Ask Stacy: How do I find a good lawyer?
Sooner or later, you're going to need one. When the time comes, here's how to find the best attorney at the lowest cost.
Q: What's the difference between a good lawyer and a great lawyer?
A: A good lawyer knows the law. A great lawyer knows the judge.
Whether it's something as simple as making a will or as complex as a murder trial, at some point in life, odds are you'll need a lawyer. If you've heard horror stories about how much they charge or how they can sometimes complicate otherwise simple transactions, take it from me: They're probably true.
Here's this week's reader question:
How do you find a lawyer? This is for legal issues regarding medical malpractice. My primary care doctors support that I need an attorney. They said once I get one they will help me with a case. -- Heidi
Here's how to go about finding a lawyer. Many of these tips will work for other professionals as well.
How to find a free lawyer
If you think your income might qualify you for free legal aid, check LawHelp.org for connections to free legal aid programs in your local community. Keep in mind, however, that free legal aid isn't available for all types of cases. Legal aid is generally available for those with low to moderate incomes in areas like domestic violence, family law, housing, public benefits, immigration, consumer issues and disability.
They won't help with criminal cases (public defenders do that) or civil cases for monetary damages, which is the type of case Heidi has.
How to find a good lawyer
If you've decided you need legal help, the way to hire a lawyer is the same way you'd hire any service professional, from a mechanic to a doctor.
- Ask your friends or co-workers for referrals. The most useful advice will come from those sharing a situation similar to yours. There's no point in going to a divorce lawyer if you have a personal injury case. Also, keep in mind that personal services are personal. In other words, just because your friend likes a certain attorney doesn't mean you will.
- Check a referral service. Many county bar associations offer referral services. For example, here's one for Broward County, Fla. There are also commercial referral services, offered by sites like Lawyers.com and Nolo, that will hook you up with a local lawyer. Note, however, that some directories might list every licensed practitioner in your area, while others may list only those lawyers who pay to advertise.
- Check online reviews. Positive reviews can be easily fudged, and negative ones could arise from clients who unfairly blame the lawyer for a bad outcome. But you can check sites like Yelp, or sites specific to lawyers, many of which also include referral services. Some of the most popular: Martindale, Avvo, Super Lawyers, LawyerRatingz, Lawyer Reviews and Best Lawyers.
- Check disciplinary history. The American Bar Association provides a directory of lawyer disciplinary agencies here (.pdf file). Check with your state to see what actions, if any, have been taken against any lawyer you're considering.
- Talk to several before you decide. This is super important. Only after talking to several lawyers will the positive attributes you're seeking surface in one of them. It won't cost extra to talk to more than one because initial consultations are generally free. Build an apples-to-apples comparison by drawing up a list of questions and asking them in the same order to each attorney you interview.
- Ask about experience. Credentials and education are nice, but experience is critical, especially experience in dealing with people in situations similar to yours.
- Ask for referrals. Any professional in any field should be happy to provide them. Of course, only an idiotic professional would provide referrals that would bad-mouth them, so don't put too much weight on this one.
- Compare prices. If one pro charges more than another, what justifies the premium price? There's no harm in asking. Nor is there any harm in asking for a better deal or setting a ceiling on the final bill.
My best advice to hold down costs
I've had personal experience with many different types of lawyers, including real estate, general business, copyright, estate planning and divorce. While they were different, they had one thing in common: final bills that were higher -- often much higher -- than they originally estimated.
Before picking a lawyer, ask them about their hourly rates. When talking to the one you hired, remember those rates. If you're in the habit of shooting the breeze before plunging into the topic at hand, keep in mind that 15 minutes of talking about the weather or sports could easily cost you $100.
Want to chat or share your troubles? You'll spend less by hitting a local pub and buying everyone there a round of drinks.
Whether I'm talking in person, on the phone or via email, I stay organized by drawing up a list of questions and sticking to them. If there are things I can do myself, like copying documents, I do them. And I keep close tabs on the tab.
While it's always good to be cordial, if you want to befriend your lawyer, wait until after you've paid the final bill.
A few more lawyer jokes
These came from this site. If you want more, help yourself.
Q: What do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 100?
A: Your honor.
Q: What do you call a lawyer with an IQ of 50?
Q: What's the difference between an accountant and a lawyer?
A: Accountants know they're boring.
Q: Why did God invent lawyers?
A: So real estate agents would have someone to look down on.
Q: What's the difference between a good lawyer and a bad lawyer?
A: A bad lawyer makes your case drag on for years. A good lawyer makes it last even longer.
Q: What's the difference between a lawyer and a leech?
A: After you die, a leech stops sucking your blood.
Q: What's the difference between a lawyer and God?
A: God doesn't think he's a lawyer.
Q: How many lawyer jokes are there?
A: Only three. The rest are true stories.
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