How to Find a Lawyer

(reproduced from D.C. Bar)

Glossary of Legal Terms



Glossary of Legal Terms
Here are some words you may need to know:

Also called "lawyer" or "counselor at law." A practicing attorney must be licensed and completed a limited background investigation.
An organization of lawyers. The D.C. Bar consists of all lawyers who are admitted to practice in the District of Columbia.
Cause of Action
The legal name for the plaintiff's claim.
Civil Case
A lawsuit about legal rights that usually involves money or property.
Criminal Case
The government or "state" prosecutes someone accused of a crime.
The person or organization who has to defend the lawsuit.
Fee Advance
Sometimes called "retainer" in error. A fee advance is very different from a retainer. A fee advance is a payment to a lawyer before the work begins to be used to pay for legal services to be provided and expenses to be incurred in the future; that payment is typically returned to the client if there is client money left over at the end of the legal work.
The act or process of carrying on a lawsuit.
The act of a third person in intermediating between two contending parties with a view to persuading them to adjust or settle their dispute.
Conferring, discussing, or bargaining to reach agreement.
The person who brings a lawsuit.
Pro Se
Appearing for oneself, as in the case of one who does not retain a lawyer and appears for himself or herself in court.
A retainer is a payment to insure a lawyer's availability to work for a client and is usually nonrefundable.



Sometimes you know you need a lawyer—you have just been involved in a major traffic accident or your business is being hounded by creditors and you think you may want to file for bankruptcy. Sometimes you think you may need a lawyer—you want to buy a house, or something you paid a lot of money for is not working properly—but you are not sure whether you need a lawyer or some other type of help.

Even when you think you need a lawyer, you may have many other questions: Where do I find a lawyer? How will I know which lawyer is best for me? How do I know if a particular lawyer can handle this job? What do I do if I am unhappy with my lawyer?

The following information is written with you in mind, to help you answer these kinds of questions.


Do You Need a Lawyer?

There are certain situations where you should have a lawyer. For example, if you are charged with a crime, including a serious traffic offense, such as drunk driving or reckless driving, or a traffic offense where there was an accident or collision, you definitely need a lawyer. If you are sued in a civil case, especially if the lawsuit seeks a large amount of money, you should have a lawyer. Any time your freedom, civil rights or your finances are threatened, you should have legal assistance. If you have been charged with a crime, depending on the nature of the offense and whether jail time is a possible outcome, you have a constitutional right to have a lawyer represent you, and that right is so important that the court will appoint one to help you if you cannot afford to pay for one.

There are a variety of other matters which may require legal assistance or where legal assistance would greatly improve your chances of protecting yourself . It may involve a lawsuit, such as a suit about custody of a child, or one about child support; a suit against you by someone claiming you owe him or her money; or a claim by the Internal Revenue Service that you owe back taxes. It may be that you believe you have a claim that would require filing a lawsuit, such as a claim of discrimination, a claim for injuries from an automobile accident or as a result of bad medical treatment or toxic waste dumping, or a claim that a service or product you purchased was defective. Or, you may have problems with creditors and think you need to declare bankruptcy.

Some types of legal matters do not necessarily involve going to court, but you still should consult with a lawyer who is knowledgeable about handling your issue. For example, you may need a will, you may be purchasing a home or a business and need assistance with the contract, or you may need to negotiate a separation settlement with your spouse. You may also need a lawyer if you want to become a resident or citizen of the United States.

Before you set out to find a lawyer, be sure that you are not already entitled to have a lawyer appointed for you. If you have insurance that may cover a loss, such as automobile insurance, a homeowner's policy, or worker's compensation, the insurance company normally appoints and pays a lawyer to act on your behalf. If you are sued in a matter that involves an organization, such as a church or school, that organization may have insurance that will pay a lawyer to defend you. In addition, poor people who are charged with serious criminal offenses may be entitled to have a lawyer appointed for them and paid by the court.

If you are not sure whether you need a lawyer, you can consult a lawyer just to find out whether you have a legal problem. Your local Bar Pro Bono Programs may sponsor free legal Advice and Referral Clinics where you can speak with a lawyer for free to determine if you have a legal problem and possibly receive a referral to a legal or other service provider. For clinic locations and times, call your local Bar Association's Legal Information Helpline or visit their Web site.

Some lawyer referral services, such as the one sponsored by a voluntary Bar Association, may either tell you over the telephone whether your problem should be discussed with a lawyer, or refer you to a lawyer directly for consultation.
Ultimately, whether you need a lawyer is a question you will have to answer for yourself, but here are some ideas to help you make your decision.


Handling the Problem Yourself

Your problem may be one you would prefer to try to handle yourself before getting a lawyer involved. Or, it may be one where the amount of money in dispute is small enough that it does not make sense to use a lawyer. Often it makes more sense to try to get the problem solved without going to court.

You might want to start with the source of the problem. If you are unhappy with the services of a professional, such as an insurance salesperson, real estate agent, investment broker, or accountant, then that person, or his or her supervisor, should be the first place to try to negotiate a solution. Similarly, if you are unhappy with a product, you should turn to the business that sold it to resolve your complaint. Many businesses have customer service representatives to deal with complaints.

You may seek assistance from your local government's consumer protection agency. Some television and radio stations have consumer advocates who will investigate a consumer complaint. Some professions, such as accountants, attorneys, real estate agents, and investment brokers, have professional licensing boards which will investigate complaints and impose penalties where justified. Bar Sections publications may be available through the Sections Office to assist you with handling consumer problems or small claims matters.

If you believe you have been injured or your property has been damaged and the amount of damages is several thousand or less, you can usually file a lawsuit in Small Claims Court. The filing procedures are simple, and court clerks will assist you in filling out the forms. In addition, many people represent themselves in Small Claims Court. If you go to Small Claims Court, bring along documentation of your damages, such as medical bills, car repair bills, or pay records documenting lost income.

If you are representing yourself in Small Claims Court in a case where you are being sued and you believe you do not owe the amount for which you are being sued, bring in any evidence that shows you do not owe the amount claimed. For example, if you have already paid the amount you owe, bring in proof of payment such as a canceled check. If you can mediate or reach a settlement informally, before you start really litigating in court, all the better.

Even if negotiation or mediation does not resolve the dispute, you will at least have additional entries in a journal which you should create describing your efforts to resolve the issue, which may be helpful later on.


Collecting Information

Whether you decide to try to handle a dispute yourself or you decide to get a lawyer to help you, you should gather information and documents about your problem. If something happened, such as an auto accident, you should gather the information while the events are still fresh in your mind. The information and documents will help you to make a complaint to a government agency, present your case in court, or inform your lawyer about the facts that he or she will need to advise you.

First, WRITE DOWN everything you know about the situation. Do not worry about your grammar or your penmanship. You can always rewrite or edit your writing later. To the best of your ability, write down everything you know, saw or remember. Use the language that makes you feel most comfortable. Be complete and, above all, be truthful.

Keep a JOURNAL so that you can update your account and include any additional information that you think of or that develops. If you cannot write, have someone else write your words down for you, or tape-record or videotape yourself.

Give as much detail as you can. Dates, locations, time of day, and other details can be vital information. You need to get everything on paper while things are fresh in your mind. Gather as many helpful documents as you can- receipts, bills, letters, broken pieces of the item you bought, drawings, tax returns, anything; all these things can become valuable evidence if you carefully identify and organize them.


Hiring a Lawyer

Before looking for a lawyer, it is important to understand how lawyers charge for their services.


How Lawyers Charge for Their Services

Lawyers charge for their services in a number of ways, but the typical fee arrangements are hourly fees, flat fees, and contingent fees.

As the term suggests, an hourly fee is the fee the lawyer charges for each hour worked on the particular matter. Defending a lawsuit, negotiating a settlement of a dispute, and representing a client in a contested divorce or custody case are typically done on an hourly basis.

Hourly rates vary depending on the lawyer and the nature of the work involved. A low hourly rate is not necessarily a bargain. You should consider the attorney's expertise and experience to decide whether the hourly rate is reasonable for handling your particular problem.

A lawyer typically charges a flat fee when the service performed is relatively simple and the time needed to complete the assignment can be easily calculated. For example, lawyers typically charge a flat fee for preparing a simple will, representing a client at a real estate closing, or in a personal bankruptcy.

Personal injury cases, worker's compensation cases, and Social Security disability cases are typically handled on a contingent fee basis. This means that the lawyer's fees are based on the amount of money recovered on your behalf. This arrangement is typically offered where the lawyer is willing to share the risks that no recovery will be obtained. It is important for you to ask the attorney who offers this type of fee arrangement whether costs associated with the case, other than attorney fees, are the responsibility of the lawyer or the client, and whether those costs are deducted from the recovery before or after the lawyer takes his or her percentage share for attorney fees.

For example, some lawyers charge the client 33 1/3 percent of any settlement obtained on behalf of the client. That means that if the lawyer were to recover $30,000 in the settlement of a dispute, he or she would receive $10,000 as lawyer fees, whether it took one hour or one hundred hours to resolve the matter. Unless you and the lawyer make clear at the start of representation that the lawyer gets the 33 1/3 percent of the settlement after all the expenses are first subtracted, the lawyer will get $10,000 and you will get $20,000 minus all the costs incurred in the case.

You may believe that you are unable to pay some or all of the legal fees most lawyers charge. In the next segment of this publication there are some suggestions about where low-income clients may be able to find free legal services. Also, some lawyers and legal organizations make legal services available to moderate-income clients at reduced fees. Some suggestions for how to find these types of services are included in the next segment.


Finding a Lawyer

There are many ways to find a lawyer including:

  • Your local Bar Pro Bono Program's Legal Information Help Line may provide recorded messages on numerous legal topics and include references to other available sources of information to find a lawyer. Help lines are usually available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • Legal directories, such as Martindale-Hubbell, West Legal Directory and other legal directories are available in some local public libraries. Various voluntary bar associations also have directories listing their lawyer members, which may be available in local university law libraries or at the organizations' offices.
  • Referral services. Bar Associations usually have a lawyer referral service that can refer you to an attorney who may be able to assist you with your problem. Other organizations may provide referrals to specific communities or constituencies.
  • Friends and relatives who have used a particular lawyer are often the best source of referrals because they have personal experience with that lawyer and can tell you whether they were satisfied.
  • A lawyer you know. You may know a lawyer but that lawyer does not handle the type of case you have. Still, lawyers know other lawyers and are familiar with their areas of specialty and whether they are competent.
  • Other professionals, such as real estate agents, mental health professionals, accountants, and stock brokers, who have occasion to deal with lawyers professionally can be a good source of referrals for a lawyer with the expertise to handle the type of problem you have.
  • Yellow pages. The yellow page directory has lawyers listed alphabetically. It also groups lawyers by practice area. You can look in the practice area listings for a lawyer who handles the type of problem you have. You should consider lawyer ads the same way you would consider any other advertisement. What is the ad really telling you?
  • Insurance companies. Aside from the auto insurer which most people know will defend them after an auto accident, many people do not know that their homeowner's insurance carrier will defend them if they are being sued for some kinds of cases. If a dispute involves property even potentially insured, call the insurance carrier to see if you are entitled to be defended; if so, the insurer will find you a lawyer.
  • Charitable organizations, religious organizations, civic groups and community organizations. These organizations often have a lawyer or have lawyers who are active in the group who may be able to identify lawyers in the specific practice area that you need.
  • Your employer or your employer's lawyer may be able to recommend a lawyer. But, do not approach them if your problem relates to your job.

Several legal service providers represent low-income people. Many of these organizations and services are listed in the phone book under "legal" or under government listings. In addition, your local Bar's Pro Bono Program may run Advice and Referral Clinics. Many legal aid groups are listed in Pro Bono Programs' Directories of Legal Service Providers.

Law schools also run clinics where professors supervise students who work on cases and represent people at no charge. You may contact any of your area law schools to see if the clinics are currently accepting your type of case.


How to Select a Lawyer

Once you have identified one or more lawyers you may want to hire, you should telephone each one and speak to the lawyer for 5 or 10 minutes to determine whether he or she handles the type of problem you have, and to get additional information that will help you decide if you want to come in for an appointment. Be advised that this may require some extra initiative on your part. Give the lawyer a brief description of the problem and ask if the lawyer has experience with it. Find out whether the lawyer charges an hourly fee, a flat fee or a contingent fee and what the hourly rate, flat fee or contingent percentage is. Ask if the lawyer charges for an initial consultation and if so, how much. Get a feel for whether you think you can get along with the lawyer. If you are satisfied so far, make an appointment.

This first phone conversation is also an opportunity for the lawyer to decide if your case is one he or she might want. If it is not, the lawyer can save you the trouble and expense of coming in. If the lawyer does tell you on the telephone that he or she is unable to represent you, ask for a referral to another lawyer. Lawyers are probably in the best position to make such referrals because they usually know which lawyers handle special matters and who the competent attorneys are in that field.

In deciding whether to hire a lawyer, there are several things you should know. First, to be a lawyer practicing in your state, he or she must be licensed. "Licensed" means the lawyer is permitted to practice law in the place where he or she works. Some lawyers are licensed in more than one place. Being licensed or admitted to practice is sometimes also referred to as being a member of the bar. You can check if the person is currently a member of your local Bar by calling the Bar's Membership Office, or using the Bar's Web site to find a member. You may also want to check with the local Office of Bar Counsel to see if any complaints or disciplinary proceedings have been initiated against this lawyer, or visit your local Bar online if they have an attorney discipline database.

Many lawyers concentrate, or specialize, in one or more areas of law practice. You should know that a lawyer does not have to take any additional steps in order to say he or she "specializes" in employment law, for instance. There are no special tests or courses to take. The only thing a lawyer who "specializes" in employment law has to do is spend a lot of time doing those types of cases.

Your problem, however, may not need a "specialist." If your problem is one where the stakes are fairly low, for example, if you are being sued by a creditor in Small Claims Court, it may not be worth your money to hire a specialist. If your problem is not particularly difficult, for example, you want an uncontested divorce and there are no minor children and no property to fight over, you may not need a specialist. (Keep in mind that pensions are considered property.) On the other hand, if your problem is difficult or complex, or the stakes are very high, you may need the greater expertise a specialist can provide. You may wish to telephone or have a consultation with both a general practice lawyer and a specialist to determine which type of attorney you really need.

No matter whom you decide to interview, you should ask the lawyer about his or her background and experience in handling problems like yours. This is particularly important if you are considering hiring a specialist. Because any lawyer can claim to be a "specialist," you should make sure you are indeed getting an expert.

Some of the questions you might ask are:

  • Where are you licensed to practice law?
  • What is your legal experience?
  • How many cases or matters of this type have you handled?
  • What percentage of your practice is in this area of the law?

At your initial consultation, you should also talk to the lawyer about your problem and hear the lawyer's views about how to resolve it. Is the lawyer's approach to suggest ways of resolving the problem out of court or is the lawyer more interested in pursuing an aggressive lawsuit, even when you may not want it? You should also ask about the lawyer's approach to working with you. Will the lawyer take charge and forge ahead based on his or her own view about how to handle your problem, or will the lawyer explain things to you, answer all your questions, and involve you in the process? Some of your questions may be:

  • How would you approach resolving my problem?
  • Are there things I should do to improve my situation?
  • What can I expect to happen over the next few weeks, the next few months, and until the conclusion of the matter?
  • How long do you estimate it will take to conclude this matter?
  • Will you send me copies of correspondence and court filings?
  • Are there any deadlines I should know about?

Based on the answers to these and other questions, you need to decide whether this lawyer is the one for you. Do you believe that you can work with this person? Is the approach practical and sensible? Is he or she going to let you participate in the process as much as you want?

At the first consultation, you should talk with the attorney about fees. If the matter will be handled for a flat fee, ask what charges are included and what are not. For example, you may be quoted a flat fee for preparing a simple will. You should ask whether there are additional estate-planning services the lawyer offers and what those services cost.

If the matter is to be charged on an hourly basis, can the lawyer estimate what the total fee will be? Can he or she estimate what the fees would be for different outcomes, such as a settlement before filing suit, or taking the case to trial?

If the attorney's fees are to be a percentage of the recovery, what percentage will the lawyer charge? Will the client be responsible for paying costs? What is included in "costs"? Will the lawyer take his or her percentage before or after costs are deducted? Will the percentage be different according to when the case ends? MAKE SURE YOU UNDERSTAND THE FEES BEFORE YOU DECIDE WHETHER TO HIRE A LAWYER.

If the lawyer will be charging you either a flat fee or an hourly rate, you likely will have to pay money up front. This is a fee advance, sometimes incorrectly called a "retainer," which is credited against the fees you will owe the lawyer. You should find out how much the lawyer wants up front and whether the fee advance must be paid before the work begins. Do not assume the lawyer will begin work right away before you have paid any money. You should also discuss whether the lawyer expects you to pay your bill in full each month or whether you can pay over time. Some lawyers will accept monthly payments and others expect to be paid in full each month. Ask questions and find out.

It is advisable to have a written fee agreement in every matter that a lawyer will handle for you. The document should state specifically what the lawyer has been hired to handle and what the fees are. It should state how much you must pay the lawyer before work begins and when and in what amounts further payments are due. It should also explain anything that is not included in the fees, such as out of pocket expenses (e.g., copying, postage). If you are being charged a flat fee, the agreement should state what is included in the flat fee and what is not included. A written agreement helps prevent misunderstandings later. YOU SHOULD ASK ANY LAWYER YOU ARE CONSIDERING HIRING TO PROVIDE YOU WITH A WRITTEN FEE AGREEMENT.


What You Can Expect From Your Lawyer and What Your Lawyer Can Expect From You

As a client, you have certain rights. They include the following:

  • Confidentiality. Your conversations with your lawyer and any documents or information you give your lawyer are required to be kept private. Your lawyer should not discuss your private business with anyone outside of the lawyer's firm, including the lawyer's spouse. This also applies to any initial conversation you may have with a lawyer while seeking representation, regardless of whether or not you hire him or her.
  • Competence. You have a right to expect your lawyer to handle your matter competently. This does not mean he or she will know all the answers. It does mean your lawyer knows where to go to find the answers and devotes the attention to your matter that it deserves.
  • Honesty. You should expect your lawyer to tell you the truth and to handle any funds of yours in a completely trustworthy manner.
  • Loyalty. Your lawyer should not have any conflicts of interest that would cause his or her loyalty to be divided between you and another person with an interest in the outcome of your matter. This means, for example, that a lawyer could not normally represent the driver and a passenger in a lawsuit arising out of an auto accident because the interests of the two may be in conflict.
  • Information. You have a right to be kept informed of the progress of your matter and to have your questions answered. You should not hesitate to ask questions of your lawyer and you should expect to have your questions answered. Many lawyers will routinely send the client copies of all letters coming into or going out of the office and all court filings and other documents generated in the case. Ask any lawyer you are considering hiring whether that is his or her practice. If you want to receive copies of everything, let your lawyer know.

Your lawyer also expects certain things from you in order to handle your case most effectively. They include:

  • Honesty. Just as you have a right to expect honesty, so does your lawyer. You should provide your lawyer with full and complete information about your matter, including, especially, information that may be bad for your case. Remember that the lawyer must keep this information confidential. Your lawyer cannot represent you well if you hold back or lie about the facts.
  • Cooperation. You and your lawyer must work together as a team. You cannot simply turn your problems over and expect him to call you when it is resolved. Gather the documents the lawyer asks for, fill out the forms, write down what happened, gather the names and addresses of witnesses, and try to follow the lawyer's advice. Clients who cooperate with their lawyers will generally get better results than clients who do not.
  • Fees. If you have agreed to pay fees or costs, your lawyer expects you to comply with your agreement.


What if You Are Unhappy With Your Lawyer or Dispute the Fee?

Sometimes the lawyer you first choose turns out to be a dud, and you want to fire him or her, and hire someone else. As the client, you have an absolute right to fire your lawyer at any time, with or without cause.

Maybe, though, you and the lawyer can resolve the problems you are having. If you have a complaint or are unhappy about something, have a frank discussion with your lawyer and explain your point of view. Ask the lawyer to explain the things you do not understand. You should receive satisfactory answers to your questions. If the problem was the result of a misunderstanding, perhaps the lawyer-client relationship can be preserved.

If you are still not satisfied after talking the problem out with your lawyer, you should seriously consider changing lawyers. Whether to do so depends on a number of things. Is the lawyer handling your case incompetently, neglecting to do things that need to be done, missing deadlines frequently, or repeatedly showing up late to court and making the judge angry? Or is the lawyer doing a competent job but your personalities clash? You have a right to change lawyers even over a mere clash in personality, but you will have to weigh how important it is to you to change against the additional cost and inconvenience involved in getting a new lawyer up to speed on your matter. If an important court date, such as a trial or a pretrial conference, is coming up soon, changing lawyers at that stage will be very risky and difficult. Therefore, if you are having doubts about your lawyer, you should resolve them early and not wait. Otherwise, as a practical matter you may not be able to change. If your case is pending in court, the lawyer will need court permission to withdraw from your case. That could leave you without a lawyer if you cannot find one willing to come into the case at the last minute.

If you believe your lawyer has acted in an unethical manner, you may file a complaint with the local Office of Bar Counsel. Bar Counsel will investigate your complaint and make a determination whether to prosecute the lawyer.