Questions for your Potential Lawyer
While I am a very fine Seattle Criminal Defense attorney, I understand people may need an attorney for other reasons. You might hire an attorney when you adopt a child, form a corporation, or need tax advice. And if someone calls me looking for an attorney to help with a practice area I don’t work in, I’m happy to give him or her names of attorneys who do that particular type of service.
With that in mind, this week’s post is questions a client should and should not ask a prospective attorney. Why ask questions at all? Understand that working with an attorney, in any field, is an intimate process. The attorney will generally have access to sensitive information. Money is changing hands. And often if an attorney is involved, the situation itself is fairly high stakes. With that in mind, hiring the right attorney is critical to accomplishing your goals, whether that goal is defending against a criminal charge or suing a corporation or anything else
What do I mean by the right attorney? I don’t mean a killer shark or someone who’s been practicing for 50 years or anything like that. To be sure, those skill sets are appropriate in the right situations. But I mean specifically the right attorney for you. Since the process is so intimate and high-stakes, finding the attorney that is a good fit for you. With that in mind, here are some questions you should and should not ask a prospective attorney to see if they’re the right attorney for your needs.
What to ask
How much will it cost? With some exceptions your lawyer should be able to give you a good estimate on the cost of the representation. Any lawyer experienced in a field should be able to give you the info you need to budget correctly and see if this lawyer’s services are a good fit for you.
But there are some exceptions. The first is that the lawyer may need to get more information before they can quote you a price. For example, in my practice, some crimes can be charged as either misdemeanors or felonies. While I will represent people charged with either, because of the added complexity, defense against a felony is more time consuming and therefore, more expensive. An estate attorney may need to see bank statements or other financial information to determine the size of the estate in order to quote an appropriate price.
Another exception is if you, the potential client, aren’t forthcoming with the potential lawyer. You might have forgotten something or be embarrassed about what’s happened. A lawyer can only work with the information you’ve provided. If there’s some key point that wasn’t disclosed for whatever reason, the price quoted initially may not be accurate.
But you, as a potential client, should have some idea where you stand before the representation begins, including the possibility of additional expenses. For example, I don’t charge trial fees, but some attorneys do and they should disclose those in the beginning. If a lawyer is asking for a bunch of cash up front but they’re squirrely about giving you a reasonable estimate for the total cost of representation, they may not be a good fit for you.
How long will this representation take? This is a harder question to answer than the cost because it necessarily depends on uncontrollable factors, namely the other party and the courts. Still, a lawyer should be able to give you a sense of how long things will take barring anything truly bizarre.
In my practice, a DUI representation will take on average two to six months. A felony can be double that, or even longer. But even with that range, I’ve been doing this long enough that I am comfortable discussing the process of events and what will happen when. It’s tough to predict the future but I don’t mind talking about how such a a case traditionally progresses.
If an attorney can’t tell you how long something will take, it makes your ability to plan or move forward more difficult. It might also mean the case is not an area they work in regularly. Ask them about their experience and how definitive they can be.
What will I need to do? This is an excellent question to ask because traditionally the attorney/client relationship is a two way street. Both the attorney and client work together to accomplish a goal, whatever that goal may be. As such, while the attorney may take the lead with the courts and the other attorneys, the client often has a role to play too.
In my practice the client’s role varies. When people are charged with alcohol-based crimes, I often ask them to get an alcohol assessment because it can be useful in negotiations. Sometimes a client will have to talk to their phone company to get old phone records. Sometimes they’ll have to not do something, like avoid a particular person or location.
The reason to ask about this is the same reason to ask about the length and cost: so you can integrate your case into your life without the case dominating your life. I suppose it’s possible there is some representation that you sign the agreement and wake up a few months later to learn whether you won or lost. But in my experience, that’s awfully rare. Most times, representation involves work for everyone. If a prospective attorney isn’t able to tell you what you need to do or doesn’t know, you may want to be cautious of signing up with them.
What not to ask
What is your win/loss record? I’ve been asked this a number of times and it’s pretty silly. And it’s silly for a number of reasons.
First, I have no earthly idea how many cases I’ve won or lost. The most honest answer I could give to either is “some.” I don’t even remember how many trials I’ve done, much less the verdicts in all of them. Some have been guilty, some not guilty, and some were split. And of course some cases are won without needing a trial at all.
Also, how do you define a win? If you define it as “all charges dismissed with prejudice,” that’s one number. If you define it as “a result the client was really happy with,” that’s a different number. I had a DUI-type case a while back where the case was to be dismissed after a year if a client paid a fine and did some homework, which was so unusual the judge actually said he had never seen a result that good in his years on the bench. Was that result a win? (Yes.)
Lawyering is not an all or nothing practice. Your goal is to get the best result possible. Sometimes that means winning at trial, and sometimes that means negotiating a good deal. Each case is individualized, which means categorizing results is basically impossible. I admit I have a wall of thank-you cards hanging up on my office; getting one of those in the mail often feels like a personal “win.” Regardless, I can’t figure out how anyone would calculate a meaningful win/loss statistic.
Instead of asking about wins and losses, ask about strategy and tactics. A lawyer might not be able to answer this right away, he or she may have to review police reports or talk to witnesses or do some case research. But if the lawyer has a plan to get what you might call a win, that’s pretty worthwhile.
Can you promise I will win the case? This is the corollary to the other question. The potential client is really asking if the lawyer can guarantee a result.
Unfortunately no attorney can promise a particular result. A personal injury attorney may say other cases likes yours have been worth millions, but the best they can say for you is they’ll try to get you the most money possible. No lawyer can predict the future, and so no lawyer can promise a result. They can make educated guesses but if they promise a win they are lying.
Should I send a letter to a judge threatening to kill everyone in the case and then burn down the courthouse?: Probably not, although it would be good business for me, so…
In general you should feel free to talk to your lawyer about your goals and concerns. If you ever feel like an attorney isn’t interested in your problems or doesn’t have the time for them, the representation may not be the best fit.
If you or someone you know needs an attorney, feel free to give me a call. If I can’t help you I’ll give you the info of someone who can.