At some point in our lives, almost all of us need to hire - or at least need to consider hiring - a lawyer.  However, as with many other professions - doctors, dentists, and so on - not all lawyers are made the same.  A good lawyer can be the difference between winning and losing, so it’s important to know what to look for when you hire one.  Here are some suggestions:

Avoid Flat-Fee Lawyers:  First, let me say that there are some situations where a flat-fee lawyer is probably fine.  For instance, things like traffic tickets, where there is likely to be a one-time court appearance, are situations that are tailor-made for flat-fee attorneys.  But for the most part, in an on-going case, you want to avoid flat-fee attorneys.  Why?  Because you are unlikely to get proper service in the long run.  Let’s say that a lawyer who’s typical rate is $200 per hour offers to take your case for $1000.  You can expect to get about 5 hours of solid work from him.  (His normal rate of $200/hour x 5 hours = $1000.)  After that, every second that he spends on your case is costing him money;  thus, after 5 hours, do not be surprised if you see a serious decline in the level of effort, quality of work product and overall responsiveness.

Avoid lawyers who charge extra for work outside of normal business hours:  Some lawyers will charge extra if they have to work on your case after 5:00pm or on weekends.  To me, this is just gouging.  Being a lawyer isn’t really a 9-to-5 job, and anyone who’s gone to law school should know that.  Clients are already paying a considerable hourly rate, and part of the reason for that is because of the fact that it’s not a typical 9-to-5.  There shouldn’t be an extra charge if the lawyer has to spend the weekend getting ready for an emergency hearing on Monday.  That kind of thing just goes hand-in-glove with the business of being legal counsel. 

Be sure to get an engagement letter:  Often, after a case has been going on for a while, there is confusion over what the lawyer was actually hired to do or exactly what representation the client agreed to pay for.  For these reasons, it is absolutely critical that you get an engagement letter at the onset of the business relationship indicating, among other things, what the lawyer is being retained to do, the cost of those services (and other incidentals, like copying, faxing, etc.) and how billing and payment will be handled.  Without an engagement letter, you really are flying blind in terms of the legal relationship.

In short, it is usually fairly easy to find a lawyer to take on your legal problems.  However, you shouldn’t be eager to hire just any attorney; you want to find a good one.  Thus, no matter how well you like any single attorney, you should probably discuss your case with several of them to get a feel for what’s appropriate in terms of hourly rates, costs, and the like.  Needless to say, the items noted in this article are but a few of the things to look for when hiring legal counsel, but they should give you an idea of whether someone you are considering is appropriate.