Frequently Asked Questions
When is it the right time to hire a lawyer?
Many people choose to hire a lawyer only after a problem is already beyond their control. However, depending on the situation, often the best time to hire a lawyer is before a situation escalates to a point where the worst case scenario has materialized. Getting the help of an attorney proactively can significantly improve future outcomes in several circumstances, such as in negotiations before a business transaction is finalized, to review contracts or buy or sell agreements before you sign them, when considering what your estate planning needs might be, or when spouses are considering separation. There are many other circumstances when the help of a lawyer is necessary, such as before legal proceedings, if you've been a victim of civil wrongdoing, or in criminal matters. It's important to note that speaking to an attorney is not the same thing as hiring one. Many attorneys will provide free consultations so it's never a bad idea to at least discuss your situation so you can get the information you need to evaluate the best next steps.
I have never worked with a lawyer before. What should I expect?
Hiring an attorney should never be a painful experience, especially if you're a first time legal services consumer. Before you hire an attorney, consider if it's a good fit. A good attorney understands that you have experienced something that has caused you to seek legal assistance or advice, and therefore you require their help. The first thing you should do is explain your situation. During an initial call, a diligent lawyer will start by listening carefully to you before providing insight on possible next steps or options that are available to resolve your issues. It's important to remember that at this early phase in your communications, no attorney-client relationship yet exists until you both agree that you will begin working together. Once an attorney determines that they can help you, and you feel comfortable moving forward, they should provide you with an engagement letter prepared for your signature, which clearly outlines the scope of the the legal services that she or he will provide, the expected cost to you including any relevant payment terms and any other important terms discussed during your initial consultation. Once you have signed the engagement letter, which is the agreement to hire the lawyer, he or she can begin working on your matter.
Is there a difference between legal information and legal advice?
It's important to distinguish between what is considered legal information and what actually constitutes legal advice. Legal information is general information about a variety of topics and laws that you may read about online, in print, hear on the radio, or that is shared between people in day to day discussions. Legal information might be shared by non-lawyers or even lawyers, but it is never meant to specifically address any one person's particular legal problem. It is simply information about laws in a general sense. A good example might be a state's official website that publishes the current the traffic laws, signage that is visible in other public places, or even law firm websites that provide basic information about certain practice areas or commonly experienced legal problems. To get legal information, people often turn to online forums but it is important to remember that anything you read online that might appear to be legal advice which may seem similar to your situation should never be construed as legal advice.
Legal advice, however, may only be given by a licensed attorney and generally refers to written or verbal counsel about a specific legal matter that affects the rights and responsibilities of the person or entity receiving the advice. This advice is provided using an attorney's legal knowledge, education, skill and judgment to apply a set of facts provided by the client or person receiving the advice to a particular area of law. When a lawyer provides legal advice, because it suggests a course of action, it also creates rights and responsibilities in the lawyer providing it. This differs however, from a lawyer's legal opinion, which is his or her analysis of a particular set of past or present facts and may not constitute any specific guidance or recommended future action.
What are limited scope services?
Attorneys can work with you to provide full-scale, comprehensive handling of your legal matter, or in some cases, clients may prefer to receive an attorney's help with just one small thing. For example, you may hire an attorney to assist you in only drafting a contract to sell your business but not to represent you in any other capacity as it relates to that contract or transaction. The attorney's scope of services is limited only to the drafting of that agreement and nothing more. It is wise to address the scope of services in the initial engagement letter so that both attorney and client can properly manage expectations and understand what each party's roles and responsibilities should be.
What if I need more services later?
If you need more help, just ask. A diligent lawyer will work with you to ensure that you receive the additional help you need, even if it goes beyond the original agreed upon scope of work. If the additional service you need relates to the same matter or is within the attorney's practice area, they'll work with you to modify the engagement agreement. If it's a new matter or is outside of their practice area, they'll work with you to either provide a new engagement agreement or if need be, refer you to an attorney who specializes in the matter to help you. Simply talk to your lawyer and let them know what additional help is needed.
What if I am not satisfied with my lawyer?
The attorney client relationships works best when you and your lawyer are on the same page and have the same goal. But, sometimes what may have started out as a good fit no longer works for you, either because of a disagreement or some other reason that is known to you. If so, you may terminate your relationship with your lawyer at any time. The best way to handle this is to put it in writing, stating that you are ending the relationship and describe the reason, along with instructions as to where to send your files. Termination of the attorney-client relationship is another important area that should be well covered in the engagement letter.
Can I change attorneys?
In general, clients may change attorneys at any time in most circumstances with some limitations, such as changing attorneys right before or in the middle of a proceeding which may require court approval.
Can I work with a paralegal instead of a lawyer?
Some people may wish to handle certain legal matters on their own, with the help of either a paralegal or document preparation service instead of a lawyer. Usually, a paralegal works with an attorney in a support role and is often highly qualified in this position as a valuable member of a legal team. But remember that paralegals are not licensed to practice law, give legal advice or initiate an attorney-client relationship on their own. For legal advice and legal services, it's best to work with a qualified attorney to ensure that your matter is properly handled.
What is attorney-client privilege?
When you hire an attorney, communications between you and your lawyer relating to the representation are confidential and protected by attorney-client privilege. This means that attorneys can't reveal their clients' secrets, that is, information that the client intends to remain private, nor can they be forced to divulge such information. The attorney-client privilege promotes open communication between attorney and client and allows attorneys to provide effective representation. The privilege applies to actual clients, present, past and potential; when attorneys are acting in an official capacity in giving legal assistance; and when clients intend for their information to remain confidential. There is however, an exception. Attorney-client privilege does not apply when a client communicates information to an attorney for the purpose of committing a future crime. Simply put, if you are seeking the help of an attorney, your communications exchanged in the context of the potential or actual representation are confidential and will be protected by privilege. But if you consult an attorney and intend somehow break the law in the future, no privilege exists in this context.
What does it cost to hire a lawyer?
The cost of legal services varies widely and depends on many factors. Legal aid services offer very low or no cost services, depending on the service area, while big law firms often charge top dollar. Simple solutions can cost a couple hundred dollars and more, while more complex matters often result in fees upwards of five and six figure sums. Many people automatically assume that most legal services are simply not affordable but this is just not true. As the legal services landscape and consumer demand continue to evolve, many solo and small firm lawyers offer very reasonable solutions when considering the amount of money saved as a result of getting qualified legal help. Most lawyers offer low cost or free consultations to get clients determine if hiring an attorney is the right solution for them.
How do lawyers charge for their services?
There has never been a better time to access reasonably priced legal assistance from a qualified lawyer. Most attorneys in solo or small firms have begun transitioning away from the traditional hourly billing rate and now commonly offer several client-friendly fee options such as flat rate project-based billing, convenient monthly legal subscription or membership models, or contingency billing depending on the service area. Collaborative law or alternative dispute resolution services can also save clients significant fees when compared with the traditional litigation (trial) process. Many lawyers have seen the benefits on client satisfaction that these more cost effective options provide. Be sure to discuss fee options with an attorney you're considering hiring up front so that you have a better understanding of what services you're getting.
How do I know if my lawyer's fees are fair?
Whether legal fees are competitive depends on many things such as the practice area, the size of the practice, the complexity of the service provided, common rates in the community and more. The good news for clients is that many firms have adopted a client-based service model, moving away from traditional hourly billing which is a turn off for many legal consumers because of the perception that it is a blank check. For transactional attorneys, it is often more mutually beneficial to offer a flat fee service based on project scope or unbundled a la carte pricing, which can be significantly more cost effective and client-friendly. This also promotes more transparency and value. Legal service memberships or subscriptions are becoming increasingly popular for certain business clients as it allows small businesses, entrepreneurs and startups to right size and streamline their legal and administrative spending. Because service fees can vary widely depending on many factors, it's best to openly discuss the cost of legal services up front with an attorney who will clarify exactly what you can expect to get for what you're paying.
What if I disagree with my lawyer's recommendations?
Attorneys and clients have two-way relationships, and sometimes a disagreement may arise. While clients are the ultimate decision maker about their case or matter, attorneys must use their best professional judgment when carrying out the representation. Before a disagreement evolves into more, it's essential to consider the advice given with an open mind. If the disagreement persists, clients may consider obtaining a second opinion. It's best to let your lawyer know you plan to seek additional advice. Remember that an attorney may not force a client to accept a settlement or make some other decision which belongs to the client. Maintaining open communication, being objective about the process or outcome and working closely together is the best way to avoid disputes.
I'm paying a lawyer for services. Shouldn't I be entitled to guaranteed results?
Lawyers may not make guarantees of legal outcomes. While every lawyer should strive to achieve the desired outcome for their clients, many factors throughout the process will come together to determine the actual result. Lawyers may however anticipate that a certain outcome is likely based on precedent and experience in that practice area. Lawyers must use diligence, competence and loyalty when providing legal services to you. Ethics rules also require that lawyers keep clients reasonably informed of what's going on with client matters. When you work with a lawyer, you can and should expect diligent and competent representation for a fair fee.
Is it okay to share a lawyer with a business partner or a spouse in order to save money?
In general, a lawyer can represent more than one person such as business partners, spouses or other multiple clients who have common interests as long as the parties agree to the multiple representation, do not have adverse interests, and consent to the arrangement in writing. Having one attorney represent people with similar interests is common and often necessary to handle a host of legal matters. But it is important to address the ethical issues up front because often times, two or more persons who share a single attorney in a matter may find at a later date that they have become at legal odds with one another. If this happens, the lawyer would not be able to choose to stay with one client over the other and would have to resign the representation. Engagement letters provide lawyers and their clients with the opportunity to address this potential conflict in advance and ensure that each client is informed of the possible consequences if circumstances change in the future and ethical obligations of the lawyer to each client should parties later become adverse.