Hiring an attorney isn’t something people do very often. I find with my first time home buyer clients especially, I am the first attorney they have worked with. It’s hard to know what questions to ask when you’re making those first introductory calls to decide which attorney is right for you. Here are a few examples of things you should ask.
1. What are your rates?
Obviously, this is an important question to ask before you hire the attorney! I will usually ask the client more about their transaction to get an idea of the scope of work involved. I prefer to bill flat rate, so everyone knows what the transaction will require and so my clients aren’t afraid to call me with questions, lest they get billed for that time.
However, not all transactions are as clear-cut and have more open-ended negotiation periods. For example, Pre- and Post-Nuptial agreements are often revised multiple times, so occasionally hourly billing is more suitable to the type of work.
If an attorney is billing flat rate, ask them to enumerate what is and is not included in that time. If an attorney is billing hourly, ask them whether they will be billing you for travel–this might end up being a lot if your attorney is located in Long Island and your closing location is in the Bronx. You should also ask what the rate is for paralegal and clerical time versus attorney time.
Most attorneys will provide a written Retainer Agreement summarizing the terms of the service they will perform for you and when and how you will be billed for that work.
2. Do you offer free consultations? If not, what is the fee for consultations and what do they involve?
I offer phone consultations. For my real estate clients I follow up with a detailed summary of the settlement process for the transaction the client is exploring.
For more complex matters, like those exploring litigation (not something I practice myself), a consultation is important to determine whether or not you have a case and what your legal options are.
Sometimes clients prefer to have an office to go to to sit with a lawyer in front of a big desk. When I meet clients in person I like to do it over coffee or tea.
3. How much experience do you have in this field?
This is a great question as it helps you get to know the attorney and how they might help you. You can ask for case highlights or whether they have experience doing your specific transaction. For example, short sales and corporate relocation are specific types of real estate transaction that can throw curve balls into the process, it is helpful to ask if the attorney has experience working with the particulars of your transaction.
4. How much and what types of electronic communication do you use? When are you available via email?
Attorneys vary wildly on the types of electronic communication they use. Some firms have electronic client portals where you can log-in to check the status of your work. Some attorneys only use email via their legal assistants and only during office hours. Different clients have different needs around email.
I’m definitely an email-reliant attorney who checks email frequently, including nights and weekends.
5. Will I primarily interact with your assistant or directly with you?
Depending on the law firm, certain types of transactions are mostly coordinated by a legal assistant. It is a good idea to find out ahead of time who you will be relying on primarily for communication and action. As a solo practitioner, I choose to keep my client roster low enough so that I am the only one interacting with my clients.
6. When are you available to have meetings and make phone calls?
Some attorneys have certain night and weekend availability. Some are only available during business hours. As a solo practitioner it’s great for me to be flexible because often my clients’ work schedules (especially if I’m working with a couple) don’t mesh during business hours. I regularly take phone appointments during the evening and on weekend. If you have restrictive time during the workday, this is a good thing to keep in mind when hiring an attorney.
I think that hiring an attorney is often based on two main criteria, experience in your field of need and personality, with the above questions as additional details to help . You need someone you feel you can trust to guide you through a process that is likely unfamiliar to you. The initial communication with the attorney is a chance to get to know this person and find out if they are someone you trust and with whom you feel great about moving forward in your legal transaction.