Many attorneys offer free legal consultation as part of their services to prospective clients. For the client, it’s an opportunity to get a feel for the attorney and see if they feel comfortable having this individual represent them in their legal matter. For attorneys, it’s a chance to get a sense of
the client’s legal needs and what actions should be taken to meet those needs. Usually these consultations last between a half-hour to an hour—just enough time for both parties to determine if there’s a “good fit.”
Of course, there are situations where one or both sides have an ulterior motive. The attorney may be chiefly interested in determining the value of the case to his or her firm, while some would-be clients make a circuit of law offices offering free consultations, trying to get as much free advice as possible while “price-shopping” different law firms.
I want to offer some guidelines for people genuinely interested in having a positive and informative legal consultation. First, here’s what the prospective client should bring to the table:
- Be prepared. People often come to my office burdened with financial problems, but with no real understanding of what those problems are. It’s difficult to provide useful advice without a clear idea of the issues involved. For a bankruptcy situation, have a summary ready—what you make, what you spend, what you owe and what you own. In divorce cases, the attorney needs to know what you think the chief issues will be and where there are areas of possible agreement between spouses. Remember, many attorneys base their fees on the information they get from clients.
- Be honest. Lying to the person you want to represent you, or even skimming over pertinent details, will cost you substantially more in the long run.
The following questions will help you decide if an attorney is right for you.
How long have you practiced in this field of law? Have you handled cases similar to mine before? Are you primarily a litigator, negotiator or mediator?
Managing the case
What are the possible or likely outcomes for my case? Do you recommend mediation or going to court? In a divorce case, how do state laws affect custody, support, alimony and the division of property? What’s your estimate about the length of time this case will take? What percentage of cases like mine get settled out of court? How will you keep me updated on the progress of this case?
Legal fees and costs
Obviously, this is a subject every potential client wants to know about. If an attorney is unwilling to provide a fairly detailed estimate of fees and costs, that’s a red flag and a warning to stay away. With this in mind, ask questions like these:
What is your hourly rate? Is a retainer required? Is this fee refundable in case we don’t move forward with litigation? How often will I be invoiced and will these invoices be broken down in detail? What other costs are involved for services like the use of associates, paralegals, experts, and/or other legal support staff? Can you give me a ballpark figure for the total bill (including fees and expenses)?
These are a lot of questions to ask in a short consultation time-frame, but the more you learn about what the attorney can offer, the easier your decision about hiring him or her will be. If you find an attorney you believe you can work with, my advice is to go for it. If after the consultation you have any concerns, getting a second or third opinion is completely acceptable.
Are you in need of legal counseling or have any questions about the above topic? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf offer a free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law/divorce, bankruptcy, and estate planning to criminal/DUI matters and landlord/tenant disputes.