Choosing a Lawyer – Before the First Meeting

Choosing a Lawyer - Before the First MeetingWhile it is true that you will probably be venturing onto someone else’s turf, this is still your case and you – not the lawyers; not the judge; not the jury – will enjoy the rewards or suffer the losses. Allowing yourself to be intimidated in choosing a lawyer means relying on luck or on someone else’s good graces and simply hoping for the best outcome. “O, that way madness lies; let me shun that; No more of that,” said King Lear (about something completely unrelated but still applicable to intimidation). Resolve, from the birth of your case, that you are taking personal responsibility for your case.

The first step in taking responsibility for your case is usually choosing your lawyer. Your lawyer can make or break your case, so learn as much as you can about available lawyers and take methodical steps to choose the best one for this case and for you. This particular case might be better served by a lawyer other than your usual lawyer. As you move through the process of choosing a lawyer, consider whether you will need a specialist for this specific case. This aspect employs common sense: if the issue is simple and/or the stakes are low, you probably don’t need a specialist; however, if the issue(s) is/are complex and/or the stakes are high, you probably need a specialist. Many lawyers specialize in several areas of law and charge more for that expertise because they are high on the “learning curve” in those areas. An experienced lawyer – even one who charges you more because of his/her level of expertise – can save you a whole lot of time and money. Another aspect to keep in mind while seeking a specialist is that your search might lead you to a younger rather than older lawyer; a younger lawyer might have more experience in a specialized area, so don’t automatically favor an older lawyer over a younger one.

The first step in choosing a lawyer is seeking possible candidates through referrals and taking notes about the lawyers who interest you. Over and above these referrals, you could go to court and watch lawyers in action: if you have a civil case, go to civil court; if you have a criminal case, go to criminal court. See how they handle themselves; see how knowledgeable and capable they seem. Again, take notes about the lawyers who interest you.

After narrowing the most favorable referrals to a list of 3 or 4 lawyers you’d consider hiring, call all of them. You will speak with all these lawyers so you can analyze them and make a knowledgeable decision about which of them will represent you. When you speak to each receptionist, ask to speak to the lawyer directly. That probably won’t happen in a busy law office but you just might get lucky and he/she will be available to speak with you: he/she might be able to save you a trip by quickly assessing your case, telling you whether he/she can handle it and perhaps referring you to other lawyers. In most cases, you will need to make an appointment to meet with the lawyer. If so, ask: whether you can meet with him/her to briefly discuss your case; whether there is a fee for meeting with him/her and if so, the amount of the fee; if there is a fee, whether it can be waived. Note how easily you can schedule your first meeting with the lawyer: if you have a tough time making this first appointment for new business, you could have an even tougher time scheduling future appointments after he/she has your case.

Preparation for the first meeting takes considerable thought and effort. You will want to give him/her as much case information as possible, for two reasons: the more familiar the lawyer is with your case, the more the lawyer can help you; and whether or not you eventually hire the lawyer, he/she is bound by attorney-client confidentiality, so you can be confident about fully and honestly sharing the facts of your case in these initial meetings. In order to prepare for the first meeting, buy an expandable file folder and a spiral notebook. Gather all papers involved in your case and keep them in the file folder, along with the spiral notebook. In the spiral notebook, write: the important points, good and bad, about your case; the names, addresses and phone numbers of everybody involved in the case; and questions to ask the lawyer. Bearing in mind the fact that your first meeting will probably last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour and you might not get the opportunity to ask every question, prepare a list of questions to ask the lawyer, such as:
a. Where are you licensed to practice law?
b. What is your experience in this field?
c. Have you handled cases like mine before?
d. When is the last time you handled a case like mine?
e. What percentage of your practice involves cases like mine?
f. Do you represent anyone who would pose a conflict of interest with my case?
g. Is it possible to have you handle only portions of my case and if so, how is that arranged?
h. What steps will be involved in my case?
i. What are the possible outcomes?
j. How long do you expect this case to take?
k. Can you give me a timetable – even a rough one – of the process?
l. How will you keep me informed as the case progresses?
m. May I receive copies of all documents that you will send and receive?
n. Will anyone else be working on my case — associate lawyer, legal assistant, paralegal? (If another lawyer will be the one mostly handling your case, ask if you can meet him or her.)
o. If someone else will be working on the case, how will his/her time be billed?
p. How do you charge for your time and that of your staff?
q. Do you charge by the hour, a fixed fee, or on contingency?
r. Do you require a retainer?
s. What other expenses will there be, and how are they calculated?
t. What can be done to reduce fees and costs? (Costs include telephone calls, photocopying, secretarial help, court fees, travel expenses, and so on.)
u. Can you put your estimates in writing?
v. May I have a copy of a sample retainer agreement?
w. How often will I be billed?
x. Can I do some of the work?
y. What other information do you need?
z. What are my alternatives?
aa. Is arbitration or mediation appropriate?
bb. Are there things I should do to improve my situation?
cc. What can I expect to happen over the next few weeks, the next few months, and until the conclusion of the matter?
dd. Are there any deadlines I should know about?
ee. Do you have any questions for me?

After completing these steps, you are ready to meet with the lawyers to determine who will represent you.


DON’T be intimidated by the process or the people.

DON’T rely merely on reputation.

DON’T automatically favor older lawyers over younger lawyers.

DO consider a specialist.

DO check the State Bar web site for any disciplinary actions against the referred lawyers.

DO go to court and watch the lawyers.

DO reduce your list to 3 or 4 lawyers you might hire.

DO call each of those several lawyers and ask to speak directly to the lawyer so he/she can quickly assess your case over the phone.

DO ask to meet with a lawyer who cannot discuss your case over the phone and ask:
a. Whether there is a fee for meeting with him/her and if so, the amount of the fee;
b. Whether the fee can be waived.

DO note how easily you can schedule that first appointment with the lawyer.

DO buy a file folder and spiral notebook.

DO write down important points about your case, good and bad, to tell the lawyer.

DO write down names, addresses and phone numbers of everybody involved in the case.

DO assemble all papers involved in your case.

DO write questions to ask the lawyer.

By Kathy Catanzarite

Note from This article is to be used as an educational guide only and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers of this article are advised to seek an attorney if a legal consultation is needed. Laws may vary by state and are subject to change, thus the accuracy of this information cannot be guaranteed. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk. Neither, or any of its affiliates, shall have any liability stemming from this article.