Selecting a Lawyer

CAOC cannot refer consumers to attorneys or give legal advice due to California State Bar Regulations.

How do I find the right attorney?

Is cost the only consideration?

What if I can’t pay per hour to talk to an attorney and have him or her handle my case?

How does the contingency fee work?

What kind of percentage is fair and reasonable?

Should there be an attorney-client agreement in writing?

What about attorney advertising or what should I do if an investigator or attorney contacts me?

What if my attorney and I have a dispute?

How do I find the right attorney?

There is no easy answer to this question, but here are some hints:

1. Ask a friend or some other person in whom you have confidence for a recommendation, particularly if they have had similar problem.

2. If you know a lawyer, ask him or her for a recommendation.

3. Most local attorney associations maintain lawyer reference services which can be of help. They do not all work in the same manner, but generally list the names of lawyers who have asked to be placed on the panel and will give you the name of such a lawyer upon request. Some panels merely list lawyers in alphabetical order and simply give the caller the next lawyer on the list. Others, however, have attempted to qualify the lawyers insofar as the areas in which they practice and will give you a lawyer who at least deems himself competent to handle that particular type of case about which you may be calling. You can ask the panel how they make their determination. All reference panels assure that the lawyer given to you will charge only a minimal fee for the first consultation.

4. Check the yellow pages of your telephone book under "Attorneys." If you follow this procedure you may want to talk to more than one attorney. Under a State Bar pilot program, lawyers have been certified as specialists in the following areas of law: Appellate; Criminal; Estate Planning, Trust and Probate; Family; Immigration and Nationality; Personal and Small Business Bankruptcy; Taxation; and Workers’ Compensation. The yellow pages of your phone book would list the specialty with the attorney's name.

5. You may want to check the law lists available at your local law library. These lists generally provide background information on the attorneys listed. Don't be afraid to contact an attorney because of cost. Many lawyers will give you, for little or no charge, a consultation as to whether or not you need an attorney. When you visit an attorney, ask yourself: How do I like this person? Does the attorney seem to know what he or she is talking about? Does he or she seem concerned with me and my problem? When in doubt, don’t hesitate to talk to more than one attorney. This is an important decision, treat it as such. Remember, you are the consumer, the attorney is not doing you a favor by taking your case. On the other hand, the attorney is a professional and if you hire a lawyer you should be prepared to consider the advice carefully.

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Is cost the only consideration?

No. Most important is the significance and the complexity of your problem. If it is a so-called "routine" problem, you might be better off shopping for the lowest price, though what is "routine" is difficult to define. The more complex your problem, the more skill is required, so that you should weigh considerations other than prices.

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What if I can’t pay per hour to talk to an attorney and have him or her handle my case?

When a person or business acts wrongfully and injures an innocent person, the victim is given the right to sue the wrongdoer for fair compensation. Historically, only the wealthy were involved in lawsuits because lawyers charged fees for all services rendered, whether the case was won or lost. As a result, most people were unable to exercise their rights in courts and therefore suffered silently. More recently lawyers who represented these victims began drafting employment contracts which allowed the victim to obtain legal services without cost unless the suit was won, and then only on an agreed percentage of the recovery. This was the birth of the contingency fee. The now common contingency fee contract thus became the consumers’ key to the courthouse. It is used to some extent in every state in the United States and is approved by the American Bar Association. It is no longer restricted to personal injury cases, but is used in cases of business fraud, collection debts, and contractual disputes. The contingency fee principle has elevated the individual to the same legal level as the wealthiest corporation. This principle is not confined to lawyers and their clients. Many businesses pay their employees on a commission basis. Insurance companies usually pay their sales people on a percentage of the premiums collected. Stockbrokers charge fees based upon the dollar amount of their transactions. Real estate people charge a percentage of sale only if the sale is made. There are many such examples of the workings of a fair contingency system at work in our society.

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How does the contingency fee work?

If any attorney takes a case on a contingency fee, the attorney only gets paid if the case is won. If the case is lost, the attorney gets no fee. In addition, the attorney will often agree to advance the costs of the suit for the client. These include filing fees, deposition transaction and reporting fees, investigators, photography and expert witness fees. These costs must be repaid to the attorney at the end of the case. By using a contingency fee arrangement, the injured victim is able to afford as qualified a lawyer as would be available if he or she could pay an hourly fee.

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What kind of percentage is fair and reasonable?

Contingency fees may vary between 25% and 40% of the client’s recovery. The percentage in some cases is controlled by statute. Some of the matters which affect the size of the percentages are the complexity of the case, the experience of the attorney, the expense of the case, and other factors. Some attorneys charge a different percentage at different stages in the handling of the case. No matter what kind of fee arrangement you make with an attorney, the attorney is entitled only to a reasonable fee. What is reasonable depends on many things. The fee is, of course, subject to individual negotiation. If you feel that a suggested fee is too high and, having discussed it with the lawyer, are not satisfied with the explanation, then get an additional opinion from a second qualified attorney. As previously mentioned, the lowest percentage may not be the best for a competent, well-qualified lawyer who could probably obtain a result which would more than make up for the difference in a lower fee charged by a less competent or trained practitioner.

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Should there be an attorney-client agreement in writing?

Yes! For your mutual protection and in order to avoid any misunderstandings, have the lawyer put you agreement in writing. Always read the contract before signing it. If you don’t understand it get someone you trust to explain it to you. Make sure the contract states the terms of your agreement and does not contain blank spaces. Obtain a copy for you records. If the contract is on a contingency fee basis, state law requires that at the time the contract is entered into, the attorney shall provide you with a duplicate copy signed by both you and the attorney.

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What about attorney advertising or what should I do if an investigator or attorney contacts me?

The Supreme Court has ruled that attorneys may advertise (at least the prices they charge for certain routine matters). Just how and when they may advertise is still somewhat in question. Advertising may help the consumer. However, selecting an attorney simply because of an ad would be ill advised. Many attorneys who are qualified and charge reasonable prices might not advertise. What if an attorney solicits your case by personal contact? You should know that California state law prohibits any person from soliciting professional employment for an attorney and that this law exists for the benefit of you, the consumer. Lawyers are specifically prohibited by the Rules of Professional Conduct from soliciting employment, either directly or through an agent. If such a contact is made, you should immediately contact your local bar association or the State Bar.

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What if my attorney and I have a dispute?

First, talk to the attorney. Often these matters are simply a lack of communication. If that doesn’t resolve the matter, put the entire dispute in written form and present it to the local or state bar association for help. Before an attorney can sue for the fee, he or she must first give you an opportunity to arbitrate the fee dispute before a representative of the State Bar Association. The State Bar of California main office at 555 Franklin Street, San Francisco, CA 94102, has personnel to assist you in resolving disputes between attorneys and clients and you should contact them if the matter cannot be resolved locally. If you feel that an attorney has cheated you, you should also take the steps set forth above. If your attorney is a member of the Consumer Attorneys of California, don’t hesitate to write to our state office, at 980 9th Street, Suite 200, Sacramento, CA 95814.