Be it contract negotiations for a promotion, buying a house, or civil litigation, there are plenty of reasons why a guy might need a lawyer. However, finding (and paying) one can be a daunting task. We'll tell you everything you need to know to pick an attorney who will keep you on the up and up with the law.
By Ronald L. Zambrano, Esquire
“My daddy is a movie actor, and sometimes he plays the good guy, and sometimes he plays the lawyer.” – Malcolm Ford, of his actor father, Harrison Ford.
Everybody hates lawyers until they need one. I am sorry to be blunt, but if you have something to lose, protect or gain, you would be stupid not to consult a lawyer.
Have Realistic Expectations – You Still Won’t Afford a Maserati
There are few things more annoying to a lawyer than a client with unreasonable expectations. Just because you got fired, slipped on baby vomit in a Macy’s, or a truck flipped over your car, doesn’t mean you hit the lottery. The guy that got millions of dollars in the Larry H. Parker commercials is in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Would you really exchange paralysis for a million dollars?
A majority of people seek out an attorney because they feel wronged. For those of you in that category please understand: You must have suffered a legally recognizable loss, otherwise known as damages.
What the hell does that mean? When you’ve suffered a loss that can be remedied through the legal system, the system will do its best to make you whole by attributing a dollar amount to what you’ve lost.
For example, in a car accident, you can suffer more than one kind of loss. The loss associated with the damage to your vehicle. Another loss is that associated with any medical attention you paid for as a result (e.g., emergency room services to future treatment). Still another type of loss is any associated with the whole ordeal. Let’s not forget the famous “pain and suffering,” nor the equally infamous (yet rarely given) punitive damages.
True story: I was driving on the 101 East when an 18-wheeler clipped my rear driver side. I spun 360 degrees, hit the curb, flipped upside down, and slid down the embankment. The firefighters told me I missed a pole by a yard. I walked away without a scratch (thank you Volkswagen!), but my car was totaled. I was scared, angry and irate because this truck didn’t even stop! I wanted to get medieval on the trucking company, but it didn’t work that way. All I was entitled to was the damage to my car. Why? I didn’t suffer any other loss. I was able to go to work, as I didn’t suffer any physical injury. I was pissed, but not enough to warrant a plausible demand for pain and suffering. The fair market of my car before it performed a vault routine was all I was entitled to, because that made me whole.
You get the picture. From one single accident, there are various forms of loss you can demand compensation for, only if you’ve suffered them. When you’ve suffered a loss that can be remedied through the legal system, your lawyer will do their best to get you whole through the system. But you will not be put in a better position than you would have been had the wrong never happened.
Choosing Your Lawyer
Like any other service, the age-old adage that “you get what you pay for” applies to lawyers. A new attorney will likely cost you less than a seasoned attorney. Bigger prestigious firms will charge more than small, lesser known firms. However, you will be able to find quality legal services that won’t necessitate giving the shirt off your back, but you should do a little bit of homework to find out more about the lawyer.
How Much Will it Cost?
The first concern potential clients express, which is understandable, is how much is it going to cost them. How you pay an attorney depends on what area of law you’re involved in. Because a majority of the public is most familiar and often involved in Civil Litigation (e.g., personal injury, wrongful termination, sexual harassment, etc.) that will be our context. However, the following payment arrangements can be found in other areas of law.
Civil Plaintiff – Contingency Fee
Plaintiffs (persons making a demand for compensation through legal means because they’ve been wronged) in civil litigation will most likely enter a contingency fee agreement with their attorney. A contingency fee agreement is where the attorney does not get paid unless the Plaintiff gets a reward. In other words, if the Plaintiff doesn’t win money, the attorney doesn’t get money.
The amount an attorney receives from a contingency fee is a percentage set out in the attorney-client contract. A typical percentage ranges from 30% to 40%. This percentage is only for the attorney’s services and expertise, and does not include fees and costs associated with litigation, such as filing documents with the court. In a contingency fee arrangement, the attorney is taking all the risks and forwarding all the costs you would otherwise have to make out of pocket. Just filing the initial complaint costs hundreds of dollars (check out fees at the Los Angeles Court house here for an example.)
California law, for example, requires contingency fee agreements be in writing, stating how any reward is going to be divided between the attorney, client and fees. The lawyer’s percentage must not be “unconscionable,” which usually is no more than 40%. You have many rights as a client, and one of them is to have copies of everything that goes in your file. I do not encourage clients to keep copies of every little thing, but you would be stupid not to have a copy of your attorney-client agreement.
Retainer Agreement – Hourly Billing
Defendants (aptly named because they are the defending party in a lawsuit) usually enter in a retainer agreement with their attorneys. Other areas of law where both sides utilize retainer agreements are family law and immigration law. Also, if you’re being charged with a crime, and you don’t want the Public Defender’s Office representing you for free, a criminal defense lawyer will seek a retainer.
A retainer agreement is where the client gives a lump sum up front to the attorney, thus retaining the attorney to represent them in the lawsuit. That money is put in a client trust account and the attorney draws money from that account. The amount withdrawn is determined by what the attorney is billing by the hour as they work on your case. An hourly rate can range from $150 to $800 an hour, depending on what firm you’ve retained (unofficial average is $250 to $350). Again, just as in a contingency fee arrangement, the money used as a retainer is typically only for the attorney’s skill and expertise, and not for costs of litigation (i.e., fees).
Hourly billing is a well-known albatross around the neck of the legal profession. Some firms bill every 10th of an hour (every 6 minutes) and others bill every 6th of an hour (every 10 minutes). That is, if it took one minute to do something, you’re still being charged for the fraction of an hour you are being billed. Billable time usually includes: talking on the phone with clients, opposing side, and anyone connected to your case; spending time in court; time spent drafting letters, motions, complaints, oppositions; and the research involved.
The client gets a monthly statement from their attorney reflecting the billing for the month, and it displays respective activity of the client trust account. The client has the right to question the attorney on items charged. Interaction between attorneys and client in a retainer agreement usually gets a little adversarial in this context. Remember, YOU signed the retainer agreement, and how the attorney is billing you will be spelled out in black and white.
Final note on retainer arrangements: initial consultations are usually free. Some attorney’s will not charge you anything, while others will only give you the first hour for free. So, I encourage you to consult with more than one attorney to see which one you’re most comfortable with, as you don’t have to pay anything until you sign the retainer agreement.
How Good Is this Guy?
Now that you’re familiar with how you’ll be charged in a civil case, there are certain things you can find out that can shed some light on the quality of any attorney or firm.
First, look up an attorney’s history posted on your state's Bar website. For example, the State Bar of California website. Just put in a name and you’ll get some basic information, such as contact info, education, and when they were admitted to the bar.
The most illuminating things may be found under “Actions Affecting Eligibility to Practice Law.” If an attorney has been disciplined (even failing to pay dues on time) it will be posted here. Sometimes there will be detailed summaries that will leave your jaw dropping.
Second, Google the attorney. There are certain websites that allow clients to post reviews of their experiences with an attorney or firm. As with anything else on the world wide web, take what you discover through this method with a grain of salt. More revealing will be a lawyer or firm’s own website. A solo practitioner perhaps won’t have their trial history posted. However, even smaller firms will post the trial record of the firm, and individual attorney bios have great summaries of their careers.
Third, remember to ask questions. As a client, you are actually hiring an attorney. So ask them direct questions. Such as how many cases does each attorney in the firm handle. What is the attorney’s record at winning cases that go to trial. How long have they had their own office? Now, double-checking this information is possible, but hard to do. But asking never hurt, just don’t come off accusatory, because attorneys don’t like too demanding of a client either. Also, you most likely will not talk to an attorney when you first call. An appointment will be set up for you to meet with the attorney face to face.
Finally, don’t just consult one attorney. The legal system still follows the rules of competition. Attorneys are on the TV or newspaper trying to get your business. So, take advantage of that and be conscious of your decision. If you’re not sold on the one attorney, consult another. However, price is NOT what should determine your choice. What should determine your decision is how comfortable you feel with the person you are entering an attorney-client agreement. A lawsuit takes several months or years to resolve themselves. So, consider your relationship with an attorney a long-term, commitment.
Ronald L. Zambrano, Esq., Associate Attorney, Carlin & Buchsbaum, L.L.P., Long Beach, California, www.carlinbuchsbaum.com.