Finding Legal Help

How an Attorney Can Help

Depending on your circumstances, an attorney can help you in the following three ways:

  • Consultation and Advice: An attorney can review your situation and suggest alternatives. Hopefully, the attorney will present a variety of options for you to consider and encourage you to make your own decision.
  • Negotiation: Attorneys are often skilled negotiators and may be more effective than individuals at reaching a settlement in a dispute. The simple act of sending a message on a lawyer’s letterhead can make an important statement about how serious you are about taking action.
  • Representation: You may want to hire an attorney to represent you if you are sued by someone or if you decide to sue. Keep in mind that attorneys are expensive, so be sure you are comfortable with your chosen course of action before you hire someone to represent you. Occasionally a good self-help book can substitute for costly legal assistance with routine procedures, but if the other party has hired an attorney you may want professional advice.


How to Find a Lawyer

One of the most common ways to find an attorney is to look in the yellow pages but if you want to do a more thorough search, you could try these sources:

Legal Aid: Legal aid offices (in your local phone book) offer legal assistance to low income households. To qualify for legal aid, your household income cannot exceed 135% of the federal poverty level.

Legal Clinics: Many law schools provide free legal advice to the public through workshops and clinics while others limit public access by using the same income requirements as legal aid offices. Call law schools in your area for more information.

Personal Referrals: If you know someone who has a good lawyer, consider calling that attorney first. Like doctors, attorneys usually specialize in one particular type of law so make sure the lawyer you choose is qualified to help with your situation.

Group Legal Plans: Some organizations contract with attorneys to provide services to their members for free or at reduced rates. If you think your employer might offer such a plan through an employee assistance program or if you belong to a union or consumer action group, you should ask if your benefits include legal assistance for

Prepaid Legal Insurance: Prepaid legal insurance provides limited services for a low monthly fee. If you need extensive or specialized legal advice, legal insurance may not be cost effective. Check to see if attorneys will write letters for you, how much of the attorney’s time you are eligible to use each month and the cost of additional services. Prepaid legal insurance groups may hire less qualified attorneys to keep costs to a minimum, so research the plan carefully before joining.

Consumer Organizations: Local libraries sometimes carry publications from consumer-oriented legal organizations or attorneys. Typically, consumer organizations of this type are located in larger cities.

Additional Lawyer Referral Sources: You may be able to get general information and the names of local attorneys from county bar associations. On a national level, the Attorney Referral Network (800-624-8846) can also steer you toward an attorney in a specific field or location. Neither the bar associations nor the referral network guarantee the competence of the attorneys they recommend.


What to Look for in a Lawyer

Types of Lawyers: Attorneys may choose to develop a particular area of expertise to distinguish themselves from other lawyers. Legal specialties include tax law, family law (divorce, child support & alimony), bankruptcy and consumer debt law and real estate law. You will want to find an attorney who can tailor services to your specific needs.

  • Price and Personality - Although you are seeking the advice of an expert, remember that you are the ultimate decision maker. When you decide to hire a lawyer, you will want to shop for the best price and most comfortable fit just as you would for anything else.
  • Accessibility - When you initially contact a law office for information, ask to speak directly to an attorney. If you are connected to a paralegal instead, you might do more research into the firm’s customer service practices.
  • Knowledge and Reputation - A good attorney will appreciate a well informed client. Be sure that the lawyer you choose freely shares information and answers questions. If an attorney doesn’t know the answer to a question, don’t assume she is not knowledgeable. Attorneys commonly need to research facts.


How Much Lawyers Charge

Initial Consultation: An initial consultation to gather information should not exceed $100 per hour. Attorneys generally charge in one of three ways:

  • Flat fee - Occasionally, for straightforward cases, an attorney may represent you for a flat fee, for example $500, but most charge by the hour.
  • Hourly fee - Most attorneys charge an hourly fee and representation generally costs much more than negotiation. You can protect yourself from unexpectedly large fees by deciding ahead of time what you want the attorney to do.
  • Contingency fee - If you have a claim against a creditor and expect to win damages, an attorney might take your case on a contingency fee basis. That means the lawyer gets paid only if you win your case. If you lose, you don’t owe the lawyer anything. Obviously, lawyers tend to take only those cases they think they have a good chance of winning.

Get fee arrangements in writing. Regardless of why you hire a lawyer, be sure the lawyer puts the fee arrangement in writing and that you sign it. If the lawyer doesn’t mention a written fee arrangement, ask about one.


Alternatives to Lawyers

Self-Help Books: You may be able to handle common legal problems yourself with the help of a legal self-help book. Often do-ityourself legal reference books will contain the forms you need to file with the courts. Even if you decide not to file a case in court yourself, reading a self-help book prior to seeing an attorney could save you money by reducing the number of basic questions you will need to ask.

Law Libraries: Often you can handle a legal problem yourself if you’re willing to do some research in a law library. An average law library will have published explanations of most aspects of the law, the text of major federal laws, published court opinions interpreting federal and state laws, and forms and written guidance for filing a lawsuit. Public law libraries are often located in county courthouses, public law schools and state capitals. Public libraries often have federal codes, state codes and some major legal treatises. Statutes passed by Congress are published as the United States Code which is organized into 50 numbered titles. To find a federal statute, find the US Code and locate the title and section number. Like federal codes, most state codes are divided into numbered titles (some states divide by subject). If you can’t locate a statute, use the index accompanying the code or ask a librarian for help.

Typing Services: A typing service can act as a “legal secretary” if you need documents prepared for you and filed in court. Typing services charge far less than attorneys for their services, however, they cannot give legal advice. Look for the following characteristics when choosing a service:

  • The length of time a typing service has been in business and its reputation are very important. A recommendation from a social service agency, friend, court clerk or lawyer is a good place to take your business.

  • The fee should be based on the amount of work required, the nature of the task and reasonable overhead.

  • Good typing services provide reliable references for self-help materials, either for free or at reasonable prices.

  • Check on the qualifications of the staff. Look for a typing service that employs paralegals or employees who have completed relevant continuing education training.

  • Get contracts in writing: Most good typing services will provide you with a written contract that describes the services they intend to provide, states the total price and explains their complaint procedure and refund policy.