In Part One, I discussed different ways to locate the type of attorney that you need. In this post, I will give some suggestions during the consultation stage to make sure that you have the right attorney for you. I would like to preface this post by mentioning that not all attorneys give free consultations. Be sure to ask the attorney(s) that you plan to have a consultation with what his/her fee is. Some attorneys charge an initial consultation fee but then apply it towards the retainer.
During the consultation, it is really important for both parties to ask a lot of questions. For example, the attorney will be probing for more facts and information about your matter to help decide whether he/she is able to help you. It is important to be as open and honest about the facts during the consultation as you can – even if the facts are negative.
During the consultation interview, I suggest asking the attorney questions regarding the following issues:
1. Bar Licenses — Make sure to understand where an attorney is and is not licensed. If you have a state law issue, the attorney you retain should ideally be licensed in that state.
2. Experience — Try to get an idea of the professional experience that the attorney has had in that specific area of law. To illustrate, this fall I had a client ask me a lot of important questions about my experience with the New York Department of Agriculture & Markets. It is completely fair to ask the attorney about his/her previous experience in certain practice areas. The attorney has an ethical obligation to not misrepresent his/her experience to you.
3. Co-Counsel and Staff — Does this attorney have associates that will work primarily on your case? Does this attorney routinely work with another lawyer or law firm on this particular type of matter?
4. Technology— Is it important to you that your attorney know how to use e-mail, smartphones, video conferences, and or text messages? Does your case require that the attorney understand different social media platforms?
5. Fees — It is completely reasonable to ask the attorney his/her hourly rate or flat fee. There is significant variation in hourly rates and flat fees among law firms, especially here in New York City. A higher hourly rate does not necessarily mean that attorney is more expensive– he/she might be significantly more efficient than the cheaper attorney. If there is a flat fee, make sure to understand exactly what is and what is not included in that fee and how much it will cost if you need additional services. If you have a personal injury matter or another case that is contingency, try to understand the specific terms of representation and what expenses the law firm is willing to front. In addition, try to understand the terms of the retainer. For example, does the attorney require one up-front payment towards the fees or is it an evergreen retainer that requires replenishment each month or billing cycle? What is the attorney’s rate for travel? How does the law firm bill associates and or contract attorneys, paralegals, and or legal secretaries?
6. Availability — Is it important to you that you are able to reach the attorney at any hour of the day or night? Do you prefer meeting with attorneys on nights or weekends while you are off of work? Do you want an attorney who is able to come visit you at your home or farm? Is it important that you are able to talk to a staff person while the attorney is in court or otherwise unavailable? Geographical location also plays a factor here. I have had a client text message me at 10pm on Friday night to set-up a meeting at noon the following day to discuss a development in his/her case. I was able to meet this client the following day because this person lived in New York City. I may not have been able to meet a client on such short notice in upstate New York or downstate New Jersey. If it is important to be able to meet with your attorney in person at a moment’s notice, geographical location naturally plays a factor in availability.
7. Security — You will be disclosing to your attorney a lot of important information. What does this attorney do to help safeguard your documents?
8. Language — Does your matter require special language proficiencies?
The next important issue during the consultation is chemistry. There is a certain compatibility factor that naturally comes into play. You do not necessarily have to “like” your attorney for that person to be the best for the job; however, it understandably is a factor that should be weighed (especially if you want a long term relationship with this attorney).
Finally, trust is an essential factor when trying to decide who is the best attorney for you. Not only may you be required to submit to your attorney private financial information but attorneys oftentimes work by the billable hour. My civil procedure professor once stated “he that cannot be trusted with a little cannot be trusted with a lot.” That quote has really stuck with me all these years and I believe that it is extremely true. I would like to say that all attorneys are trustworthy but there are always a few bad apples in every profession. It is difficult to know who you can and you cannot trust. That is why I suggest using an attorney recommended by friends or family that have had a good experience. I think that people have a sixth sense sometimes about the genuineness of others. It is fair to ask questions that might give you a better sense of what kind of character the attorney has.