Welcome to the monthly Blog of the Law Offices of Vescio & Seifert, P.C. (“LOVS”). Each month we will provide you with insight and information on the often confusing world of law.
Let’s Start at the Beginning
Since this is our first Blog, it makes sense to start at the beginning: How do you choose an attorney? Here are some questions you should ask yourself, and any potential attorney, before you hire your legal representation:
1. Do you handle this type of case?
Not every lawyer is familiar with every type of legal case. It is important to find out if the lawyer you are talking to has experience in the field of law that you need help with and, if they don’t, you should ask them if they know someone who does. For example, do you need help with a divorce or dissolution of marriage? Do you need help with child support, spousal support (alimony), or custody (parenting time or legal decision-making)? Does your attorney have to experience writing pre or postnuptial agreements? Is your case one that involves contracts or fraud? Are you dealing with employment discrimination or retaliation? Did you already have a trial and now you need help with an appeal? Not every attorney is competent to handle every one of these issues, so be sure that your potential lawyer has experience in the area of law in which you need help.
2. What is your experience with this type of case?
The extent of an attorney’s experience can also be helpful information. How many years have they been practicing law and how long have they been handling this type of case? Has your family lawyer handled cases with high conflict issues of custody, child support, business valuations, or spousal support? Is your employment lawyer familiar with the rules related to the EEOC or whether you have a valid case for discrimination or retaliation? Attorneys should be ready to talk about their experience handling cases similar to yours.
3. Is this attorney listening to me and do I trust his/her judgment?
In order for your attorney to advocate for your position and be your voice, he/she also needs to understand your goals, your positions, and your reasons. When you talk, is your attorney paying attention and asking relevant questions or giving you a pre-prepared script? Is your attorney trying to understand your case and ask you for information? Is your attorney giving you information about the process and about each of your claims, including what the other side’s arguments might be?
4. Does this attorney seem honest and ethical?
If your attorney makes any promises or guarantees of what they can get for you in the case, you should be highly skeptical. No two cases are the same and no attorney can guarantee what will happen in the case. An honest and ethical attorney will tell you not just what you want to hear, but what obstacles and challenges you may face as well. No case is perfect and it is extremely rare that one side is 100% correct. This is particularly true if the case involves family, divorce, or children. An honest and ethical lawyer will talk to you about the challenges and weaknesses in your cases, and how those issues might be addressed. If a lawyer tells you that everything you have done is correct and you have a “slam dunk” case, you should consult with another attorney. Your attorney’s job is to be honest with you and prepare you for handling some of the tough questions you will have to answer. An attorney who tells you only what you want to hear won’t be able to do that.
5. How does the attorney handle billing/cost?
It is critical that your attorney explains, and you understand, how they will bill you. Some lawyers will bill you on a flat fee, meaning that you and the attorney agree on the amount that the case will cost regardless of how quickly it ends, how long it takes, or how much work is involved. Some attorneys will work on a contingency fee, meaning they will take a percentage of the amount you receive after the trial if you win or from a settlement. Family lawyers cannot work on contingency, however, because such a fee structure in a divorce or family law case violates the Ethical Rules which lawyers must follow. The most common billing structure is an hourly rate. Under an hourly fee structure, you pay your attorney an agreed-upon rate for each hour, or portion of an hour, that they work on your case. Be sure you understand how they split up that hour – in 6-minute increments, 15-minute increments, or some other period of time. Also be sure to understand whether they require an Advance Fee (a retainer) that they hold to bill against, and whether they will bill against it each month, at the end of the cases, or whether it has to be replenished when a certain portion of it is used.
6. Trust Yourself.
When talking or listening to the attorney, how are you feeling? Is this someone that you feel will represent you and be open with you? Do you feel comfortable talking to this person about sensitive personal information? Do they seem competent to handle any complexities of your case? Ultimately, you need to be comfortable with your lawyer; this is a very personal decision. Keep in mind, however, that if things don’t go as planned, you are always free to fire your attorney and hire another one.
There are also some questions that are less important in choosing a lawyer:
1. What were their grades in law school?
Law School and practicing law are very different. If the attorney is licensed by the State, then you should look at their actual experience, not their grades when they were in school.
2. How often do you win?
This question is not as simple as it sounds. Not all results can be easily defined by a “win” or a “loss.” For example, in a divorce, if each party gets an equitable result, there is no “winner.” Reaching a new family dynamic should never be thought of in terms of “winning.” If you reach a settlement with your employer regarding your discrimination or retaliation claim, neither side completely “won” or “lost.” Even in a contract case, each side may win or lose on some of the claims. In an appeal, however, there may be a clear “winner” of the appeal, but even in those cases, one party might “win” on one issue on appeal but “lose” another issue in the same appeal.
3. How much will this case cost me?
Unless you are entering into a flat fee, it is almost impossible to answer this question with any certainty or even a good estimate. The basic formula for the cost of a case is more conflict = more money, less conflict = less money. The more that the opposing lawyers and parties can work together on the discovery, on the settlement, and in being reasonable throughout the process, the less it will cost. The more one or both parties want to “fight”, the more it will cost. The cost factor is more frequently within the control of the parties than it is of the lawyers.
4. How “aggressive” is the attorney?
There is a big difference between having a competent, knowledgeable, well-respected attorney and having one that is just “aggressive.” Pure aggression may make the client temporarily feel vindicated, but it will also increase their bill and is unlikely to be productive. Simply being high conflict and aggressive will not help move your case forward and will not help you and the other party reach agreements. Your attorney should be a professional, civil but firm. Strength in a legal case comes from knowing the law, understanding the facts, and being able to effectively advocate for either a settlement or for your position at trial by demonstrating that your position is supported by the facts, the law, and is reasonable and equitable. Simply being loud is not an effective lawyering technique.
Ultimately, choose a lawyer who makes you feel that your voice will be heard and that you trust to guide you through this process.