legal costs even if the lawyer is unsuccessful. The repayment of costs is usually not an issue for clients, but you should discuss your lawyer's approach to legal costs at the time you enter into your contingency fee agreement.

Be careful to review your contract to see whether a contingency fee is calculated before or after the deduction of costs. If the contract provides that costs will be deducted before the calculation of the attorney fee, the costs are effectively shared by the attorney and client. If costs are deducted after the calculation of the attorney fee, the client absorbs all of the costs and obtains a lower recovery. For example, based upon a one-third contingency fee:

  • Fees Calculated Before Deduction of Costs

    • Recovery: $120,000
    • Legal Fee: $40,000
    • Costs: $24,000
    • Funds Received by the Client: $56,000
  • Fees Calculated After Deduction of Costs

    • Recovery: $120,000
    • Costs: $24,000
    • Net Recovery: $96,000
    • Legal Fee: $32,000
    • Funds Received by the Client: $64,000

Always Get a Written Fee Agreement

When you hire a lawyer, your lawyer should present you with a written retainer agreement, a contract that describes the scope of the attorney-client relationship.

A retainer agreement will address the financial aspects of the relationship such as the amount of any retainer you must pay to retain the lawyer, how fees are calculated and billed, and when fees are due. For cases involving contingency fees, a lawyer should always enter into a formal retainer agreement. However, even for small cases a retainer agreement can offer important protections. For example, it's not unusual to hear about a client who paid a lawyer $1,500 for representation on a case with the belief that the payment represented the lawyer's entire fee, only to later be billed for thousands of dollars in additional fees.

With a retainer agreement in place, there should be no surprises. The retainer agreement should accurately describe the scope of the attorney client relationship. It should accurately describe the legal services that the lawyer will perform, whether in or out of court, and when the attorney-client relationship will end. A written retainer agreement will help you understand what services you are hiring the lawyer to perform, and can help protect you from unexpected fees or charges, as the lawyer will be limited to charging the fees that are described and agreed to within that contract.

You do not have to retain a lawyer at your initial meeting, or sign a retainer agreement the moment it is presented to you. You may ask for a copy of the retainer agreement to read on your own time, and schedule a follow-up appointment at which the lawyer can answer your questions about the agreement before you sign. When you review the retainer agreement, make sure that it describes the legal issues for which the attorney will represent you, the services you are hiring the lawyer to perform, the amount that you will pay the lawyer, and any other terms that you have discussed or negotiated with the lawyer.

If you will be paying thousands of dollars in legal fees, you may even benefit from having another lawyer review the retainer agreement and advise you about its terms before you sign.

Representation for Other Legal Matters or on Appeal

Absent a provision in your retainer agreement that requires your lawyer to accept a new legal case, as a general rule your lawyer only has to represent you on the case for which the lawyer was originally retained.

If you encounter an additional problem for which you need legal representation, your lawyer may normally decline to represent you in the new case. If the lawyer agrees to represent you, the lawyer can be expected to require a new retainer agreement, a new retainer, and a separate legal fee for the new case.

Your lawyer's duties for appellate work may be defined in your retainer agreement, most often in the form of a clause that specifies that the lawyer represents you through the entry of a final order in your case.

Unless otherwise specified in your retainer agreement, your lawyer is not ordinarily obligated to provide services after the case settles or a final judgment is entered, and does not have to file an appeal of your case of your case or represent you in an appeal by the opposing party.

Copyright © 2016 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 8, 2018.