How to Hire an Attorney

June 8, 2015

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-images-business-woman-holding-briefcase-detal-legs-briefcase-image36299109Sooner or later, you may need an attorney.

Perhaps your publishing business is expanding to the point where you are considering incorporating and bringing in investors. Maybe your collaboration agreement needs a legal touch. Or, the worst has happened and someone is suing you for infringement, defamation, or some other wrongful act.

Many people have an unfavorable view of attorneys, which is not entirely fair. Yes, some attorneys are bullies, but they would have been bullies no matter what their profession.

Most lawyers are bookish types who try to look after their clients. If you avoid the bullies, you’ll find attorneys are valuable members of your publishing team.

There are two general types of attorneys.

Business attorneys assist you on matters such as setting up your business, obtaining EINs and resale certificates, drafting licenses and agreements, reviewing manuscripts for potential legal issues, and providing preventive counseling. They rarely step into the courtroom. Like me, their goal is to keep their clients out of court. However, if litigation arises, a business attorney assists clients with the preliminary negotiations, and, if unsuccessful, helps find the right litigator.

Litigation attorneys are experts in the process of litigation, including handling court filings, taking depositions, and making court appearances. A litigator would defend you if you are served with a complaint alleging infringement, defamation, breach of contract, or violation of law. Or a litigator would help you assert claims against someone infringing on your work, defaming you, or breaching an agreement.

I advise against hiring a litigator for general business advice. Typically, their orientation is too confrontational.

How to Find the Right Attorney

Start by asking people you know for referrals, including local writing clubs or self-publishing organizations. Many communities have “lawyers for the arts” groups, which offer discounted or free services to artists. Contact public-interest groups , such as organizations promoting fair use or First Amendment rights. You could also contact your local bar association. They often have referral services.

Don’t be surprised if you speak to one attorney, who refers you to another attorney, who refers you to yet another attorney. These attorneys are trying to help you find the right person with the right experience and the bandwidth to take you on as a client. Don’t assume they are trying to get rid of you.

What to Look for in an Attorney

Experience, especially in litigation. Nothing is more valuable than an attorney who has handled similar matters for a significant period—ten years at least. An experienced attorney will have a higher hourly rate, but will be able to assess and advise quickly. You are more likely to achieve a better result faster and cheaper.

Responsiveness. This is difficult to measure in first impressions, but try to gauge how quickly the attorney will respond to calls and emails. Ask the attorney about response time.

Chemistry. You must be candid with your attorney, particularly about your mistakes. Are you comfortable talking to this person? Is the attorney a good listener, or dismissive, patronizing, or distracted? Avoid any lawyer who doesn’t let you finish your sentences.

A black and red  button with word Bully isolated on a white background, No Bully buttonStyle. Does the attorney seem creative and oriented toward problem-solving? Or a hard-charging bully? Trust me—don’t hire a bully. Even if you are really angry or scared, a bully wastes time and money. You will be better off with someone smart, who is fair but tough. Look for an iron fist in a velvet glove.

Warning signs. As I said, avoid bullies. Also avoid gladiators with something to prove to the world. (Not on your nickel, please.) Be wary of attorneys who brag too much about their own achievements or who assure you your case is a “slam dunk.” I am suspicious of any attorney who fails to warn clients that litigation is uncertain and expensive in terms of dollars, stress, and distractions. Avoid attorneys with too broad a range of practice areas; that’s often a sign of an attorney who will do anything to pay the rent. Check your state bar for any disciplinary actions against the attorney.

Up-front payment. It’s fair for the attorney to ask for a reasonable retainer, depending on the complexity of the matter. If the payment is high, consider two possibilities. First, the lawyer wants you to understand the expected cost of the matter. You may be gung-ho to sue your former writing partner. By asking for a $20,000 up-front payment or higher, the lawyer is making sure you understand the potential cost of revenge.

Alternatively, the lawyer may not want to handle the matter and hopes you will go away. Ask.

How to Manage Legal Fees

Organize your information, documents, and thoughts. Be prepared to present the problem, and not only your ideas of the solution. I find it difficult to understand a matter when a client calls me and tells me exactly what he wants me to do without explaining the background and reasons. Often, the proposed solution is off base, and it takes a while to back up the discussion to the underlying problem. If you do not know what information is relevant, err on the side of providing too much. It is faster for the attorney to skim through all the details in order to pick out what’s relevant than to identify what’s missing and have you fill in the gaps.

Schedule an initial consultation by phone or in person. Most lawyers will discuss a matter for 15 to 30 minutes without charge or for a flat fee.

Tell the attorney what other parties are involved or potentially involved. If the attorney has a conflict of interest, cut the conversation short.

Be honest. The attorney cannot help you unless all the facts are on the table, especially the embarrassing ones.

Ask for an estimate. The attorney should tell you hourly billing rates and whether a flat fee or contingency fee is possible. Discuss your budget. The attorney should let you know whether your budget is reasonable and workable.

Understand what risks you are willing to take. Your attorney could draft a 40-page airtight freelance agreement for your cover designer. But is that really appropriate for a $500 contract? Don’t pay for a ten-foot cement wall when a picket fence will do.

Engage an attorney with relevant experience. Even if the hourly rate is higher, the cost is likely to be less in the end. And an experienced lawyer will get you through your legal project quickly, so you can get back to writing your next book.

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11 responses to “How to Hire an Attorney”

  1. My family deals a lot with business communication, and one of the first signs of non-professionalism is taking a long time to respond. I think your tip about watching out for how responsive an attorney is, is a very good one. It is understandable that at the start they might not be responding within the hour, but it can be fairly easy to gauge what is a good response time and what isn’t. Thanks for the tips.

  2. These are some great tips, and I appreciate your advice to ask people for referrals. Using others’ experiences as a resource is a great idea, because it can help you narrow your search without a lot of effort on your part. You also know you can trust the recommendations given by your friends and family and close co-workers. Thanks for the great post!

  3. michael lee says:

    Thank you for the post Helen, really concise and to the point! The family does not always need legal help but when we do we sure aren’t sure how to go about the hiring process! Also good to that you put “style” in one of the wanted features in an ideal attorney, that is something very important but not often thought of!

  4. Thank you for your insight on how to find the right attorney. You suggest that the best place to start is to ask people you know for referrals, and I think that this is a really great idea. Getting referrals from people you know and trust will ensure that you compile a list of possible attorneys that are reputable and will work well with you. Thus, going from here, you will be able to more easily make that list smaller and find the right lawyer more easily. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Michael Lee says:

    This was a pretty informative article, I always have to seek legal aid on behalf of some of the bad apples in the family, so it was nice to have a few tips to help me find the right attorney. The most important thing for me is responsiveness, so it was nice to see that emphasized in this post. I will have to bookmark this article for the next time I feel like trying out a new lawyer!

  6. Luke Smith says:

    I really like these tips on what to look for in an attorney. I think that experience is very big, I’ve heard of one of my friends who had a lawyer that was not very experienced and things did not turn out the best. So after that, I would make sure the lawyers I would hire had many cases before.

  7. I like your tip on finding a lawyer that matches your style. I would image that finding someone who has the kind of style that you want in a courtroom would be a good way to ensure that you will get along well with your attorney. My sister is having some real estate disputes with her neighbor so when she hires legal representation she should probably hire someone who has the right style to get the job done well.

  8. Vivian says:

    Without a doubt, experience in your business attorney is a MUST! An experienced team of attorneys who’ve handled cases like yours before will mean a better result for you and your investment will be worthwhile. This is not to say that new lawyers should all be ignored, but those with experience are definitely worth investing in.

  9. john Mahoney says:

    I agree that when it comes to hiring a lawyer you would need to be patient as you look for the best one who will handle your case carefully. I can see how this would help you have a better experience with your case as well as helping you avoid lawyers that only care for the money. I wold want to make sure I find someone who cares about me and wants to help me resolve my legal problem.

  10. I really like that point about being prepared to present the problem and not just he solution. In my opinion, that’s probably the best way to find a good solution. It could also depend on if you actually trust your attorney or not.

  11. Steve Daniel says:

    Nice article this will definitely help me hiring a better family lawyer.

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