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Choosing a Lawyer


by Jay M. Feinman

There are more than a million practicing lawyers in the United States. But it can be hard to find the right lawyer when you need one-a lawyer who is competent, experienced, affordable, and compatible. You have to get names of lawyers or law firms and then discuss your legal needs with them. And to make that discussion productive, you have to prepare.


Getting names
The first step is to find out which lawyers in your area have experience with the particular kind of legal work you need. If you are a member of a prepaid or discount legal services plan, a good starting point is that plan's list of participating lawyers. But explore other options as well.

Most people find their lawyers through word of mouth, so ask around. Talk to friends and coworkers about lawyers they know or have used themselves and been satisfied with. Your union, employer, or clergy may have suggestions. For business or financial matters, your broker, accountant, real estate agent, insurance agent, or any business person you deal with regularly is likely to know an appropriate candidate. You may know someone who has been in a situation similar to yours; if you are looking for a divorce lawyer, for instance, ask your divorced friends. Even learning the name of a lawyer they disliked (often an adversary) can help-either by giving you a name to avoid or because the qualities they disliked are just what you are looking for. Finally, nobody knows more lawyers-or knows them better-than lawyers themselves. The lawyer who helped you when you bought your house might well be able to recommend another for consultation on, say, a medical malpractice issue.

Advertisements on television or in the Yellow Pages can be useful, especially in calling attention to firms that specialize in some very specific area. But since you know nothing about those firms except what they claim about themselves, investigate them very thoroughly.

Legal referral services-especially those found on the Internet-are often just another form of paid advertising. Bar association referral services provide a degree of comfort because they do some screening of their lawyers. The American Bar Association (ABA) maintains a complete list of bar association referral services at Just remember that those services cannot express an opinion on the lawyers who participate; if you get a referral from them, you still have to do your own evaluation.

Some limited legal services for the poor are available in many areas. See the ABA's list of volunteer lawyer programs at and the list of legal aid programs funded by the Legal Services Corporation at

If you are suspected of a crime, you absolutely need a lawyer. Do not talk to the police without one. If you are arrested, you have a right to have a lawyer appointed to represent you for free if you cannot afford to pay. Insist on it.


Once you have one or more names, do a little research. Check with a state agency to make sure the person is a member of the bar in good standing and learn about any disciplinary rulings against the lawyer. Do what lawyers themselves often do: look up the lawyer or law firm in the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, available in many libraries and online at At a minimum, this publication gives address and phone information; many lawyers submit additional information about themselves and pay to have it included. (Martindale offers "ratings" of lawyers, but most potential clients find these ratings of modest value, at best.) Many lawyers and law firms these days also have their own Web sites, where you can see in detail what they believe makes them stand out.

Before interviewing a lawyer, collect your thoughts and your documents. Be prepared to summarize your situation clearly and concisely; make a written outline of key points and even practice saying them. If the matter concerns other people, list their names and addresses so that the lawyer can make sure no existing clients are involved. If it concerns estate planning, make a list of your major assets, accounts, and life insurance policies. If it concerns a contract, court paper, or other document, take it with you.


If it seems worthwhile after a quick inquiry by telephone, most lawyers will be happy to spend twenty minutes or half an hour with you (by phone if necessary), without charge or for a nominal fee, to explore the possibility of working for you. There is much to cover in that short time:

  • You will explain why you are looking for a lawyer. Be organized, be open (the information you give is confidential), and above all, be brief. The lawyer can ask follow-up questions if necessary.
  • The lawyer will explain whether he or she can be of assistance, and how. Sometimes all the help you need can be given right on the spot.
  • This is your opportunity to interview the lawyer about everything you need to know to make the hiring decision-experience with this kind of matter, which lawyers in the firm would do the actual work (e.g., younger and cheaper, or more experienced and more expensive?), how fees will be calculated, what expenses might be charged on top of the fees, and anticipated total cost. Some matters, like a simple will, can be done for a flat fee; some cases can be handled on a contingency basis (you pay expenses but no lawyers' fees unless you win money). Some matters are too complex and open-ended for a definitive estimate.

Feel free to talk to several lawyers before making your choice. Do not sign any agreement until you understand it clearly. And do not neglect the intangibles: in the end, choose a lawyer who seems intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, well organized, and comfortable for you to work with.

Excerpted from 1001 Legal Words You Need to Know by Jay M. Feinman. Copyright © 2003 Oxford University Press, Inc. Excerpted by arrangement with Oxford University Press, Inc. $17.95. Available in local bookstores or click here.


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