How to Avoid Making These 12 Common Legal Hiring Lawyer
It breaks my heart when individuals get taken advantage of or end up in a bad situation because they hired the wrong lawyer. Perhaps these are two of the driving forces behind my decision to pursue a career in law: the desire to end such injustices. I’ve seen instances where lawyers completely ignored their clients for years. I’ve heard stories about attorneys who wouldn’t update their clients on the status of their cases and then billed the client when they finally got around to calling to find out what was going on. Lawyers who took money from customers without setting forth the terms of the agreement have been the subject of complaints I’ve heard.
The only thing worse than being a lawyer is tidying up after one. Helping clients avoid issues before they arise is much more straightforward than fixing problems caused by hiring the incorrect attorney. I’ve seen premarital agreements and divorce decrees that were written. A failed annulment was something I had to come in and fix. I had to come in and set a divorce that had gone wrong.
One sad story about a woman, in particular, comes to memory. She had retained legal counsel to defend her against a divorce case filed against her in Virginia and to file for divorce herself (a process we fondly refer to as “The Tale of the Nine-Year Divorce”). She paid the counsel a sizeable retainer while she was out of town. No formal agreement was made in writing. The lawyer she hired seemed intimidated by the other side’s legal team and did nothing to advance the cause. The lawyer did nothing, removing the matter from the court’s docket.
No case is ever dropped for this reason without first notifying the attorneys on record. The attorney failed to warn his client that he was at risk of being fired. She did not learn of the dismissal until she received official word from the judge. The client sustained severe injuries in a car accident and is currently hospitalized and having several surgical procedures. She had faith that her attorney would watch out for her best interests, but she had no idea that the case had been dropped until she received official court paperwork.
The case was revived after the client called the attorney again. The lawyer did nothing to advance his client’s interests until the opposing counsel withdrew from the case. Meanwhile, the attorney let the woman’s spouse run away with most of the marital assets, escaping the court’s jurisdiction. A spousal support judgment was obtained, but the attorney did not take any meaningful steps to collect or enforce payment from the defendant.
The attorney let thousands of dollars in back payments pile up. Meanwhile, the judge awarded the lawyer $10,000 in attorney’s fees to be paid by the missing husband. After realizing the husband had already spent the money, the lawyer started demanding payment, and the attorney fee award would be challenging to collect. She could not pay her lawyer at the final hearing because she was disabled and had not received any support awards. This ordeal undoubtedly damaged the woman’s opinion of attorneys.
Despite her previous negative encounter with my services, the woman still sought me out because she knew I could assist her. After starting the divorce and property division process 9–10 years ago, we finally completed it and started enforcing the support judgment by attaching her husband’s social security and retirement income.
Our efforts in collection resulted in the customer receiving their first payments. We also helped the woman recover some personal property the court had awarded her while successfully defending her against her husband’s effort to terminate support payments. The lady still had to defend herself in court against the lawyer demanding more than $10,000 and had not refunded her initial retainer.
I wrote this piece hoping to warn you against making the same errors that led to my nine-year divorce.
There are two common pitfalls that individuals fall into. The first area is during the lawyer selection process, and the second is after the lawyer has already been hired, but errors have been made.
EXAggeration in Legal Ads
CLAIMS OF “*** YEARS OF COMBINED EXPERIENCE” Most law companies that make such claims are exaggerating or embellishing their credentials. This marketing speaks little to the experience of the individual attorneys, which is essential information if you are looking for an experienced lawyer. If the lawyers have so many years of expertise between them, why don’t they advertise that fact? Why? The aggregate total sounds more impressive that way. A magnifying lens can make even the smallest insect appear to be a terrifying beast.
The finest legal representation for you may not come from a firm that offers everything on its laundry list of services. A “Jack of all crafts” is a “master of none,” as the adage goes. You can be a “jack of all crafts,” but can you also be a “master of all”? How much of the firm’s work is specifically related to your field of law? For instance, does the firm (and the lawyer specifically) you’re thinking about focus much of their practice on your preferred area of law?
Finding a lawyer or law company that can handle multiple cases may be essential if you’re trying to simplify your life. Then, you may want to inquire whether the lawyer takes each of those areas, and if so, what percentage of the practice is dedicated to each site and how much experience the lawyer has in each field. Do you have customer reviews for each service? Consider thoroughly whether visiting a specialist for each issue would be beneficial.
Despite popular belief, a more prominent law firm is not inherently better. Medium-sized or smaller businesses are more likely to provide the individualized care you seek. To compete with mega firms that employ dozens or hundreds of attorneys, smaller law firms sometimes take group photos of all the secretaries and clerks. However, scale is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things; more significant is not superior to more minor, and vice versa. Individualized treatment and consideration are crucial. It would be best to prioritize this when interviewing prospective attorneys and law companies, asking pertinent questions, and keeping an open mind.
If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. When hiring a lawyer, the cheapest option is rarely the best. On the other hand, expensive items are not necessarily superior to cheaper ones. Would you pick a dentist or doctor solely on how affordable he is? If you can avoid it, no. You’re looking for the most competent medical professional who will also charge you a reasonable fee. While the price may be a concern, it should be the least important consideration when selecting legal counsel. In choosing a lawyer, price should not be more important than other considerations like skill, expertise, reputation in the legal community, and recommendations from past clients. Can you afford low-quality legal representation?
FALLING FOR HYPE IN LAWYER ADVERTISING Assuming and failing to verify are related to this problem. Not everything in the yellow pages is accurate. Not every attorney is created equal. Before hiring a lawyer or law company, it is in your best interest to research them. Please find out how well-regarded he is among other lawyers. Investigate the feedback provided by former or current attorneys or law company clients. Do not make the assumption that pre-paid legal services are the best option. Having access to pre-paid legal services is no guarantee that you will use them. Pre-paid legal assistance panels rarely include top-tier attorneys. It would be best not to let the pre-paid lawyer serve you without first learning more about him or her.
You probably don’t need the finest lawyer, but you still need to make sure the one you pick is competent in law relevant to your case. Understand that a lawyer may be qualified in some issues but not others. Here is the time to assess and compare your skills, expertise, and previous experiences. Does the company or lawyer you’re considering hiring have a “no holds barred” policy regarding family law? In that case, expect the process to take a long time and cost much money.
A pre-paid counsel should be researched and questioned in the same way as any other lawyer. You should seek elsewhere for legal representation if your prospective attorney does not focus much of his or her practice on the area of law in your case. You should keep looking for a new counsel if you hear bad things about this one from other lawyers. You should search elsewhere if the attorney cannot provide evidence of previous success, such as published works or recommendations from satisfied clients.
Even if you take the time to find the attorney and law firm that will best meet your requirements and protect your interests, you risk making a wrong decision and spending too much money.
FAILURES TO DO YOUR HOMEWORK BEFORE CHOOSING A LAWYER
Although courts will uphold an agreement between two parties that is not reduced to writing, it can be difficult to implement without a record of the key terms. There is no way to know for sure that you and your lawyer have agreed on fees unless it is put in writing and signed by both parties. A “meeting of the thoughts” is a legal precondition for forming any contract. There’s talk of making “a proposition” and “accepting it.” A written fee agreement helps the client and the lawyer know what to anticipate. Each party’s duties and the scope of the representation should be spelled out. You and your attorney are safe here. The American and Virginia State Bar Association suggest using written fee agreements. You should bring up the topic of a written fee agreement or representation agreement with your counsel if he or she does not.
If your lawyer presents you with a document (such as a fee agreement, lease, affidavit, or pleading) and you sign it without reading it and asking questions about what you don’t comprehend, you’ve made a big mistake. You should notify your attorney of any inaccuracies, omissions, or other problems with the paper.
DO NOT SIGN ANYTHING WITHOUT FIRST REQUESTING A COPY. Do not sign anything without first requesting a duplicate. When clients retain our services, we provide them with a pocket folder that includes our policy manual, office policies, and, if applicable, the client divorce handbook.
The failure to duplicate essential papers and store them in a secure location. Legal paperwork is crucial and should be kept for a significant amount after a case or issue has been resolved. It’s important to retain copies because it’s not always possible to get new ones in the future. Believe it or not, I have had several clients over the years whose lawyers were so dishonest that they destroyed documents rather than present them in the event of a dispute with the client. One even shredded confidential client papers in front of them. In addition to these concerns, most attorneys do not keep customer files indefinitely. Closed files in storage for too long are shredded regularly to create room for new ones. When a client’s file ends, they should remove any necessary items before it is destroyed.
MISTAKE #2: Not asking a prospective lawyer who they would employ in your situation. Inquire about the lawyer’s background and training by asking pertinent inquiries. Can they reference customers who were pleased with the services provided by the attorney and the firm? What other people besides the counsel will be helping you? What is their procedure for answering calls? What is their pricing structure? How should you behave in front of the lawyer? When and how will you be updated on the case’s status? How will he or she argue on your behalf? If you have any concerns or questions about how your case or legal issue will be handled in court, you should speak up. You should have your lawyer clarify any unfamiliar terms to you.
FAILED TO KEEP IN TOUCH If you fail to keep in touch with your attorney, they may lose track of you if you change addresses, jobs, or phone numbers. If your personal or professional situation changes, including your address or place of work, be sure to let your lawyer know immediately.
Lack of communication is tied to not giving out a cell phone number. Your counsel may need to be able to get in touch with you right away, depending on the case. If your attorney cannot contact you, it will hurt your cause. You should make arrangements so your lawyer can contact you and speak with you within an hour or two at the latest. Let’s say your attorney is currently representing you in a discussion. There is a risk of “blowing” the negotiation or losing the transaction if he or she can’t contact you at a crucial time.
There is no reason in today’s world of instant contact not to make it easy to communicate with your lawyer.
What missteps did the protagonists of “The Nine-Year Story of a Divorce” make that they should not have?
The customer could have done some background research on the attorney before employing him. She could have looked him up online. She might have done better talking to multiple attorneys. She could have consulted with another attorney about who they recommend for a highly contentious divorce involving infidelity and property disputes. She could have gotten references from previous clients by asking the counsel for testimonials or quotes from satisfied customers.
She could have requested a written price arrangement and a retainer receipt. She could have also kept a copy of a letter she wrote to the attorney outlining her expectations for the representation, the fee charged or to be set in the case, and the use of the retainer she paid.
She could have questioned the attorney on his fee structure and his guesstimate for the case cost. She could have inquired about his prior experience with opposing counsel, whether or not he was intimidated by her, and whether or not he was confident in his ability to manage the case despite the presence of opposing counsel. She could have gotten information about what to anticipate and how the process works in a divorce case in Virginia.
She could have questioned the attorney on his defense strategy and whether or not he intended to take the attack in her case. She could have inquired about the attorney’s strategy for keeping her apprised of case updates and the estimated timeline for a resolution hearing. She missed an opportunity to ask about his plans for enforcing the spousal support ruling and potential options for collecting the owed funds.
She could have questioned the lawyer about his actions and motivations when he obtained a court order of attorney’s fees from her spouse for $10,000. She could ask for a breakdown of the costs and be made aware of her potential liability if her spouse did not pay.
She could have asked another lawyer or the State Bar Association about her situation and legal options.
COMMUNICATION – She could have done better to stay in touch with the lawyer and update him on developments like the accident and her subsequent inability to work due to injuries sustained. She could have called the council to inquire about the delay in communication. Instead of waiting for the lawyer to contact her back, she could have met with him in person or sent him a letter asking for an update and detailing the next steps.
When the lawyer started sending bills and notes demanding payment, the lady should have asked questions about the fees in writing. She could have asked for a breakdown of costs and a report on how the fee money was spent.
Suppose she was unhappy with her lawyer’s performance. In that case, she should have looked into getting a second opinion and possibly switching attorneys before the lawyer moved to withdraw from the patient or at least before the lawyer brought suit over the fees. She should have gotten a second opinion, thought about switching lawyers, and asked for her retainer when the judge dismissed the case for inaction.
The following statement must be included with any reproduction of this article: “This copyright article/material is reproduced with the consent of the author, Virginia Perry, J.D.” (c) 2009 by Virginia Perry, J.D.
Virginia Perry, JD, is an experienced lawyer who has practiced law for over 30 years, focusing primarily on family law and cases.
Visit the website for more details about Virginia Perry, JD, and other publications and essays on family law.
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