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Tips for Choosing a Lawyer

Be confident and prepared: Ask the right questions.

When do I need a lawyer?

You should consult a lawyer' when advice:

  • You're buying or selling a home, adopting a child, signing an important contract, making a will or organizing a business;
  • You've been in an accident where someone was hurt or property was damaged;
  • You are the victim of an abusive spouse;
  • You are accused of a crime;
  • You've been injured at work;
  • You are going through a divorce; and
  • You are having problems with your landlord or tenant.

A lawyer can help by offering you legal counseling and advice, preparing documents and, if necessary, representing you in court and other legal proceedings.

How can a lawyer help me?

The law can change often and be very complicated. Lawyers are trained to deal effectively with these complexities, explain the law accurately, provide legal assistance, and be aware of court procedures, filing requirements, deadlines and other details that a non-lawyer could overlook.

In Massachusetts, a lawyer must have attended a state-accredited law school, be licensed by the state Supreme Judicial Court, and must abide by strict rules of legal procedure and ethics.

How do I find the right lawyer?

Your goal is to find a lawyer with whom you are comfortable as both a person and a professional. Your case may involve very personal information and your lawyer will often need to know confidential details about you, your family and your finances to be effective in helping you.

One of the best ways to find a lawyer is to seek a recommendation from people whose opinions you respect: an employer, lawyer at your workplace, teacher, minister, doctor, relative, neighbor or friends.

The nature of your legal problem will help define the type of lawyer you will want to hire. Often lawyers have one or more specialties, and you want to make sure your lawyer has experience in your type of case. The lawyer who did a terrific job with your friend's divorce may not have the expertise to take on your auto accident injury case.

Before meeting with a lawyer, make notes about your problem and gather all of the related documents to take with you. This will allow you to present your legal problem in the clearest and most organized manner possible. It will also allow you to focus on evaluating the lawyer's response to your case and your questions.

What should I ask a lawyer?

At the first meeting you should ask about the following topics. Keep in mind, some lawyers charge a fee for your first consultation, some don't.

  • The amount of experience the lawyer has with your type of legal matter;
  • An initial outline of how the lawyer believes the case should be handled and the time frame for its completion;
  • Whether or not the lawyer carries malpractice insurance;
  • How you can or will be expected to participate in your case;
  • How you will be kept informed about the status of the matter;
  • Whether or not the lawyer will provide you with a fee agreement that details fees, expenses, billing and payment;
  • The lawyer's hourly fee (if applicable); and
  • An estimate of the lawyer's total fee.

After meeting with the lawyer ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will I be comfortable working closely with this person?
  • Am I confident that the lawyer has the experience and skill to handle your case?
  • Do I clearly understand the lawyer's explanation of what my case involves?
  • Do I understand the proposed fee agreement?

How will I pay a lawyer?

Fixed fee
This type of charge, sometimes called a "standard" fee, is used most often for routine legal matters. For example, a lawyer may charge all clients the same amount to handle a "simple will." When you agree to a fixed fee, be sure you know what it does and does not include, and if there could be additional charges.

Hourly fee
Many lawyers charge by the hour, and can vary from lawyer to lawyer. Your total bill can be estimated by having the lawyer project the amount of time your case will take and provide a list of filing fees and other costs.

Retainer fee
A retainer fee may be used to guarantee that a lawyer will be available to take a particular case, and could mean the lawyer will turn down other cases to remain available. With this type of fee agreement, you may be billed separately for the legal work. A retainer fee sometimes is considered a down payment on any legal services you may need. Since this type of fee arrangement can mean different things, be sure to have the lawyer explain the fee arrangement.

Contingency fee
This type of charge often is used in personal injury cases when you are suing someone for money. It means that you will pay your lawyer a certain percentage of the money you receive if you win the case or if you settle the matter. If you lose, your lawyer doesn't receive a fee. In some cases, your lawyer may pay some of these costs for you when they are due, but you may have to repay the lawyer.

If you agree to a contingency fee, be sure you know what your lawyer's percentage will be. Some agreements provide for a varying percentage depending on whether the case is settled, goes to trial or has to be appealed. If so, those varying percentages must be stated in the agreement as well. While obtaining a fee agreement from your lawyer is always a good idea, in contingency fee cases, they are required.

Statutory fee
The cost of some probate and other legal work is set by law. For certain other legal problems, the court either sets or must approve the fee you will pay. Often, a lawyer cannot tell you exactly what the charge will be, because it is difficult to estimate how much work is going to be involved. But a lawyer can usually estimate the minimum and maximum limits of the fee and give you some idea of the work involved.

What if I can't afford a lawyer?

If you are the defendant in a criminal case and can't afford a lawyer, the government must provide you with one. If you need legal assistance in a civil matter and can't afford to pay lawyer, there are programs that may be able to help.

If you meet certain economic guidelines, the MBA LRS may be able to refer you to a lawyer who offers reduced fees (no more than $75 an hour) for qualifying clients.

If you cannot afford a lawyer's fees, even at reduced rates, there are state and federally funded programs that may be able to provide you with free legal assistance. There are legal services (sometimes called legal aid) offices located around the state. Some types of cases that legal services lawyers will handle include eviction defense, divorce, custody, and Social Security and other government benefit matters.

You can call the Legal Advocacy and Resource Center at (617) 603-1700; or toll-free, at (800) 342-LAWS.

How can I help my lawyer and keep expenses down?

There are several steps you can follow to help your lawyer work for you and keep the cost of legal services at a minimum:

  • Gather in advance all information that you think your lawyer may need;
  • Carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of your case: could court costs and legal fees be more than the amount of money you would likely recover?
  • Write down the names, addresses and telephone numbers of all people involved in your matter
  • Bring any written materials relating to your legal situation, such as receipts, contracts, medical bills, repair estimates, checks, traffic tickets, deeds, wills and letters from the opposing side to the first meeting with your lawyer;
  • Ask if there are some aspects of the case that you can handle yourself (e.g., some telephone calls);
  • Bring a written summary of the facts exactly as you remember them;
  • Write down the questions that you want your lawyer to answer;
  • Avoid calling your lawyer unnecessarily;
  • Inform your lawyer of any changes to your address, telephone number and to any situation that may have a bearing on your case;
  • Ask the lawyer about ways to resolve your case without going to court; and
  • Reveal all information, even if it may not be in your favor.

Remember that your lawyer must keep all information you discuss confidential.

What if the relationship with the lawyer becomes unproductive?

There are many reasons why an attorney/client relationship may become unproductive. With that said, it is important that the client understand why the relationship failed and what the proper next steps should be.

  • If you have a fee disagreement with your lawyer that you are unable to resolve, consider arbitration as an option. The MBA's Legal Fee Arbitration Board can help resolve disputes involving lawyers' fees. Contact the board at (617) 338-0552.
  • If you have a difference of opinion regarding your case, whether it's regarding how the case is being handled, the value of the case, etc., the client should get a second opinion and/or hire a new lawyer.
  • If the client believes that there was unethical conduct by the lawyer, the client should contact the Board of Bar Overseers to access information on how to file a complaint against the lawyer.

Can I get legal help without hiring a lawyer?

There are legal resources that may be able to help you resolve your legal problem without hiring a lawyer. The MBA has several programs that can help answer your basic legal questions.

The first Wednesday of each month you can get free legal help, via telephone, from the MBA Dial-A-Lawyer program. On those days, from 5:30 p.m. until 7:30 p.m., lawyer volunteers staff phones at the MBA to take your calls. Dial (617) 338-0610 or toll-free (877) 686-0711.

Small claims court
Small claims courts offer citizens the chance to resolve minor problems without the need for lawyers. Most small claims courts limit cases to those with claims up to $7,000, and exclude certain types of claims, such as divorce, cases involving title to property, and cases involving the state or city. In most small claims courts, anyone with a grievance can bring suit, using everyday language, for a relatively low filing cost. However, you should file suit only after you have exhausted other avenues, for example, writing directly to the person or company involved or discussing the matter with the Better Business Bureau.

Private, consumer service organizations
Your local Better Business Bureau, credit counseling service, consumer advocacy group, alternative dispute resolution center, or another private agency may be able to assist you, and provide an effective and economical alternative to hiring a lawyer. These organizations were created to resolve or correct situations that frequently recur and affect the public. Through such agencies, without the expense of hiring a lawyer, you may be able to obtain a statement of your rights, a fast recovery of property or money you have lost, or relief for other damages that you have incurred.

Government organizations
In many instances, government organizations and offices can also provide answers or assistance on legal matters. For example, you may be able to consult the state attorney general's office or the Department of Revenue for answers to general business, investment or tax questions. State and local governmental agencies or departments, such as local government offices that administer permits and licenses, and state boards that regulate health professions, social service professions, contractors, lawyers and others, may be able to provide information about rules and standards governing such professions and may also assist in resolving disputes or settling damages.

I have been harmed by a medical error.
How can an attorney help me?

If you or a family member has been harmed by a medical error and offered compensation by a medical provider, a health care institution, or an insurance company following a medical injury, it is important for you to understand how an attorney may be of assistance to you during the process and before you accept compensation. In particular, it is important that any compensation that is offered is fair, timely, and appropriate to meet your needs relative to your injuries. 

Attorneys play an important role in advising you during this process. In particular, in order to assist you in accepting an appropriate offer of compensation, an attorney will investigate and analyze the following factors:

  • The extent of the harm and disability you or your family member suffered due to the medical error.
  • The impact of the harm on your occupation and your activities
  • The impact on your family.
  • Your future medical care needs by way of further treatment, surgeries, therapy, and medications.
  • The likelihood or lack thereof, that health insurance will cover these future needs.
  • The potential health care liens (both present and future) and the need to negotiate those liens before you accept any offer.
  • The legal requirements and time constraints related to pursuing a potential lawsuit pursuant to medical negligence laws and the statute of limitations. 
  • The implications of pursuing a lawsuit if the offer of compensation is rejected.

After investigating and evaluating the above factors, an attorney can review the settlement agreement that will be provided to you in order for you to accept any compensation to ensure that the terms of the agreement are fair and reasonable to you.

Attorney representation is available through this Massachusetts Lawyer Referral Service

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