Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

25 Aug 2010, 2:35 a.m.

How To Get And Deal With A Lawyer

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2010 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

At least one friend of mine was generally unsure how one finds and works with a lawyer to get help with, say, government paperwork, or employment contract review. The "How to get a lawyer" entry on the MetaFilter wiki clearly and comprehensively explains how to find, interview, choose, and work with lawyers, but I felt like adding to the chorus with my personal experience. I'm a US resident and have only ever chosen a lawyer in the US.

When I needed a contract reviewed, I found my lawyer, Danielle Sucher, via a referral from my friend Riana. Your personal and professional network can probably recommend a lawyer. Searching the Ask MetaFilter recommendations is also useful.

It is perfectly fine to email or call up a lawyer and say, for example, "Do you do immigration law? I am handling a student visa matter, could you help us with that within [timescale]?" The lawyer may ask you for a quick summary of the issue and what you need, so she can do just enough specification to decide whether you need help in her specialty. Like any consultant, she's trying to figure out what you actually need, and she has more domain experience than you, so she might ask questions that initially seem irrelevant, or ask for information you don't have at hand. It's okay to ask what she needs to know and then get back to her. This initial consultation is free of charge unless she specifically says otherwise.

It feels a little easier if you can say in that first communication that "such-and-so referred me to you," as it is with accountants/CPAs, plumbers, tutors, and any kind of service providers. I am sure I stumbled in my initial contact with Danielle: "uh, I don't know what to do or how much things cost." She led me through it. I believe independent general practitioners are especially used to people for whom this is their first lawyer.

If it's clear that the lawyer practices in the sub-field that you need, then you ask about her rates. Some rates are hourly and some are per-task (say, a set charge to review a contract and discuss it with you). If you're okay with those prices, then you arrange how to give her information and communicate about the work. You could do it over email, in person, and/or by phone. When I work with Danielle, I email her a request to review a document, she says yes, I email her the document, and she tells me when she'll finish looking at it. On or before that deadline, she replies and tells me her issues, or calls and we talk about it over the phone. (We haven't met.) And then the Richardson-Harihareswara household sends her a check, gladly, because the risk mitigation and the reassurance is worth it.

I probably know people who would be happier if they had a lawyer in their lives, someone to consult about once a year when signing big scary contracts, but who haven't quite gotten one because they perceive that step as scary or hard. They might think that all lawyers suck, or that it's far too hard to find a good one, or that lawyer fees are unaffordable, or that seeing one will be inconvenient. Those are not true in my experience, and I hope they don't stop you from finding and using a lawyer. I find a particular comfort in having My Lawyer's phone number in my cell phone's speed dial.


25 Aug 2010, 8:19 a.m.

This is great, thanks for writing it and linking to the Mefi post.

I would add that if you have friends or family who are lawyers, don't be surprised or upset if you ask them to handle your legal matter and they say no. I think there is a common misconception (at least among people who don't know many lawyers) that a lawyer can do everything, everywhere. But law, despite being one of The Professions, is enough of a medieval guild, with enough licensing and ethical rules, that its practitioners are very circumscribed in what they can do and where.

First, unless a lawyer has a bar membership in your state, then she can't practice there, meaning she can't help you (PHV admission aside). The unauthorized practice of law is a very serious ethical breach.

Also, we can't be everything to everyone. If you get a DUI and your cousin is a corporate lawyer, she won't be able to help you because that's not her area of law. Or, conversely, if your cousin is a DUI lawyer and you are trying to execute a complicated business deal, no dice. Our ethical rules first and foremost call for competency, and while it's possible to brush up on a new area of law and apply your general lawyering skills to it (all new lawyers have to do this, after all), there are limits on that. It's better to direct you to someone who specializes in what you need than to screw up your murder trial.

Next, if your friend or relative is a lawyer with a large law firm (rather than a small or solo practice), then, even if she is a specialist in what you need, it may not work out. Law firms charge high rates, and even if you can pay them, she'll have to run a conflict check to make sure she can represent you. Big firms have a lot of clients. If you want your cousin to sue your property management company for evicting you, and it turns out her firm represents the company, well... (Conflicts are another big area of ethics. Solo practitioners have to check for conflicts, too, it's just easier when it's one person's clients than when there are 300 attorneys and a zillion clients.)

Next: fees. For pro bono matters, the fee isn't an issue. Firms do want pro bono clients, so it's totally worth asking Cousin Biglaw if, say, you want to incorporate a nonprofit org, or you have a relative who's seeking asylum, something like that. That's a legitimate pro bono matter, not just "I was hoping you would do this for me for free." Do I come to your job and ask you to work for free for me? If you're a professional geek, you probably know the feeling ("build me a website!"). Pro bono publico is one thing, but if it's just pro bono you and you're a regular working schmoe, be willing to pay. (There is a big problem facing our profession in that there is a vast class of people who are too middle class for pro bono representation, but not rich enough to fund their legal battles through to the end, but that's another story.)

Anyway, this got long and I'm sure Mefi has many of the same things to say. I just wanted to put it out there that many of us start getting "ha ha only serious" comments from our friends and family, all over the U.S., of "oh, now I can hire you for my traffic tickets/criminal defense/book contract/etc.!", from the moment we start law school. And the reality is that it probably ain't ever gonna happen, for some combo of the reasons described above.

In short: Please understand that when a lawyer who is a loved one says no to your request, she's not squirreling out of it and citing ethical concerns as a sneaky excuse like a sneaky slippery lawyer. She wants you to have the best representation possible for your problem. And if that means not her, ask if she can refer you to somebody instead of uninviting her from the family reunion barbecue. Thank you.

25 Aug 2010, 8:24 a.m.

Also, I have a J.D. but I still double-post comments on the Internet. SMRT!

Sumana Harihareswara
25 Aug 2010, 8:59 a.m.

Riana, thank you so much for those important things to remember! Deleting your accidental double post was the least I could do. :)

25 Aug 2010, 9:27 a.m.

Thanks, Sumana! Oh, one last thing - in addition to being asked to work for free, here's another thing lawyers just love:

You: I need legal help with matter x.<br/>Lawyer friend: I'm sorry, I'm not that kind of lawyer, I only do y.<br/>You: You can't even do x?! What'd they teach you in law school, then?<br/>Lawyer friend: ...

Dan Percival
27 Aug 2010, 13:04 p.m.

(There is a big problem facing our profession in that there is a vast class of people who are too middle class for pro bono representation, but not rich enough to fund their legal battles through to the end, but that's another story.)

Knowing someone who came very close to bankruptcy because of a costly medical malpractice that fell into that category, this parenthetical caught my eye. Riana, I would be very interested to hear your long (or longer) version of that story.