How to Interview a Prospective Attorney

When you hire an attorney, you should hire the right attorney.  Depending on the reason you need legal services, your attorney may be someone you talk with and interact with on almost a daily basis.  Not only do you want great legal services, you need someone you work well with.  Do not be afraid to ask a prospective attorney questions.  They should be willing to give you straight answers.  If they can’t or they won’t, move on. Here are a short list of questions and issues to address with any prospective attorney:

Use Your Instincts. You should leave a meeting or a phone call with your potential attorney with a sense of trust and the feeling that your questions have been answered.  If you don’t, ask why not?  You will pay your attorney a lot of your hard earned money and likely spend a lot of time with your attorney.  If you follow only one of my suggestions, hire some one you trust.

Ask how much ofthe attorney’s practice is focused on the area of law you are seeking services in. In each area of practice there are “tricks of the trade” and nuances that can only be learned with experience. You don’t necessarily need to hire an attorney who only specializes in one practice area, but make sure they have experience in the area of law you are seeking help in.  For example, I practice in the areas of family law, real estate, small business formation and have experience with a wide range of civil litgation matters.  Someone like me should not be doing your estate planning.  I am honest about what I can’t do.  If your attorney doesn’t seem confident with the scope of work or honest about what they do and don’t do, be suspicious.

Ask for an explaination of the legal issues related to your case. Any attorney worth his or her chops should be be able to identify and explain the legal issues and general concepts of your case. Even more important– they should be able to communicate to you in plain English.  In my opinion, it is almost more important for your attorney to be able to communicate clearly with you than it is for him or her to be able to communicate with the court or with other attorneys.

Find out how you will be charged. Attorneys bill differently and different types of cases are billed differently.  You need to know if your attorney is billing per hour and in what increments of time will you be billed. For some types of cases, attorneys are paid for a percentage of the result.  Other attorneys bill a flat rate for each type of service. You also should expect and want to have your agreement with your attorney for payment and services in writing and signed by both you and your attorney. Getting it writing, was lesson one in law school.  It begs of bad business practice when an attorney fails to get the contract with thier own client in writing.

Get a cost estimate. Except in the instance of flat fee services, rarely will or should an attorney quote you a specific cost.  But, an attorney should be able to give you a rough estimate and an overview services covered by the estimate.  For example, I almost always provide clients a rough estimate of what the services will cost if we stay within the parameters of the facts they have presented and the case moves forward as I anticipate.  I clearly state that this could easily change depending on how each step of the case proceeds.  I also commit to clients that I will provide them a “heads up” if or when my costs start to deviate significantly from my estimate.  When that happens, we can reevaluate our plan and clients are never surprised by a bill.

Find out about opposing counsel, if any. The world of lawyers is surprisingly small.  If you already know who opposing counsel will be, your attorney should be able to provide you some insight into that attorney. If your prospective attorney does not know opposing counsel, this isn’t necessarily a problem, but they should be willing to do some research by speaking with colleauges to determine what the opposing counsel’s practice style is.  This is helpful to everyone and can provide some insight into how your case may develop.

Ask if any work will be done by assistants. Most attorneys work with a paralegal or legal assistant that is responsible  the day-to-day aspects of a file.  My legal assistant is my right hand “woman” and often knows as much about the daily workings of your case as I do. The nice things about having a paralegal or legal assistant work on your case is they typically charge significantly less per hour than an attorney. You should be told what their billing rate will be. You should also be introduced to or be at least given the name of the paralegal or assistant.  In many cases, this person will be your first line of communication with your attorney.  Paralegals and legal assistants are great resources for you as a client as they are often doing the “dirty work” in preparing pleadings and drafts of other materials for your case.

Learn about the game plan or strategy for handling your case. Your attorney should be able to give you a game plan as to how he or she believes your case will proceed strategically. Remember, the strategy of your case may be a moving target that changes during the course of your case, but you should be kept in the loop and be aprised of the strategy– up front and as the case proceeds.

Find out if the attorney has ever been subject to discipline by the Board of Professional Responsibility. Do not be afraid to ask a potential attorney this question. You might not want to rule out an attorney just because he or she has been disciplined, but it’s a red flag . You can contact the Minnesota Board of Professional Responsibility for more information about the attorney’s infraction.  Also, the attorney should be willing to talk about discipline issues and plainly explain the reason for discipline.

Ask how the attorney will communicate information about your case to you. Your attorney should be upfront in communicating information with you and providing a plan for information sharing.  In the land of email and quick communication, I always ask my clients if we can exchange information via email.  This cuts down on killing forests and filling the USPS’s coffers with copies sent via snail mail.  I also commit to returning phone calls and emails within 24 hours.

Good Luck!  Another tip.  Shop around.  Second opinions are not a bad thing and attorneys should not be offended that you are shopping around.  To an attorney, providing legal services is just our job, albeit an important one. To you, the need for legal services is probably directly related to your livelihood or a major life change.  You should always be given the opportunity to scrutinize the services you are about to spend your very hard earned money towards.