So you’ve decided you need a lawyer.  Which one should you pick?  There are literally thousands of us, so what can you do to narrow your search down?  Here are a few good tips for wading through the absolute ocean of lawyers out there.

The first way to narrow your search is by expertise.  Like doctors, lawyers categorize themselves.  Lawyers divide themselves into two broad categories: Transactional and Litigation.  Transactional lawyers are the ones who specialize in helping transactions happen with legal documentation and corporate entity structuring.  These lawyers do not go to court.  Litigation attorneys are the attorneys that help people resolve disputes in courts, mediations, and arbitrations.  So, if you get served with a court document, you know that you need a litigator.  If you want to put a transaction together (i.e. a real estate deal or an estate plan) then you need a transactional attorney.

Transactional attorneys then subcategorize based on what you want done.  Examples are estate planners who draft wills and trusts, corporate attorneys who do consumer contracts (like the contracts you sign for buying a car), real estate attorneys can do deeds and other transfers of title documents, and intellectual property attorneys do patents, trademarks, and rights to literature and movies.

Litigation attorneys subcategorize by types of lawsuits. There are family lawyers, probate lawyers, civil lawyers, and bankruptcy lawyers to name a few.  Some attorneys only work in federal courts and others only in state courts.  So your court papers will tell you a little more about the type of lawyer you need.

Now you know what type of a lawyer you need, how do you pick the right lawyer within that category?  The next differentiation is how they get paid.  Cost is always a factor when choosing your lawyer, so use that to help you further narrow down your search.  Lawyers get paid either in a flat fee or a rate fee.  The rate fee lawyers also will either charge hourly, contingency, or a mixture of both.  Most attorneys charge by the hour, and you will be responsible to pay costs (outside costs to third parties) and the attorney’s hourly rate every month.  Contingency attorneys will defer their fees being paid until the end of the case (they get paid if you get paid), but you will usually still be responsible to pay the costs.  Contingency cases are generally taken in personal injury cases (where someone is injured), class actions, car accident case, and employee wage and hour claims.

Now you know what type of lawyer you want, and how you want to pay the lawyer, now comes the harder part – the fit.  What type of lawyer is the best fit for you.  This is really a question of personality.  Believe it or not, lawyers are people too.  So some are more reserved and not very good at communication.  Others are gregarious and won’t shut up.  You have to know how you want to be communicated to, and how you want your case to be handled.  Some attorneys will do everything and only want you to sign checks.  Others want you heavily involved, and many are in between where they need input from you as to the facts of your case, and then they take it from there.  Do you want daily communication, weekly communication, or just call me when it’s over? (I don’t recommend the last one).  Like your doctor, get second opinions before you settle on the one you feel you can trust the most.  One thing I insist you do – make your attorney satisfy your intellect.  Never leave the attorney’s office unless you have an understanding of what is going on and you feel confident in the anticipated result.  So many clients come to me from other attorneys and I ask them what happened with their case, and all I get is blank stares in return.  You should know generally what is happening, not every legality, but you should know where you are in your case, what is happening next, and what your anticipated result is.

Then you will have the best lawyer client partnership you can have.  Good luck out there in the ocean of lawyers, and beware, there are sharks in the water.

By Andrew Stilwell, Esq. Attorney at Contreras Law Firm