How to Hire a Lawyer on Contingency Fee
Attorneys who are paid on contingency don't receive any fees unless you either win your case at trial or accept a settlement offer. This fee arrangement can be beneficial for you, as a plaintiff, in that you won't have to worry about paying attorney's fees and court costs up front. For this reason, attorneys who litigate personal injury, workers' compensation, and products liability cases frequently are paid on contingency. In many ways, hiring a lawyer on contingency fee involves the same process as hiring a lawyer who will be paid by flat fee or under a retainer agreement. However, contingency fees come with additional issues that you must consider, particularly when comparing candidates to make your final choice.
Conducting Your Initial Search
Talk to your family and friends.Especially if you have little experience hiring an attorney, family and friends you know and trust can be your best sources for possible recommendations – especially if you know someone who has recently been involved in a dispute similar to yours.
- Because they know you, family and friends typically will know if you would get along with someone else – and it's very important for you to have an attorney with whom you get along.
- However, keep in mind that just because an attorney was great for someone else doesn't mean he or she will be the best attorney for you.
- For example, your Aunt Betty may have been thrilled with the attorney who did her divorce, but if you are looking for a workers' compensation attorney, someone who specializes in family law likely won't be your best option.
- If you know attorneys, either personally or because you used an attorney for another matter, they also may be a good source of recommendations. Attorneys went to law school with people who ended up practicing in many different areas, so they probably know other attorneys they can recommend – as well as people you should stay away from.
Search online directories.The American Bar Association (ABA) has a searchable member directory on its website, as well as the bar associations of many states. A number of independent companies also offer similar services to help you find an attorney.
- Online directories typically allow you to limit your search to attorneys located in a particular geographic area, and who practice certain types of law.
- When you find attorneys that interest you, directory listings typically include a basic profile of the attorney along with other information and sometimes even reviews from clients or other attorneys.
- The ABA also has an attorney referral service, which will give you the listings of attorneys that meet your needs after you answer a few questions about your case. Many state bar associations offer similar services.
Visit attorneys' websites.When you see the names of attorneys or firms that seem like good fits, checking their websites can give you more information about their areas of practice as well as their general attitudes and approach to legal representation.
- Evaluating an attorney's website is as much about checking out the attorney as a person as it is learning about his or her experience and expertise. Websites often have bio pages that contain information about the attorneys' lives, including clubs or religious organizations in which they are active, and various hobbies or interests.
- If you can find an attorney with whom you have something in common, this may mean the two of you can more easily develop a rapport and build a productive working relationship. Keep in mind that this is someone who will most likely be a significant part of your life for at least the next few months.
- You also should move around the website and get a feel for what information is available there and how easy it is to navigate. How an attorney's website is set up can tell you a lot about what he or she would be like to work with.
- For example, if the website is clean, straightforward, and easy to navigate, the attorney likely has a clean and straightforward approach to working with clients.
- On the other hand, an attorney with a clunky, confusing website where everything is difficult to find and read will likely confuse and frustrate you in person as well.
Choose at least three attorneys to interview.The purpose of your initial search is not to settle on a single attorney you want to represent you, but to choose a few that you like and would be interested in getting to know.
- After finding attorneys near you and reviewing their websites, check with your state bar association and make sure their licenses are in good standing.
- You also may want to check for any significant complaints from clients. Keep in mind that even people who aren't necessarily interested in filing a formal complaint with the state bar may nevertheless be more than willing to express their opinion online.
- Based on your initial evaluations, you should be able to come up with the names of at lest three attorneys you're interested in talking to further. Jot down their phone numbers and any information they list about requesting an initial consultation.
Schedule your initial consultations.Typically attorneys who work on a contingency-fee basis will offer a free initial consultation. However, you should keep in mind that this consultation may be more of a sales pitch than an evaluation of your actual case.
- Find out from the assistant about how long an initial consultation will take, and what you can expect. If the assistant gives you a choice of times, find out which would be the best for the attorney before you make your selection.
- Keep in mind that attorneys are very busy people. When you schedule your consultation, plan on being in the office for at least an hour, and make sure you have enough time to arrive a few minutes early.
- You also can help the attorney by being prepared. If the assistant you speak with requests that you send any documents, or fill out any forms before your consultation, do so as soon as possible so the attorney has time to review the information before he or she talks to you.
- An attorney who is considering taking a case on contingency needs to make an evaluation of how complicated your case is, how much it's worth, and how long litigation likely will take. Any information the attorney asks from you up front is necessary to make that evaluation.
Gather documents and information about your case.Even if you filled out an intake form prior to your initial consultation, you should take key documents with you and prepare a short summary or outline of your dispute.
- Keep in mind that the more you can tell the attorney about your case, the more they'll be able to tell you about what they can do to help. When you write up your summary, include as many factual details as you can, as well as anything else you know about the context of the dispute.
- Your assessment of the other side also can be helpful to an attorney – although you should be careful not to speculate too much.
- Nevertheless, if you want to sue your neighbor, who backed into your car, and you know that she's a highly litigious person who isn't keen on settling, this is information any potential attorney would want to know in advance.
Ask each attorney lots of questions.You will get as much out of your initial consultation as you put into it, so come armed with questions important to you about the attorneys' practice and experience.
- In particular, ask the attorneys you interview if they have a sample fee agreement you can look at. Even though the final agreement may differ, samples allow you to compare fees between the attorneys you interview.
- The percentage of your ultimate award or settlement each attorney will take in fees may differ substantially, and often is based on several factors such as the complexity of the case and the length of time the case is in litigation.
- However, you should base your evaluation of the attorneys you interview on more than just what they're going to charge you. For example, you want to find out how much of the work will be done by the attorney with whom you're speaking, as opposed to being farmed out to paralegals or newer associates who may have less experience.
- You also want to find out how much experience each attorney has with cases similar to yours. Ask them how many cases like yours they've handled, and what percentage of those settled out of court. Ask them what percentage of their normal caseload is devoted to cases like yours, and how they evaluate those cases.
Observe attorneys' behavior and demeanor.How an attorney acts while you're in the office, including how they treat associates and support staff, can give you a good indication of how they will treat you as a client.
- For example, if you're interviewing an attorney and he frequently looks at his watch, answers the phone, or is typing on his computer, he may not devote as much attention to your case as you think it deserves.
- On the other hand, an attorney who closes her office door and has an assistant hold her calls during the interview is someone who is willing to give you her undivided attention.
- You also should pay close attention to how attorneys treat their staff. You can't count on an attorney who is rude and disrespectful to the people working for her not to be disrespectful towards you.
Evaluate the office environment.Attorneys who take cases on contingency must be able to afford the costs of litigation, and the office itself can give you a good indication of whether the attorney or the firm as a whole is capable of absorbing those expenses.
- While attorney's offices can often be impressive, glass and cherry monuments to intimidation, look beyond the trappings. Consider the age of the computers and equipment in the office as well as the prevalence of basic supplies.
- This doesn't mean that you should write off an attorney with more humble, spartan surroundings, but typically you can tell by the way an office is furnished and maintained if there is a cash flow problem.
- Particularly if you're looking for an attorney who will work on contingency, the financial health of the office is important because an attorney who is strapped for cash may put pressure on you to settle your case before you're ready, or to take an offer that you're not comfortable accepting.
Making Your Selection
Compare and contrast the attorneys you interviewed.Once you've completed your interviews, make a list of various factors that are important to you in an attorney and evaluate each attorney based on those factors.
- The easiest thing to do is write down each factor down the side of a sheet of paper, then make a column for each attorney you interviewed. Under each attorney's name, put a plus or minus next to the factor. Total the plusses and minuses to get a raw score for each attorney.
- For example, suppose you've listed experience, attorney involvement, demeanor, and location as factors you're considering. The first attorney you interviewed has plusses for the first two items and minuses for the last two, for a total score of two. The second has a raw score of one, and the third has a raw score of four.
- Keep in mind these factors may not carry equal weight. If transportation is an issue for you, the location of an attorney's office may be more important than his or her experience in making your final decision.
Consider your own feelings and comfort level.Even if an attorney seems perfect on paper, it's just as important to go with your gut and choose an attorney with whom you feel comfortable. Keep in mind this is someone who will be a significant part of your life for many months.
- If the attorney who is perfect on paper intimidated you or made you feel ill at ease when you were in his or her presence, you probably want to go with someone else.
- Your gut feeling often can outweigh any other marks against the attorney. If you felt an instant rapport with someone, he or she likely will do better work for you than someone who feels distant or makes you uncomfortable.
- Depending on the details of your case, your attorney may be someone with whom you have to discuss deeply personal things. For this reason, it's important that above all else your attorney is someone you feel comfortable around.
Contact attorneys with any follow-up questions.If you have any questions or issues that came up as a result of your evaluation after you've completed all your interviews, don't hesitate to call or send an email to get an answer.
- For example, you may have asked all but one of the attorneys a certain question, and you need to know the answer to that question before you can make your final decision.
- Likewise, something may have come up in one interview that you hadn't thought about in a previous interview. If it's important, the attorney will appreciate the opportunity to speak about it.
- Once you've decided which attorney you want to hire, contact the others and let them know that you appreciate their time but have decided to hire someone else.
Read the fee agreement carefully.When you meet with your new attorney, make sure you understand all the terms of the fee agreement, including the percentage of any settlement or award the attorney will receive and how litigation costs will be treated.
- Make sure the fee agreement is in writing, and have the attorney sit down with you in person and explain everything before you sign it.
- You also may want to ask the attorney questions to make sure you understand the contingency arrangement and don't feel something was unfair later on. For example, clients often get frustrated if a case settles relatively early and the attorney takes a large percentage of the settlement.
- You can negate that frustration by negotiating a lower percentage with your attorney if the case settles before a certain period of time, or before certain stages of litigation. For example, the attorney may be willing to take a lower percentage if the case settles before the discovery phase begins.
- Even though your attorney may present the fee agreement to you as a completed contract, don't be afraid to negotiate a different rate or work out something beyond the scope of that agreement. Ask questions, and express your skepticism or disagreement where appropriate.
Video: Can I Hire A Contingency Fee Lawyer in Probate and Trust Litigation?
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