Tips on choosing a lawyer
Be confident and prepared: ask the right questions.
When do I need a lawyer?
How can a lawyer help me?
How do I find the right lawyer?
What should I ask a lawyer?
How will I pay a lawyer?
What if I can't afford a lawyer?
How can I help my lawyer and keep expenses
Can I get legal help without hiring a
When do I need a
The following are examples of circumstances when you should
seek a lawyer's advice:
- You're buying or selling a home, adopting a child, signing an
important contract, making a will or organizing a business;
- You've been in an accident where someone was hurt or property
- You are the victim of an abusive spouse;
- You are accused of a crime;
- You've been injured at work;
- You are going through a divorce; and
- You are having problems with your landlord or tenant.
The best time to consult a lawyer is before, not after, you have
legal problems. It can save you money in the long run and keep any
legal difficulties to a minimum. A lawyer can help by offering you
legal counseling and advice, preparing documents and, if necessary,
representing you in court and other legal proceedings. Contact the
MBA Lawyer Referral Service to get a
How can a lawyer help
The law can be very complicated and lawyers are trained to deal
effectively with these complexities. In Massachusetts, a lawyer
must have attended a state-accredited law school, be licensed by
the state Supreme Judicial Court, and must abide by strict rules of
legal procedure and ethics. In some cases, a lawyer may agree that
you can do some of the work yourself (like making certain telephone
calls and obtaining documents), to save you money, while he/she
handles the more complicated aspects of your case.
Many laws are complex and frequently change. Lawyers are trained
to explain the law, provide legal assistance, and be aware of court
procedures, filing requirements, deadlines and other details that a
non-lawyer could easily overlook.
How do I find the right
Your goal is to find a lawyer with whom you are comfortable as
both a person and a professional. Your case may involve
very personal information and your lawyer will often need to know
confidential details about you, your family and your finances to be
effective in helping you.
One of the best ways to find a lawyer is to seek a recommendation
from people whose opinions you respect: an employer, lawyer at your
workplace, teacher, minister, doctor, relative, neighbor or
The nature of your legal problem will help define the type of
lawyer you will want to hire. Often lawyers have one or more
specialties, and you want to make sure your lawyer has experience
in your type of case. The lawyer who did a terrific job with your
friend's divorce may not have the expertise to take on your auto
accident injury matter.
Another excellent means of determining if you need a lawyer's help
and obtaining a referral to a lawyer is by calling the MBA Lawyer
Referral Service (LRS). Depending on your matter, an LRS
representative may recommend a lawyer or suggest alternatives such
as contacting a state agency.
If a lawyer is recommended, you will be put in touch with a
lawyer in any Massachusetts community you prefer who has experience
in the type of law in question. Your initial discussion with the
lawyer will cost no more than $25 for the first half hour. If for
any reason you choose not to hire the lawyer, the LRS will refer
you to another lawyer. You may get up to three referrals for the
same case. There is no fee for the referral service.
To contact the LRS, call (617)
654-0400 or (866) MASSLRS.
Before meeting with a lawyer, make notes about your problem and
gather all of the related documents to take with you. This will
allow you to present your legal problem in the clearest and most
organized manner possible. It will also allow you to focus on
evaluating the lawyer's response to your case and your
What should I ask a
At the first meeting you should ask about the following topics.
Keep in mind, some lawyers charge a fee for your first
consultation, some don't.
- The amount of experience the lawyer has in your type of legal
- A preliminary outline of how the lawyer believes the case
should be handled and the time frame for its completion;
- Whether or not the lawyer carries malpractice insurance;
- How you can or will be expected to participate in your
- How you will be kept informed about the status of the
- Whether or not the lawyer will provide you with a fee
agreement that details fees, expenses, billing and payment;
- The lawyer's hourly fee (if applicable); and
- An estimate of the lawyer's total fee.
After meeting with the lawyer ask yourself the following
- Will I be comfortable working closely with this person?
- Am I confident that the lawyer has the experience and skill to
handle your case?
- Do I clearly understand the lawyer's explanation of what my
- Do I understand the proposed fee agreement?
How will I pay a
This type of charge, sometimes called a "standard" fee, is used
most often for routine legal matters. For example, a lawyer may
charge all clients the same amount to handle a "simple will." When
you agree to a fixed fee, be sure you know what it does and does
not include and if there could be additional charges.
Many lawyers charge by the hour and the hourly rate varies from
lawyer to lawyer. Your total bill can be estimated by having the
lawyer project the amount of time your case will take and provide a
list of filing fees and other costs.
A retainer fee may be used to guarantee that a lawyer will be
available to take a particular case and could mean that the lawyer
would have to turn down other cases in order to remain available.
With this type of fee agreement, you may be billed separately for
the legal work that is done. A retainer fee sometimes is considered
a down payment on any legal services you may need. Since this type
of fee arrangement can mean different things, be sure to have the
lawyer explain the fee arrangement.
This type of charge often is used in personal injury cases when
you are suing someone for money. It means that you will pay your
lawyer a certain percentage of the money you receive if you win the
case or if you settle the matter. If you lose, your lawyer doesn't
receive a fee. In some cases, your lawyer may pay some of these
costs for you when they are due, but you may have to repay the
If you agree to a contingency fee, be sure you know what your
lawyer's percentage will be. Some agreements provide for a varying
percentage depending on whether the case is settled, goes to trial
or has to be appealed. If so, those varying percentages must be
stated in the agreement as well. While obtaining a fee agreement
from your lawyer is always a good idea, in contingency fee cases,
they are required.
The cost of some probate and other legal work is set by law. For
certain other legal problems, the court either sets or must approve
the fee you will pay. Often, a lawyer cannot tell you exactly what
the charge will be, because it is difficult to estimate how much
work is going to be involved. But a lawyer can usually estimate the
minimum and maximum limits of the fee and give you some idea of the
What if I can't afford a
If you are the defendant in a criminal case and
can't afford a lawyer, the government must provide you with one. If
you need legal assistance in a civil matter and
can't afford to pay lawyer, there are programs that may be able to
If you meet certain economic guidelines, the MBA Lawyer Referral Service can refer
you to a lawyer who offers reduced fees (no more than $75 an hour)
for qualifying clients.
If you cannot afford a lawyer's fees, even at reduced rates, there
are state and federally funded programs that may be able to provide
you with free legal assistance. There are legal services (sometimes
called legal aid) offices located around the state. Some types of
cases that legal services lawyers will handle include eviction
defense, divorce, custody, and Social Security and other government
You can call the Legal Advocacy and Resource Center (http://www.larcma.org) at (617)
603-1700; or toll-free, at (800) 342-LAWS, or the MBA Lawyer
Referral Service at (617) 654-0400 or (866) 627-7577 for the
contact information for legal services office in your location.
How can I help my lawyer
and keep expenses down?
There are several steps you can follow to help your lawyer work
for you and keep the cost of legal services at a minimum:
- Gather in advance all information that you think your lawyer
- Carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of your case:
could court costs and legal fees be more than the amount of money
you would likely recover?
- Write down the names, addresses and telephone numbers of all
people involved in your matter
- Bring any written materials relating to your legal situation,
such as receipts, contracts, medical bills, repair estimates,
checks, traffic tickets, deeds, wills and letters from the opposing
side to the first meeting with your lawyer;
- Ask if there are some aspects of the case that you can handle
yourself (e.g., some telephone calls);
- Bring a written summary of the facts exactly as you remember
- Write down the questions that you want your lawyer to
- Avoid calling your lawyer unnecessarily;
- Inform your lawyer of any changes to your address, telephone
number and to any situation that may have a bearing on your
- Ask the lawyer about ways to resolve your case without going to
- Reveal all information, even if it may not be in your
Remember that your lawyer must keep all information you
Can I get legal help
without hiring a lawyer?
There are legal resources that may be able to help you resolve
your legal problem without hiring a lawyer. The MBA has several
programs that can help answer your basic legal questions.
- The first Wednesday of each month you can get free legal help,
via telephone, from the MBA Dial-A-Lawyer program. On those days,
from 5:30 p.m. until 7:30 p.m., lawyer volunteers staff phones at
the MBA to take your calls. Dial (617) 338-0610.
- If you have a fee disagreement with your lawyer that you are
unable to resolve, consider arbitration as an option. The MBA's
Legal Fee Arbitration Board can help resolve disputes involving
lawyers' fees. Contact the board at (617) 338-0552.
Small claims courts offer citizens the chance to resolve minor
problems without the need for lawyers. Most small claims courts
limit cases to those with claims up to $2,000, and exclude certain
types of claims, such as divorce, cases involving title to
property, and cases involving the state or city. In most small
claims courts, anyone with a grievance can bring suit, using
everyday language, for a relatively low filing cost, usually less
than $50. However, you should file suit only after you have
exhausted other avenues, for example, writing directly to the
person or company involved or discussing the matter with the Better
consumer service organizations
Your local Better Business Bureau, credit counseling service,
consumer advocacy group, alternative dispute resolution center, or
another private agency may be able to assist you, and provide an
effective and economical alternative to hiring a lawyer. These
organizations were created to resolve or correct situations that
frequently recur and affect the public. Through such agencies,
without the expense of hiring a lawyer, you may be able to obtain a
statement of your rights, a fast recovery of property or money you
have lost, or relief for other damages that you have incurred.
In many instances, government organizations and offices can also
provide answers or assistance on legal matters. For example, you
may be able to consult the state attorney general's office or the
Department of Revenue for answers to general business, investment
or tax questions. State and local governmental agencies or
departments, such as local government offices that administer
permits and licenses, and state boards that regulate health
professions, social service professions, contractors, lawyers and
others, may be able to provide information about rules and
standards governing such professions and may also assist in
resolving disputes or settling damages.
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