Checklist: Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Lawyer

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Checklist: Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Lawyer

Like doctors and other professionals, lawyers range from general practitioners to specialists. Typically, lawyers who offer general legal services concentrate on legal issues concerning the general public--for example, wills or real estate transactions. However, if you are seeking a lawyer because of legal problem associated with your online activities, you should look for a specialist who focuses on media law or intellectual property issues on the Internet. If you want to set up a business, you should find a lawyer with experience in corporate and tax matters. There several questions to ask before hiring a lawyer.


  • Is this person really a frustrated businessperson disguised as a lawyer? Some lawyers get tired of being on the outside looking in when it comes to business dealings. Such a lawyer may attempt to second-guess your business judgment. Be wary of a lawyer who takes too keen an interest in the nonlegal aspects of your work.
  • Does this person communicate well? J. P. Morgan once said, "I do not pay my lawyers to tell me what I cannot do, but to tell me how to do what I want to do." The right lawyer for your business will not respond to your questions with a simple "That's OK" or "No, you can't do that," but will outline all your available options and tell you what other businesses in your situation normally do.
  • Are the offices conveniently located? You will need to visit your attorney frequently, especially in your first few years in business. You should not have to waste a day traveling to and from the nearest city each time you need legal advice. When in doubt, choose a lawyer close to home.
  • Do I like this person? Don't forget to follow your instincts and feelings. You should be able to communicate openly and freely with your attorney at all times. If you feel you cannot trust a particular lawyer or you believe the two of you have different perspectives, keep looking. Just remember that Ally McBeal is not reality: good looks and a dynamic personality are not as important in a lawyer as accuracy, thoroughness, intelligence, the willingness to work hard for you and attention to detail. As a former client once told me: "My father always said, 'Never trust a lawyer who has 20/20 vision and wears Armani.' I chose you as my lawyer because you look like you work for a living." The right lawyer for your business will take that as a compliment.
  • How long have you practiced law? At a minimum, you'll want to know about the lawyer's expertise and whether the lawyer is a veteran or beginner attorney, for instance. Your legal issue may very well be handled by someone who is fresh out of law school, (or not). It all depends.
  • What type of cases do you generally handle? What percentage of your practice is devoted to (the practice area in question)? You'll also want to know about a lawyer's expertise and how much of the attorney's practice is devoted to topic area your legal issue falls within. For example, if you need help with an adoption case, you may wish to seek a family law lawyer who has worked on, well, adoption cases. Click here for a full list of practice area definitions.
  • Who is your typical client? This is an important, but often-overlooked question. For example, if you are an individual with a particular legal problem, but the attorney your meeting with represents only corporations, this may not be the best lawyer for you. Likewise, you may wish to know the financial background of some of the lawyer's clients. This is because there may be different issues a lawyer is used to factoring when working with high net-worth individuals vs. college students.
  • How many cases have you represented that were similar to mine? Now is not the time to act shy. Feel free to ask about the attorney's track record, such as the number of cases won or settled, for example.
  • Other than a law degree, What kind of special training or knowledge do you have that might apply in my situation? Some cases, like DUI and patent cases, require specialized training and knowledge for effective representation. Be sure to inquire whether your case fits into that category.
  • What are your attorney fees and costs, and how are they billed? Will a portion or all of my case be handled by paralegals or legal assistants? If so, ask about reduced costs. This step is obviously an important one. You'll want to know whether you can afford the lawyer's services and how you will be required to pay. This is also the time to ask about payment options and how often, and under what circumstances, you will be billed.
  • What is your approach or philosophy to winning or representing a case? This can be important in two ways. First, if you are seeking an amicable divorce, for example, but the attorney is known to "go for the kill" in divorce cases, the attorney may not be the right one for you. Similarly, if you're looking for an aggressive attorney to handle an upcoming corporate merger, for example, you'll want someone who isn't afraid to push the envelope, so to speak.
  • Are there others ways for solving my legal problem? Go ahead. Ask the professional whether there are any alternatives for solving your legal problem, such as through arbitration or some other out-of-court arrangement. A good attorney will generally inform you if your case can be handled through other less expensive and time consuming means.
  • How will you let me know what's happening with my case? Communication is key when working with a lawyer. Ask the lawyer how often and under what circumstances you will hear from him or her. You'll want to know how your case is coming along and about other important dates.
  • What is the likely outcome in my case? Generally speaking, it is fair game to ask the attorney whether you have a good chance of winning your case. You are not looking for the "right" answer, just an honest one. For instance, if you're facing an uphill battle in, let's say, a nasty divorce situation, you'll want to know up front from the attorney so you can prepare yourself for what lies ahead.
While the answers to questions you ask your lawyer will vary widely, it is important to keep in mind that nothing should be taken as a guarantee. Instead, these questions should give you general knowledge of a specific lawyer's experience and skill-level, and whether the lawyer is a good fit for you.

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