Lawyers are not the most popular people. They generally enter the picture when something unpleasant has come up — either because you’re being sued, or because you need to sue someone else. As with any other profession, lawyers have different skills and personalities; not all lawyers are a good fit for every situation.
So what happens when your coatings company needs a lawyer? How do you make sure the lawyer you select is the right one for your case, and how do you manage that lawyer once he or she is on board?
Finding the Best Lawyer
To start, ask people you trust for recommendations. Gather a few names, and then search them to make sure you are aware of everything publicly available about those lawyers. Use the resources within Avvo.com (short for avvocato, Italian for lawyer) to find attorneys by location, areas of experience, and ratings. A lawyer’s experience, reviews, publications, discipline, and more go into Avvo’s analysis, so this is a tool worth considering. Also explore Martindale.com, the country’s oldest and perhaps deepest attorney database, which takes into account reviews by clients, peer attorneys, and judges in rating lawyers.
Always check a lawyer’s standing with the state bar, which regulates the profession. Make sure he or she is licensed and in good standing. Knowing an attorney was previously suspended or disciplined is something you would want to know before you hire someone, and before you encounter your own issues with the lawyer.
Explore whether the attorney you are considering has any board certifications. Knowing an attorney has been vetted, has relatable experience, and has passed tests on the issues pertinent to your case is worth consideration and should give you a level of comfort in the selection process.
What Questions Should I Ask a Prospective Lawyer?
Questions to ask a prospective lawyer include:
• “Do you specialize in this area of law?” If so, that means you won’t have to pay a lawyer to learn things that are important to your case. For example, a board-certified lawyer focused on construction cases understands the issues relevant to construction. It takes time, which translates to your money, for a lawyer to get up to speed on an issue in a discipline he or she is not familiar.
• “How much of your practice is devoted to this area of law? How many cases like mine have you handled?” The result in your case might not be the same, of course. But you should know whether your attorney or law firm is recently familiar with the area of law your case involves. Is this an area of law in which they practice daily, rather than occasionally?
• “Whom will I be working with?” You should be comfortable and acquainted with those who have a role in your case. Finding out you have been handed off to an associate isn’t always a bad thing, but you need to know what to expect. Know who will be working your case, and meet them in person.
• “How will you communicate with me?” These days, most lawyers communicate via email, although some prefer texting. Whatever the means, what sort of office hours do they keep? Is a strict 9-to-5 in play, or are they available for a 6 p.m. call or on weekends? You need to know what to expect and whether the attorney’s approach meets your particular needs.
• “How and how often will I be billed?” Ask for estimated fees and a frame of reference for costs. How often will invoices be sent out? You need to know whether to expect your case will cost $5,000 or $105,000 in fees.
• “What are the strengths and weaknesses of the case?” What is the lawyer’s perspective on the merits or problems of your case? Be concerned with any lawyer that definitively promises you a win. Asking “How many cases have you won?” isn’t always helpful. A win-loss record by itself is a dangerous litmus test to use in evaluating a civil lawyer, as every case, every jury, and every judge is different.
What Are the Different Ways to Pay a Lawyer?
Most attorneys charge clients an hourly rate. Hourly rates can vary widely, and there’s a perception that the higher the rate, the better the lawyer. However, plenty of good lawyers are willing to negotiate their rate depending on the case. Some attorneys charge on contingency, which means they take a percentage of what is recovered in your case. Still others charge through a hybrid system, such as a lower hourly rate with a bonus that is based on recovery. Not many lawyers charge a blanket flat fee, because litigation expenses are unpredictable. But certain tasks, such as drawing up or negotiating a contract, can indeed be charged as a flat fee. Certain segments of your case — writing a demand letter, filing a complaint, serving discovery — could also be negotiated for a flat fee. This eliminates you having to wonder how much time is going to be spent and how much you will get billed.
A retainer is money paid in advance of a lawyer’s services. Most retainers are a month or two of estimated work. If you approach a lawyer with a substantial case that requires extensive work to be done, the retainer will be higher than for a smaller case. Be aware of the policy on any unused portion of a retainer; you want to be sure it is refundable if not used.
How Do I Reduce My Fees and Costs?
While it’s your right to ask for a case cost estimate or budget, know that preparing one can be difficult and uncertain. It will be based on many assumptions and not guaranteed. A better idea might be to obtain estimates for certain tasks. For example, if a deposition of a defendant is needed, ask for an estimate of what it will cost. That involves the time to prepare, gather records, and actually take the deposition. This gives you an expectation of an upcoming cost. It also tells your lawyer that you are watching expenditures in the case. He or she is more likely not to exceed the budget, having given you specific numbers.
Your case strategy is intertwined with your fees. If the strategy is to settle the case early, that requires different steps than going to trial or asking a judge for a determination. You should have an understanding of the strategy you want to employ early on, since that dictates the work that needs to be done. Switching strategies is expensive, so try to stick with one through the case.
Being organized can cut costs. If you give your lawyer five boxes of unorganized documents, understand they will have to be sorted and processed and that will cost you. Put information in an orderly fashion to save time and money.
Respond quickly to your lawyer. When you are asked about setting up depositions, hearing dates, discovery answers, or a trial date, reply promptly. When your lawyer must call or email you repeatedly, that follow-up costs time and money — and delays your case.
As you proceed, it’s understandable to want an update on the case. If you ask to be copied on everything, including correspondence with the court or opposing counsel, you will see things as they happen and you will know what work is getting done. This will place you in a better position to interact with your lawyer.
What Should Be on Your Legal Bills?
Assuming you are being billed hourly, every entry should include a date, the person who rendered the work, a description of that work, and the time it took to the tenth of the hour. (It’s recommended to ask for tenths versus quarter-hours or half-hours.) In addition, you can request that your bills contain running totals for the life of the case. Also, know that not all lawyers charge for all out-of-pocket costs, such as copies, postage, and research services. You need to know what you can expect to be billed under the fee line each month.
Can I Change Lawyers Midstream?
If you want to discontinue working with a particular attorney, make sure you have everything you need to move the case to another lawyer. This is easiest if you have copies of everything; only give your attorney copies of your original documents to start with. This is important because if an attorney is not paid, he or she can file a retaining lien. This means the lawyer can legally retain or hold on to your documents — those documents you need to move your case to another law firm. A charging lien can also be asserted. This means that a lawyer can claim a portion of any money you eventually obtain in your case.
Choosing the right lawyer is critical, not only to the success of your case but to the way in which the legal process impacts you and your business. A smooth relationship with identified goals and well understood expectations should make a difficult situation easier to handle.
About the Author
Alex Barthet is principal of The Barthet Firm, a 12-lawyer construction practice, which has been serving South Florida’s construction industry for more than 25 years. Publisher of the award-winning blog, thelienzone.com, he provides weekly advice to construction professionals. For more information, contact: The Barthet Firm, https://barthet.com/