While a lawyer may help you after you get into trouble, the best time to call a lawyer is before you have a legal problem. Preventive legal advice can save you time, trouble and money. It can also prevent small problems from becoming large ones. Suppose you are about to sign an agreement to buy a house, car or major appliance. If you are not sure what the agreement says you must and must not do, you should find out before you sign. You might want to call a lawyer immediately if you are arrested or involved in an auto accident. These are just a few of the many occasions when lawyers can help you understand your rights and solve problems.
When choosing a lawyer, take the same careful steps that you would when choosing a doctor, dentist or home contractor. One of the best ways to choose a lawyer is to get a referral from a trusted family member or friend. You might also choose a lawyer from the yellow pages or an online directory and decide to call based on his or her ad. But, remember: A paid advertisement is just that — it is not an official endorsement or guarantee. The Oregon State Bar Lawyer Referral Service is also available to assist you in choosing a lawyer. The Lawyer Referral Service is sponsored and supervised by the bar to help persons in need of legal advice find the right lawyer quickly. All lawyers who participate in the Lawyer Referral Service are in good standing with the bar. The number to call is (503) 684-3763 from the Portland area, or (800) 452-7636 from elsewhere in Oregon. An online referral request form is also available at www.osbar.org/public.
Make sure you feel comfortable with the lawyer’s attitude, responsiveness, stated abilities and experience. You may also wish to check the lawyer’s membership record with the Oregon State Bar. To inquire about a lawyer’s membership record, call (503) 620-0222 from the Portland area, or (800) 452-8260 from elsewhere in Oregon.
Once you have chosen a lawyer to call, have a list of questions prepared. You may wish to visit the “Public Info” section of the Oregon State Bar’s website — www.osbar.org/public — and read a little bit about the area of law you have questions about. Remember: The more you understand about your legal issue, the less time the lawyer may have to spend answering your questions, saving you money. Take some time to think things over, and then make an appointment to talk further with the lawyer who seems best for you. Remember to ask what you should bring to your appointment and what the cost of the initial appointment will be.
At the appointment, ask the lawyer your questions, including specific questions about what he or she will charge you. Feel free to ask the lawyer for his or her resume or other background information, such as where the lawyer went to law school, how many years of practice the lawyer has had and how much experience the lawyer has had handling your type of matter.
When you decide to hire the lawyer, make sure that the scope of his or her work and the fees to complete that work are confirmed for you in writing. Get a clearly written fee agreement that you have a chance to review before signing. Having a written fee agreement will help avoid disagreements about what the lawyer agreed to do for you and what you agreed to pay for that work.
You and your lawyer should discuss the cost of legal services at your very first consultation. Your lawyer may not be able to forecast the exact amount of time and effort required, but he or she should be able to give you a general estimate based upon past experience. Most likely, you will be charged one of the following types of fees:
Fixed fee: Sometimes called a standard fee, this is used most often for routine legal matters. For example, a lawyer may charge all clients the same set amount to draw up a simple will or to handle an uncontested divorce. When you agree to a fixed fee, be sure that you know what it does and does not include.
Hourly fee: Most lawyers charge by the hour. The hourly rate can vary from lawyer to lawyer. To know how much your total bill might be, ask the lawyer to estimate the amount of hours your case will take. Remember that circumstances can change, and your case may take longer to handle than the lawyer expected at the beginning.
Typically, under fixed fee and hourly fee arrangements, the lawyer will also ask for a “retainer,” which is an advance on future legal work. The retainer is held in a special client trust account. The funds do not belong to the lawyer until the lawyer earns the fee by performing work on the case. Your lawyer should communicate with you regularly and clearly about the work performed and the fees charged.
Contingency fee: This kind of arrangement is often used in accident, personal injury and other similar cases when you are suing someone for money. It means that you will pay the lawyer a certain percentage of the money you receive if you win the case or if you settle the matter out of court. If you lose, the lawyer does not receive a fee. Either way, though, you will have to pay any court costs and other expenses related to you case. Depending on the circumstances, these charges can be quite high. Be sure to ask your lawyer to estimate the costs. All contingency fee agreements must be in writing. If you agree to a contingency fee, be sure that the written fee agreement tells what your lawyer’s percentage will be and whether that percentage will be figured before or after other costs are deducted. Specifically ask how medical bills, doctor’s liens and other such costs will be handled.
Your case might involve costs for certified court reporters, experts and consultants, investigators, witnesses and jury fees. You might also be billed for law office staff time, photocopying, faxes, filing fees, postage, courier and messenger charges, service-of-process fees, telephone calls and travel expenses. You can request that any costs over a certain amount be approved by you in advance.
If you agree to an hourly fee arrangement, you should expect to pay a retainer deposit when you ask the lawyer to represent you. Similarly, flat fees are usually paid up front. However, many lawyers will agree to payment plans for clients who are able to pay on a regular schedule. Unless you have a contingency fee agreement, you will likely be billed monthly for the work done by your lawyer. You can ask your lawyer for an itemized account of services performed and expenses paid. Under a contingency fee arrangement, the lawyer’s fees are billed at the end of the case, but the expenses must be paid during the case. Your lawyer has a duty to provide an accounting within a reasonable time if you request it.
When you hire a lawyer, a lawyer/client relationship is created. In this relationship, your lawyer’s primary task is to make sure that your legal rights are fully protected. He or she must also preserve confidences and secrets that are revealed during the course of your lawyer/client relationship. You are also entitled to copies of all correspondence and legal documents prepared on your behalf, or those that your lawyer receives from a court or the opposing party or adversary. Talk to your lawyer about how that information will be sent to you, what kinds of information will be kept in your client file, and how long your lawyer will keep your client file after his or her work on your matter is complete.
For your lawyer/client relationship to work effectively, you must be truthful in all discussions with your lawyer. You need to give your lawyer all relevant information and documents, and notify him or her of any changes in your situation.
You should know that your lawyer will not expect to make major decisions about your legal matter. Your lawyer will advise and counsel you. As the client, you are responsible for making major decisions about the objectives to be pursued in your case, including the final decision regarding any settlement of the case and whether or not to take your case to trial.
You must pay the fees and expenses. In some cases that go to court, a judge may require that some or all of the fees and costs are to be paid by the other side. However, this does not release you from the obligation to pay your lawyer. If you dispute any of the charges in a bill, discuss them with your lawyer immediately.
If you are not happy with your lawyer’s performance, the first step is to talk with your lawyer. Often that discussion will clear up misunderstandings and alert your lawyer to your concerns. It may be helpful to put your concerns in writing and ask for a written response. If you are still unhappy with the service you are receiving, you have the right to fire your lawyer and hire a new one.
Just like you, your lawyer also has the right to terminate the lawyer/client relationship. Your lawyer must give you adequate notice and an opportunity to find a new lawyer before withdrawing from the case. Your lawyer must also: promptly return all your papers and property; refund any unearned portions of the retainer deposit and any unused advances for expenses and costs; and comply with all applicable laws and rules.
Among other reasons, a lawyer may try to withdraw from a case if he or she does not get along with you, if you fail to pay the lawyer’s fees, if you have a fundamental disagreement about how to proceed with your case, or if you want the lawyer to do something that is unethical or illegal. A lawyer must withdraw from a case if he or she knows that you are harassing or maliciously injuring someone, or if the lawyer’s mental or physical state decreases his or her ability to effectively represent you.
Legal Editor: Paul Neese, January 2012