Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Lawyer – Answered by Troy Marsh
Hiring a lawyer can be challenging. You want to get the best lawyer, but how do you even find the “best” lawyer? Based on 23 years of experience practicing law, and based on my personal experience of having to find a lawyer to handle estate matters and real estate loan closings, I believe that you should start by asking trusted family members and friends about their personal experience with lawyers in cases like yours. Just because attorney Jackson Pomegranate did a fine job preparing your aunt Freda’s will does not mean that he knows the first thing about a wrongful death or injury case.
If you get a meaningful response, schedule an appointment to meet the lawyer in the lawyer’s office. Show up on time with a list of questions to ask the lawyer. Think of it like a job interview because, well, that’s what it is. You’re the employer. This lawyer wants to work for you. Ask questions, like the ones below, and listen carefully to the answers.
If you get no meaningful response, you should take time to carefully consider what traits and characteristics you want in a lawyer. If you want a lawyer who appears in TV commercials, tune in to one of the local networks on a weekday afternoon, and prepare to be bombarded with one commercial after another. Pick your favorite, and hope for the best.
On the other hand, if substance is more important to you than appearance, I would suggest that you turn off the TV, and look elsewhere for a lawyer. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that every lawyer that advertises on TV lacks substance. All I’m saying is that any lawyer, or any person for that matter, can pay someone to produce a TV commercial with whatever content the lawyer wants in it. As long as the ad is not fraudulent, deceptive, or misleading, the message is protected by the First Amendment’s free speech clause. Even tasteless advertisements are protected free speech under the First Amendment. Once commercial is produced, the lawyer can buy as much TV commercial air time as the station will sell him. Other than the First Amendment and a few weak Bar rules, there are no other standards governing what or how a lawyer can advertise.
Other than TV commercials, attorney’s websites are probably the best place to begin your search. In recent years, the internet has virtually replaced the Yellow Pages as the most popular advertising medium for lawyers. To the extent possible, look for content on websites that was actually written by the lawyer himself and not a marketing firm. Most lawyers with cutting edge websites and relevant content have some previous case results to brag about, badges for doing this or that, and groups or associations they belong to. All of that is good and fine, but numbers and badges and memberships don’t necessarily mean that the lawyer is the best for your particular case. EVERY CASE IS DIFFERENT. Past results do not predict future outcomes. Don’t let big numbers give you false hopes. Unrealistic expectations give rise to disappointment, frustration, and resentment.
When you find one or two or more lawyers that interest you, meet them in person before you make a decision. Verbal communication is important, but body language can tell us more about a person. You can’t see body language on the phone.
Many websites list questions that you should ask a lawyer before you hire him. Even with the questions in hand, it can be intimidating to ask a lawyer about things like experience with similar cases, prior run-ins with the Bar, and conflicts of interest. To make it easier for you, I Googled “questions I should ask before hiring a lawyer,” and answered 23 questions that appeared on those websites. I’m not saying that these are the only questions you should ask before hiring a lawyer, but someone thought they were important enough to list on their websites. I hope this helps make your selection process easier.
1. Have you handled wrongful death, serious injury, and criminal defense cases? If so, how many?
Yes. While I do not keep track of the numbers, I have handled hundreds of wrongful death and serious injury cases and about 1,500 criminal defense cases, ranging from misdemeanors all the way to co-counsel in a death penalty case.
2. What areas of law do you specialize in?
I specialize in personal injury and wrongful death caused by another person’s negligence or carelessness.
3. Do you practice in the courthouse where my case is (or will be)?
It depends on where your case is pending. I am licensed to practice in all courthouses in Georgia.
4. Have you ever been sanctioned for or formally accused of violating the rules of professional responsibility?
5. Do you have any conflicts of interest?
Before we enter into an attorney-client relationship, I will exercise due diligence to determine whether I have any conflicts of interest. If I have a conflict of interest, I will abide by the State Bar of Georgia Rules of Professional Responsibility.
6. What are the likely outcomes in my case?
It may help to think of a legal matter, or case, like a sporting event, such as a football game. At the beginning of the game, the score is 0-0, and no one can predict with any degree of certainty what the final score will be. During the game, the participants will use their best skill to score points in an effort to win. However, for many different reasons, sometimes even a team that uses its best skill will be defeated. Maybe the other team just had better skill. Or, maybe all players on the other team were healthy, while some of your team members were playing injured. Or, maybe, at the last minute, the league changed the rules.
In a legal matter, attorneys file and argue motions and other pleadings (documents filed in court) instead of running plays on a field. One motion or one argument or one witness could determine the outcome of the entire case. As with a football game, there are countless reasons why one party may lose a case. Maybe the legislature changes the law right before trial. Maybe a surprise witness comes forward at the last minute. Maybe an officer resigns and cannot be located in time to testify in court. For many reasons outside anyone’s control, any given case can turn from a virtual “slam-dunk” win to an outright loser in the blink of an eye. Great lawyers know about this risk, they have planned for such changes, and they are prepared to move forward.
The point is that, I can give you my opinion on the likely outcomes in your case, but my opinion will be subject to change at any moment for any reason.
7. What will the fees and expenses be?
In a wrongful death or serious injury case, the attorney’s fee will likely be contingent on the outcome of the matter. The amount of an attorney’s contingent fee may vary depending upon the number of parties, complexity of the legal issues, novelty of the claim, whether a lawsuit has to be filed, and various other factors.
Expenses include things like travel, private investigators, court reporters, transcripts, copies, etc.
My attorney’s fee and expenses comply with State Bar of Georgia Rule 1.5.
8. What strategy do you propose?
My overriding strategy in every case is to do whatever is in my client’s best interest. After hearing your explanation of the events, and after reviewing all relevant documents and other items, I will propose a specific strategy for your case. It’s impossible for me or any attorney to propose a strategy without hearing your side of the story and reviewing documents and other items. Sometimes, due to the complexity of the legal issues, number of parties, or other factors, it may be in my client’s best interest to divide the labor among outside, hand-picked, elite lawyers (with the client’s consent of course) known for their particular expertise, experience, or unique skills in a narrow segment of the case. It’s called “hyperspecialization,” or “two heads are better than one.” Even if other lawyers contribute their knowledge and expertise, the attorney’s fee does not change. The other lawyer and I would simply divide the fee between ourselves.
9. How will we communicate?
We will communicate by telephone, email, and face-to-face. My office number is (912) 764-7388 or toll free (877) 627-7452. My mobile phone number is (912) 536-2334. My email address is email@example.com.
10. What is my role in case preparation?
Your role in case preparation is:
A. To provide me with a complete, true, detailed explanation of the events that occurred without embellishment, exaggeration, omission, or misrepresentation, or, in the words of Joe Friday, “just the facts, ma’am;”
B. To make yourself available for meetings and phone calls to answer my questions and provide me with information;
C. To avoid saying or doing anything that would harm your case;
D. To follow my advice;
E. To refrain from searching on the internet or asking your friends and family members for opinions, advice, or information about your case (unless I request it of you);
F. To ask me any questions or make any comments about your case without feeling embarrassed or ashamed;
G. To treat me and my staff with courtesy and consideration;
H. To be completely candid with me;
I. To apprise me of all facts or circumstances of the matter even if you believe that those facts may be detrimental to your case or unflattering to you;
J. To honor our fee agreement;
K. TO fulfill your responsibility to maintain contact with me;
L. To promptly notify me of any change in your telephone number, address, email address, or other electronic contact information;
M. To respond promptly to my request for information and cooperation;
N. To promptly pay all bills tendered to you pursuant to our fee agreement regarding attorney fees and expenses.
11. Who will be doing the work?
I am the only lawyer in my firm, so I will be doing the legal work. My staff will assist me. Also, see my answer to number 8 above. Even if I divide the labor with other, hand-picked lawyers, I will remain responsible for your case, and you will communicate directly with me.
12. Do you carry malpractice insurance?
13. If I terminate the representation before the matter is resolved, what will happen to any money that I advanced that has not been spent on legal services?
Unless the fee is in the form of a non-refundable retainer, I will refund all unearned attorney fees.
14. Will you be responsible for my matter, or will it be assigned to another lawyer or paralegal?
Yes. Even if I divide the labor among other lawyers outside my firm, I will be responsible for your matter. I will not “farm out” your case to a lawyer outside my firm. I you and I sign an attorney-client representation agreement, I am your attorney. Period. Like President Harry S. Truman said, “the buck stops here!”
15. Who will be my primary contact person with the firm, and what is his/her position with the firm?
I will be your primary contact person with my firm.
16. What is the best way to communicate with you (letter, phone, email)?
The best way to communicate with me is by phone or email.
17. How will you inform me of developments in my case?
I will inform you of developments in your case by phone, email, or face-to-face meetings. Additionally, I will have an assistant contact you at least once a week with an update, even if nothing significant has happened in your case. Of course, anytime you have a question or comment, you may contact me.
18. Will I receive copies of documents, like correspondence and anything that you file in court, throughout the representation?
For matters that are handled under arrangements other than hourly charges, you will receive any work product intended for use in the case.
See State Bar of Georgia Rule 1.16(d) and Formal Advisory Opinion No. 87-5.
19. If I call you (or email you) for information, when can I expect a return phone call (or email)? Who will call me back?
I try very hard to answer all calls, but sometimes I am unavailable. If you leave a voice message, I will do my best to return your call the same day. If you don’t hear from me that day, you can expect to hear from me the next day. If you don’t receive from me a return call or email within 24 hours, there is a problem on my end, so please call me directly at (912) 536-2334. I will get to the bottom of the problem and fix it. If you are unable to reach me, call my office, and schedule an appointment to meet with me at my office to discuss the matter. I want to communicate with you. I do not want to be difficult to reach.
20. After explaining my case fully to you, how can you help me, and what are the risks of successfully or unsuccessfully resolving my legal problem? (I understand that you cannot make promises or guarantees about anything other than to use your best legal skill)
I can help you by using my best skill to achieve the best possible outcome. Depending on the facts of your case, I will give you a more specific explanation of how I can help you, as well as the risks of successfully or unsuccessfully resolving your legal problem.
21. Do you have a law license in the state I live in or where the case arose?
It depends on the state you live in and where the case arose. I have a law license in Georgia. I do not have a law license in any other state. But, if necessary, I can seek permission to represent someone in a particular case in a jurisdiction where I am not licensed, which is called pro hac vice, or “for this occasion.”
22. How long have you been practicing law as a licensed attorney?
I have been practicing law as a licensed attorney for about 23 years.
23. I would like to talk to some of your former clients to hear about their experiences with you. Can you provide me with some names so that I can contact them?
Due to confidentiality rules, I cannot provide you with names of former clients, but several former clients have posted reviews HERE.