So you’ve asked around, consulted websites, and perused the yellow pages; you’ve come up with a short list of attorneys who you think might suit your legal needs—so now what? How do you assess which of these attorneys is right for you?
To reach that decision you should bear in mind that advising you on your legal rights is just the beginning of your attorney’s job. Make no mistake: an attorney’s ability to advise you on your legal rights and evaluate the merit of your case is critically important. The last place you want to find yourself is attached to a lawsuit that has no merit. A lawsuit without merit only promises to cost you time and money.
However, an attorney’s greatest value may arise from his of her experience and expertise in handling particular types of cases. The value of that experience is derived, in large part, from an attorney’s ability to manage a case by anticipating obstacles and costs, communicating those to you, and effectively negotiating them.
But how do you assess the value of that experience? Or determine whether the price of that experience is actually a value?
For starters, remember that the most valuable experience an attorney offers is experience handling your particular type of case. Just as you wouldn’t go see a podiatrist for a brain injury, you wouldn’t consult a criminal lawyer for a contract dispute. There are many different areas of the law and attorneys specialize in certain areas of the law out of necessity. Each area of the law presents its own rules, practices, customs, pitfalls, and nuances so you want an attorney well versed in the area of the law governing your particular case.
An attorney who specializes in a particular area of the law can evaluate all aspects of a case within that area of the law. For example, he can assess the likelihood of success on the merits; anticipate costs; he will know what records, reports, documents and witnesses will be needed and where to get them; and he probably has relationships with other attorneys and experts in the field who can be valuable resources.
That experience and wealth of resources allows an attorney to provide you with prompt feedback and to work through a case efficiently. When you’ve been injured physically or financially, prompt feedback will help you to move forward and begin to resolve an injury. However, the ability of your attorney to provide a speedy consultation and give you feedback can be critical because the window of time to take legal action is always limited. Prompt feedback reduces the risk that the window will close before you’ve had the opportunity to pursue an appropriate legal remedy. Once your attorney has taken your case, then handling the matter efficiently will help ensure a swift resolution and, in a world where time is money, help to minimize costs and fees.
So is the price of a highly experienced or specialized attorney worth the cost? That depends.
Obviously, some cases are simpler than others. Sometimes the issues are clear and undisputed. In such a scenario you may not require the services of the top lawyer in the field. An experienced attorney might even refer you to another firm or attorney who could handle the case for less.
However, cases can become complicated quickly. Even where facts are not in dispute, issues of responsibility or fault can be hotly contested and require input from third parties. Personal injury and medical malpractice claims often require the testimony or input of expert witnesses—medical malpractice claims always require medical experts, usually doctors. Injuries arising from car accidents might require the services of a traffic engineer to assess who was responsible. In any event, hiring expert witnesses can be expensive, sometimes costing more than several thousand dollars. An experienced attorney can recognize which cases require expert opinion and how beneficial that opinion is to your case. He can find a qualified expert, anticipate, and negotiate a reasonable price for an expert and, based on past experience, assess when a second opinion would be beneficial.
In other words, the more complicated the case, the more valuable an experienced attorney will be. That does not mean that inexperienced attorneys are a better value for simple cases. A cheap attorney that doesn’t know what he or she is doing becomes expensive very quickly no matter how simple or complex a case may be. Furthermore, variation in attorneys’ fees reflects more than just experience. A more experienced solo practitioner, for example, may charge less than a less experienced attorney at a larger firm because he has lower overhead and can afford to charge less.
Finally, attorneys’ fees are negotiable and can be structured to fit your needs. To begin, many personal injury cases are charged on a contingency fee basis, which means an attorney doesn’t charge by the hour but instead just charges a percentage of any money awarded as the result of a settlement or trial. For some matters, like drafting a business agreement or a will, an attorney might charge a flat fee. Lastly, you are always free to negotiate any hourly rate that you and your attorney can agree upon. The Arizona State Bar also offers a modest means program that matches people who qualify with attorneys who agree to offer a certain number of hours at a reduced rate.
Remember, if you need an attorney, many attorneys will provide a free initial consultation. Take advantage of that service to get a sense for how much experience an attorney has handling your type of case. Find out what your case will involve: documentation, witnesses, expert opinions, time, costs etc. Get an initial consultation quickly. You never know what your options are until you ask, and you might be running out of time to take any legal action at all.
Brad Hill is a practicing attorney in Portland, Oregon.