Legally Speaking: When and How to Hire a Lawyer

Quick: Something bad happens and you need a lawyer, do you know how to work with one? Primer reader and lawyer Scott Kimberly breaks down the process of finding, paying, and working with an attorney.

The mission at Primer is to “dig deep into issues guys in their 20′s face like career success and personal wellness.” Unfortunately, a common issue that young men often face, but that few want to talk about, is navigating through courts and the legal system.

The American legal system is vast, complex, and intimidating. In any given city, there may be municipal courts, state courts, federal courts, courts of limited jurisdiction, appellate courts, and more. For the average person, the legal system is nearly impossible to wrap your mind around. But what should a young man do when faced with a legal problem? The most obvious answer is that he should speak to a lawyer; however, most men do not even know where to begin.

Consider this article a series of talking points; a survey of broad questions that will help you determine whether you need a lawyer and how to acquire one. I have broken this discussion into several key questions, each of which needs to be addressed en route to hiring a lawyer. While it is true that nothing navigates the legal system like a lawyer, this article admits what few lawyers will concede: in certain situations, hiring a lawyer may not be worth your time or money.

What are some legal issues that young men often face?

Young men have the potential to face every legal problem imaginable; however, in reality, young men run into certain legal problems more often than others. As a lawyer, I often see young men facing criminal charges and family law issues.

Here is a sampling of situations in which I often find young men: (1) I have been arrested; (2) I have been served with divorce papers; (3) My girlfriend/wife is having a child and I don’t think it’s mine; (4) My child’s mother isn’t letting me see my child; or (5) My fiancée and I broke off the engagement and I want the ring back. Would you know what to do if you found yourself in these situations?

In the future, I may delve deeper into some of these issues; however, as stated above, this article is intended to be a general overview, not a case-by-case guide.

Do I have the right to a lawyer?

Everyone has heard the line in television or the movies: You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, then one will be appointed for you. The right to counsel stems from the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, which, as interpreted by the courts, guarantees legal representation in any criminal case where the defendant faces actual imprisonment. Any defendant can waive his right to representation. However, absent such a waiver, the state will appoint counsel to represent you if you cannot afford your own lawyer.

If I don’t have the right to a lawyer, do I need to hire one for my case? 

If you do not have a right to a court-appointed lawyer, the first thing you need to determine is whether you need to hire your own lawyer at all. As a general rule, you have the right to hire private counsel in any legal dispute. In very limited situations, lawyers may be excluded from legal disputes (e.g. King County Small Claims Court). However, private parties are typically allowed to hire lawyers whenever they have a legal issue that needs to be resolved.

The most common cases that you may face where you do not have the right to a lawyer are minor criminal cases (those that do not result in actual imprisonment) or civil cases (private disputes, often over money). The necessity of representation in these matters almost always depends on the specific facts of the case. However, it is this author’s opinion that legal representation is beneficial and worthwhile any time you interact with the legal system.

The easiest way to determine whether you need a lawyer is to simply speak with a lawyer. I know this may seem self-evident, but few people actually ask a lawyer whether legal representation is necessary. Several lawyers offer initial consultations free of charge. If a lawyer does not offer a free consultation, ask for one! Rarely will a lawyer knowingly turn away business.

After you have had a chance to discuss your case with a lawyer, ask that lawyer bluntly whether or not you will need legal representation. This is the best way to determine whether you need to hire a lawyer. An honest lawyer will flatly tell you whether or not you need his services.

What if I don’t have the money to hire a lawyer right now?

If you do not have the money to hire a lawyer right now, you may be able to find a one who will work with your financial situation. Some lawyers accept payment plans. Our office has also had clients pay fees by borrowing money from friends and family, cashing in investments, selling vehicles, selling other property, and other means. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for a lawyer to be paid by bartering for goods, such as vehicles, firearms, or tools of the trade, or bartering for services, such as home renovations, landscaping, or house painting. If you have something valuable to offer, let your lawyer know. Be creative!

If you truly cannot put anything towards hiring a lawyer, there are a few other routes that you should consider.

Free Legal Clinics

First, several charitable organizations and non-profits offer free legal assistance to underprivileged citizens. For example, I regularly volunteer at Greenhouse Ministries here in Middle Tennessee, which offers a free legal clinic every Thursday night. The goal of these services is to provide competent legal assistance to those who cannot otherwise afford it. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer at this time, you are the exact type of person that such an organization is trying to help.

Free Legal Advice Websites

Second, certain websites offer question and answer forums to the general public. For example, provides a forum that allows the general public to post a wide range of legal questions, which are ultimately answered by lawyers. Such sites provide only limited assistance, as you never get to speak one-on-one with the lawyer answering your question, but the answers you receive may ultimately point you in the right direction regarding your case.

Alright, I want to hire a lawyer. How do I find the right one?

If you decide to hire a lawyer, you will need to make a conscious decision to invest in your case. At its most basic level, your legal representation is an investment. If you want the best representation in the courtroom, you have to pay for the best representation in the courtroom. Unfortunately, that is the state of the American legal system.

The most important factor in finding the right lawyer is that you, the client, have to be comfortable with the lawyer and his office staff. Unless and until you trust the lawyer and his staff, your relationship is unlikely to be successful.

There are several places to search for a lawyer. You can find a one through personal referrals, phone book ads, internet searches, online directories, and even window shopping. If you ask most people, the first place to look is through referrals from family and friends. After all, if your family member had a great experience with a lawyer, shouldn't you expect the same? However, make sure that the lawyer they hired handled a case similar to yours. It does you no good to hire a divorce lawyer for your criminal case and vice versa.

One way to find a lawyer that is gaining in popularity is through online directories. I recommend the aforementioned Avvo, a lawyer directory complete with profiles, contact information, office location, practice areas, and more. Avvo also provides specific ratings in experience, industry recognition, and professional conduct, including details for any instance of professional misconduct that may have occurred. This allows you, the client, to learn valuable information about a lawyer before you ever contact his office.

For the most outstanding Avvo profile you will ever see, and for verification that the preceding statement is completely biased, take a look at this handsome gentleman.

How much money do I need to hire a lawyer? 

The short answer to this question is it depends. It depends on a variety of factors including where you live, what type of case you have, and what type of fee agreement you reach. If you have the right type of case, you may not need any money up front. However, it is important that you understand that most legal representation requires at least some money up front.

Because the cost of legal services varies wildly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and from service to service, it would be irresponsible for me to provide a dollar amount that you should expect to pay. However, if you want to know how much a particular service costs, call a lawyer and ask! Some lawyers do not reveal their rates over the phone, but several lawyers do. Use the amounts that you are quoted to estimate how much you will need to pay for legal representation.

How are lawyers paid?

As mentioned above, the amount of money you need to hire a lawyer depends on the type of fee agreement you reach. Therefore, it is important for you to understand the basic methods through which lawyers are paid. There are several ways in which lawyers are paid; however, on the whole, most lawyers are paid either through a retainer, a flat rate, or a contingency fee.


A retainer is an amount of money paid by the client to the lawyer in order to secure legal representation. Once the lawyer receives the retainer, he begins to work on the case and his time is billed against the amount paid in accordance with his hourly rate (as a point of reference, this author, a small firm lawyer in Middle Tennessee, charges $150 per hour). If the lawyer works off the entire retainer, he either negotiates the payment of another retainer or withdraws from representation. The most common legal fields in which lawyers charge retainers are criminal defense and family law.

Flat Rate

A flat rate is exactly what it sounds like. The client pays the lawyer a flat amount of money in exchange for representation. Flat rates are common for legal services that rarely deviate from a certain amount of required work, such as bankruptcy and uncontested divorces. For this reason, a growing number of online services, such as, offer assistance on a flat rate basis.

Contingent Fee

A contingent fee is a payment that is conditional on the client recovering some money in their lawsuit. If the client recovers a money award, the lawyer then takes a set percentage, previously agreed upon by contract, as his fee. In simplest terms, the lawyer doesn’t get paid unless the client does. Contingent fees are often employed in lawsuits for money damages, such as automobile collisions, slip and fall accidents, and medical malpractice.

What should I expect from my lawyer?

Your lawyer should be honest, open, and wholly committed to protecting your interests. Your case is the most important thing in your life at the time you hire a lawyer. Find a lawyer who recognizes how important your case is and who will fight on your behalf for the results that you deserve.

Here is the most important takeaway in searching for a lawyer: if you haven't found a one who is honest, loyal, and committed to open communication, then look elsewhere. You deserve a lawyer who is entirely dedicated to your best interests.

Scott Kimberly owns and operates the Law Office of W. Scott Kimberly in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. His practice currently focuses on criminal defense, family law, and personal injury. Outside of his law practice, Scott enjoys golf, movies, politics, and his beloved LSU Tigers. You can read more about Scott at


  • Reply April 1, 2013

    Josh Camson

    Nice article Scott. I think it is a good introduction to the often terrifying idea of hiring a lawyer. I just wanted to touch on criminal defense for a second. You mentioned that they often use retainer fees. I can say that with the exception of appeals or pre-arrest work, I don’t know many fellow defense attorneys who use a retainer. At least in Pittsburgh where I practice, the trend is flat fees for that kind of work.

    • Reply April 1, 2013

      Scott Kimberly

      Thanks for the comment, Josh. I always enjoy reading your work at Lawyerist, especially since your pieces are typically geared towards small firm criminal work, and I am glad to know that you found this piece an adequate introduction to hiring a lawyer.

      I think you make a great point. From what I have seen, criminal defense attorneys rarely work for retainers in the sense that they bill against the fee until it runs out. However, also from what I have seen, clients typically pay what the lawyer calls a retainer fee, even if that payment is, in reality, a flat fee. For this reason, I actually had a bit of a dilemma on where to place criminal defense (and of course the first comment touches on this!). The reason I settled on the retainer section is that, as you most likely know, criminal defense flat rates often cover representation up to, but not including, a trial. I did not want the reader to think that a flat fee could be paid for criminal representation, hire a lawyer based on this belief, and then have the rug pulled out from under them if their case was scheduled for trial and their attorney demanded another payment. Make sense?

      • Reply April 1, 2013

        Josh Camson

        Thanks for your kind words Scott.

        I agree completely. The way you laid it out makes complete sense. What I tell clients is that it is a flat fee, earned upon receipt, for me to represent them to the exclusion of representing others. I also charge a separate fee for trial. I explain that the separate trial fee is for the prep work that has to go into a trial. But I think the key for readers here is to read the agreement. All of this should be in writing, and if people have questions, they need to ask the person they are hiring.

  • Reply April 1, 2013


    Good article! (I’m totally not biased in saying so, either).

    A few things I would add:
    1. For those gents working in corporations with legal departments, ask if the lawyers there are able/willing to do other work. Some companies don’t allow it, but for those that do it can be an inexpensive way for someone to have a relatively uncomplicated legal service done (e.g. having a will made).

    2. In my experience, a great place to look for a free legal clinic is at your local law school. There is a big push right now for ‘practical’ legal education, so most law schools will have at least one. Some are probably too specialized–if you need a criminal defense lawyer, an Immigration Clinic won’t help–but many schools have a generic legal clinic also.

    • Reply April 1, 2013


      I’ll second the law school tip. Law schools are always very connected to those low-cost resources because they exert a lot of effort to place their students in those programs for internships and the like. I would go there first.

      • Reply April 2, 2013


        Just be sure you’re getting their help through a clinic. You’re not allowed to practice law without being admitted to the bar. Bar associations may not react well to law students acting as lawyers when it comes to them applying for bar membership especially if you paid them something.

        • Reply April 2, 2013


          Ah yes, should’ve been clearer. My school has a Public Service Center that finds pro bono and public interest work for the students. I imagine every law school has such a thing, and they’re the ones to talk to. Definitely don’t go approaching random students (who should also know better).

  • Reply April 1, 2013

    Gary Scribner

    Great article. I’m a 2L right now, and based on the interactions I’ve already had (friends asking me for legal advice that I can’t provide yet) this article is something that everyone, especially men in their 20’s, should read. Keep up the good work and I look forward to reading any future articles.

    • Reply April 3, 2013

      Scott Kimberly

      True story. I had a friend call me for legal advice during my first semester of 1L year. I told him he had a better shot of navigating the legal system than I did at that point.

  • Reply April 1, 2013


    Good article. This is great information to know. I have a basic understanding of the legal system but nowhere near the knowledge that a lawyer has. I was arrested once for something stupid that I did in college but I didn’t end up needing a lawyer. Here’s hoping that I never do but I do, this article is a good resource.

    • Reply April 3, 2013

      Scott Kimberly

      Thanks, TJ. Your statements are why I wrote it. Everyone hopes they never need a lawyer, but it’s good to know what to do if something comes up.

  • Reply December 9, 2013

    Sarah Miller

    One of the most critical thing to do when dealing with legal cases is to look for the right lawyer. It is because opting for the right lawyer will determine the success of your case. –

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    Richard Cintron

    Legal of Personal Injury law denote that if you have been injured because of someone else’s wrongful behavior, you may be entitled to win damages in court. To win, you must prove certain facts that entitle you to damages. You Must File a Summons and Complaint To sue someone for personal injury, When a health care professional causes personal injury in the course of diagnosis or treatment, it is known as medical malpractice. The average damages award in a successful medical malpractice lawsuit is several hundred thousand dollars. Even if your doctor makes a mistake while treating you, however, you are not guaranteed to win a lawsuit.

  • Reply June 30, 2014

    i woz ere

    Lawyers are for people with more money than sense, or the guilty.
    On a serious note, law should never be so complicated that there is a need for ‘lawyers’, they’re the only ones who always benefit from any legal action.

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  • Reply January 12, 2016

    Kate Welling

    I think anytime it calls to defend yourself is a good time for a lawyer. You may not be guilty but the guilty party can get away with so much depending on what kind of verbal & written “language” they use, as in lawyer lingo. My brother, who works at a law firm, opened my eyes to this when he was helping me get out of a scammy contract.

  • Reply January 18, 2016

    Emily Bennette

    Scott, this is some really good information to know about when you are looking to hire a lawyer. I like that you broke down the different types of ways you pay and keep a lawyer. Which is something you need to know about if you are looking for a lawyer. I know if I am going to be needing a lawyer a lot, then I should be looking for a retainer type of lawyer.

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