Hiring your lawyer
Find out as much as you can about the lawyer before you hire him or her. Ask around for a recommendation, do an Internet search for their name, and look up their discipline record on the state bar's website.
Before you call, prepare a short written summary of your case and write down your questions. When you make the call, have all relevant details written down in front of you before you talk to them. Lawyers will ask questions before they decide whether to take a case; make sure you are ready with answers.
Once you’ve settled on a lawyer, get a written fee agreement that shows precisely how you will be charged and what costs you will be liable for.
If you are hiring a lawyer to work for you on a contingency fee basis, remember that just because you are not paying your lawyer up front for his or her services does not mean that you don’t need to review the fee agreement carefully.
After you’ve chosen your lawyer
Have all the details of your case at your fingertips whenever you speak to your lawyer. This is especially important in the first few meetings. Be honest about your case, regardless of whether you think the information helps you or not.
The only way to keep costs down is to use your lawyer efficiently. Never meet with or call your lawyer without a list of questions in front of you. Take notes. Not only will note-taking help prevent you from asking the same question more than once, it will give you an accurate record of what advice your lawyer gave you.
Make sure everything your lawyer explains to you about your case makes sense. Too often clients are afraid to ask questions when something isn’t clear to them. If you don’t understand, you can’t make good decisions.
Stay active in your case. Ask for regular updates. Educate yourself about the law. Not only will this help you better understand what your lawyer is doing on your behalf, but it will empower you to ask better questions of your lawyer and to have realistic expectations about the outcome you can expect.
What to do if things go wrong
Problems with attorneys generally fall into one of three categories: 1) Problems with the person; 2) problems with the process; and 3) problems with the outcome.
1) Problems with the person. If your lawyer is not: returning your calls, answering your questions in a way you can understand, providing you with sufficient information to make an informed decision, or willing to explain his or her bill to you, then you have a problem with the person. Your lawyer works for you – just like any other paid professional and should act accordingly.
If you decide you are unhappy with your lawyer’s service, you should first make that clear to your lawyer. Clients too often are reluctant to assert themselves early on. It is far better to be yourself from the very beginning than to try to change the relationship down the road.
2) Problems with the process. Everyone agrees the legal system is too slow and bureaucratic. That is why your attorney should have taken the time at the beginning of the engagement to carefully explain the processes you might encounter and how long they might take. If you believe your lawyer is not being as efficient as he could be, let him know and ask for an explanation.
If it becomes clear that you cannot work with your lawyer, you should not be afraid to fire him. However, it is best to make such decisions early on. Otherwise, not only will you have to switch lawyers during a potentially critical phase of your case, but you will also have to pay to bring your new attorney up to speed.
3) Problems with the outcome. The first thing every law student learns is that the law is not about justice. The law tolerates unfair outcomes and your lawyer, the judge, and the jury don't change that reality. Futhermore, in certain types of matters, bankruptcy and divorces, for example, there are no winners. Keep this in mind as you work with and evaluate your attorney.
If you think your attorney is incompetent or unethical, that is another matter. Do not be afraid to confront your attorney, using your notes and records to support your position and be clear what it is you want from him or her. You should also investigate your state's fee dispute resolution program, if there is one.
If you decide to fire your attorney, do it in writing. You don’t have to give a reason.
If you hired your lawyer to work for you on a contingency fee basis, it is important to decide if you have “good cause” first before discharging that lawyer. Given that a lawyer working on contingency only gets paid out of an eventual settlement or judgment, even if you fire your lawyer for a good reason, they may have a right to claim a percentage of the money you win. Further, without establishing “good cause” to fire your attorney it is possible you will end up paying twice — a percentage to your current lawyer and a percentage to the lawyer you fired. It is probably best to have your new attorney help you make you case for “good cause” against your old lawyer to avoid such problems.
Ultimately, the best way to manage your attorney is to empower yourself by understanding the law. Don’t just assume that your lawyer will take care of everything. Not only are you the boss when you hire a lawyer, but you also have the most to gain or lose. No one cares more about your case than you do. It’s your money and your life. Manage your lawyer accordingly.