When Attorneys Offer Free Consultations, Take Advantage of It

Searching for the right attorney can be a daunting experience, so it pays to take advantage when a law office offers a free initial consultation. The consultation gives you the opportunity to learn more about the services provided by the attorney, learn about the attorney’s experience in your area of legal need, and determine if you feel comfortable with the office and its philosophy.


You should come to the consultation with some simple questions and concerns. Be aware that you will not get much legal advice at this consult about the outcome of your case, since much will depend on what happens in the course of handling your individual situation.


Questions to Ask

At your consultation, the attorney should answer basic questions you might have. Attorneys should tell you about their experience, the approximate time your case should take, how often you can expect to get updates, and what information will be required from you.


Find out what percentage of the practice involves the field that concerns you, whether it is family law, criminal law, or personal injury. Will the lawyer you meet personally handle your case or pass it along to another attorney? If there is another lawyer or a legal assistant involved, ask to meet that person as well.


How You Should Prepare

The more you prepare for your consultation, the better the determination your attorney can make about your case. You should bring any necessary documents that you already have in your possession.  For example, if the consultation is for a divorce, you might bring documentation of your income, such as pay stubs and tax returns, recent bank statements, information on retirement funds and plans, pre- or post-nuptial agreements, birth certificates, and a list of assets you and your spouse own. These are all important factors when determining financial household contributions.


With the right information, your consulting lawyer can provide an expectation of how issues like spousal maintenance, child support, and division of assets will be resolved. If it is a criminal case, determinations can be made such as whether you might be better off plea bargaining or going to trial. In addition, the lawyer will be developing an understanding of you, your family, and the situation you are in. The more information you provide, the clearer an expectation can be set by an attorney, for how your case may be resolved.


What About Fees?

During your consultation, attorneys should also explain their fee structures and additional costs you may encounter. Legal fees depend on factors that include the amount of time expected to be spent on your case; the costs the attorney expects to have; the lawyer's ability, experience, and reputation; and expected results.


After the initial consultation, common types of fee arrangements are:

·         Contingency Fees: The fee is based on a percentage of the amount awarded in the case, often one-third. If your attorney loses, you do not have to pay a fee, but you will still have to pay expenses. Contingency fee arrangements are common in personal injury cases, property damage cases, or other cases involving a large amount of money. They will not typically be used for cases such as criminal, divorce and child custody matters.

·         Flat Fees: There is a specific fee for your case. This is common for cases that are relatively simple, such as a will or an uncontested divorce.

·         Hourly Rate: The lawyer will charge you a set amount for each hour or portion of an hour worked on your case.

·         Referral Fee: A lawyer who refers you to another lawyer may be entitled to a portion of the total fee you pay. The fee must be reasonable, and you must agree to the arrangement.

·         Retainer Fees: The lawyer is paid a set fee in advance as a "down payment" against which future costs are billed. This should be placed in a special account and the costs be deducted from that account as they occur. Retainer fees are usually non-refundable.

·         Statutory Fee: These fees may be set by statute or a court and are usually for cases like probate or bankruptcy.


Whatever fee arrangement you make, you should ask what costs and expenses are covered by the fee, including overhead and costs of staff such as secretaries, messengers, or paralegals.


Remember, your initial consultation not only allows the attorney to determine whether you have a case but allows you to determine whether the attorney is the right person to handle it.