Buying or selling a home? Marital or family problems? Writing a will?
The South Carolina Bar knows it can be hard to find the right kind of lawyer to help you with your legal matters. That's why we have prepared this brief, but informative fact sheet to help you with your search.
A quick Google search will reveal a number of attorneys willing to assist you. The question is, which one will be right for you? Well, a good place to start is to ask yourself . . .
- Do I need a lawyer who concentrates in a certain area of the law or a general practitioner?
- How much am I willing to pay to resolve this matter?
- Is it important that the lawyer I choose be located near my home or office?
- Is it important that I like the lawyer I choose?
After you've asked yourself those questions, it's a good time to start looking for referrals. Ask your relatives and friends for the names of lawyers they recommend.
The South Carolina Bar Lawyer Referral Service can help you find the right kind of lawyer. The toll free lawyer referral service maintains a list of their members who are willing to consult and advise you at a discounted rate of $50 for the first 30 minute consultation. If additional legal service is needed, the fee is something for you and your lawyer to agree on. You may call the Lawyer Referral Service at 1-800-868-2284 (statewide) or (803) 799-7100 in Columbia and Lexington counties.
For criminal cases, each county in South Carolina has a Public Defenders Office that provides free legal services for those who are indigent and cannot afford a lawyer. For people who can't afford to pay in other matters, you may want to contact Legal Services. They can help with certain kinds of noncriminal cases.
Remember Lawyers and law firms are like hats they come in variety of shapes and sizes. Quality will come from the lawyer who best "fits" the needs of your particular case. You should feel confident about the lawyer's ability, before hiring him or her. Remember, you are looking for a lawyer, not a new friend, not Perry Mason, and no, not Ben Matlock.
The Initial Interview
Once you've picked a lawyer, there are a couple of things you should think about in preparation for your initial interview.
Think about your case or legal matter so that you will be prepared to answer the lawyer's questions.
- Make note of the spelling of relevant names, dates, and other information that the lawyer may need.
- Write down some basic questions for the lawyer. For example, "what is your experience in this area of the law?"
- Gather any written materials that relate to your legal situation, such as traffic tickets, deeds and wills or letters from an opposing attorney.
- Expect to discuss the entire legal matter, not just those parts that make you look good. Without the whole picture, your attorney cannot provide proper representation.
Some clients are too intimidated to ask their lawyers the following types of questions:
- What result should I expect in this legal matter? Is there a good chance I can get what I want or am I wasting my money?
- How long is it going to take to resolve this matter?
- If I don't have enough money to pay your bill in full at the end of each month; could we set up a payment schedule?
- Will I be billed for time we spend talking on the telephone? Does that rate include your staff and expenses? What exactly is billable time?
- If there is something that you are wondering about, ask.
A Fee Agreement Is Importantant
It is important for you and your lawyer to agree about what you will pay the lawyer and what services the lawyer will perform. This way, both of you will know what to expect from each other as you work together on your case.
Abraham Lincoln once emphasized the value of a lawyer's time when he said, "a lawyer's time and advice are his stock and trade." The basic ingredient in most fees charged by lawyers is the amount of time spent on a particular problem. In one important way, a lawyer's professional services differ from those of a doctor or a dentist: much of the work is accomplished when the client is not present.
Often clients are unaware that the document and the advice given in a few minutes are actually the products of many hours of work. When you engage the services of an attorney, you are really hiring an entire law office to work for you. The legal fee usually depends on the time involved in preparation of the matter, the difficulty of the matter, the documents or pleadings which must be drafted, the number of letters, phone calls and interviews, the research, and the number and length of court appearances.
In many cases your lawyer may require a payment before agreeing to undertake the work. Often a lawyer will agree to represent you on a contingency fee basis. A contingency fee means that the lawyer's fee is due only if a settlement or recovery is achieved; it is based on a percentage of the amount recovered, with the exception of certain expenses.
You should discuss the costs of legal services at your first interview with the lawyer and reach an agreement. Do not hesitate to discuss fees at any time during the handling of your legal matter. If you have questions regarding a bill, talk it over with your lawyer. You may not be aware of the extent of the lawyer's work on the case.
Although written fee agreements are not always required, it is helpful to have your fee agreement in writing. Ask your lawyer for a written statement of the fees and costs involved as well as any other costs you might incur as a result of this legal matter. When the legal matter is resolved, your lawyer should provide you with a written settlement sheet that shows the total amount you paid and what it covered, including the attorney's fee, other costs, any outstanding bills from physicians or hospitals, and any liens.
Keeping Legal Fees Down
Here are a few suggestions from lawyers on how to keep your legal fees down:
- When you go for your first interview, take any papers relating to the case. It's also a good idea to write down the names, addresses and phone numbers of all the persons involved as well as all the facts that you can recall which pertain to the case. Doing this yourself will cut down on the time your lawyer will have to spend in gathering information.
- In your first meeting, it's important to make a full and honest disclosure to your lawyer of all the facts, good and bad. This is essential in making a determination about your case. Remember, your disclosures to your lawyer are confidential when not made in the presence of another person.
- Don't allow your emotions to color the facts, try and be as accurate as you can. Brevity goes a long way in getting your money's worth, be as brief as possible with your phone calls. Actually, a good rule of thumb with phone calls is to avoid the unnecessary ones.
- It's a good idea to decide in advance, as best you can, exactly what you want your lawyer to accomplish for you. Also take into consideration the financial advantages and disadvantages of a proposed legal action by discussing it with your lawyer. For example, would the court costs and legal fees be more than the amount of the bad debt you would like to recover?
Payment of Legal Fees
The time for payment of legal fees depends on the type of legal service you wish rendered. Your lawyer may require you to pay a retainer before the lawyer begins work on the case. Many lawyers will bill you on a monthly basis.
If you want to put a legal fee or costs on a credit card, ask your lawyer whether he or she participates in a plan for one of the credit cards you hold and whether the particular charge qualifies. If you are not certain you will be able to pay promptly, talk it over with your lawyer. You should be able to reach an agreement.
Working closely with another can sometimes be difficult. Add to that the tension of being involved in a legal matter and you have the potential for any number of crossed signals and misunderstandings. In order to have a good working relationship with your lawyer, you'll want to remember to:
- keep your lawyer informed of any new information that may be pertinent your legal matter;
- ask questions when there is something you don't understand;
- maintain a realistic view of the progress and outcome of your legal matter; and
- pay your bill.
Your lawyer is committed to treating you with respect and courtesy and to:
- charge a reasonable fee and to explain in advance how that fee will be computed and billed;
- return your telephone calls promptly;
- and keep you informed and provide you with copies of important papers.
Most people who hire lawyers find that their lawyers are effective, honest and hardworking. By following some of these suggestions, and by communicating clearly and fully, you'll improve the possibility of having a positive experience with your lawyer.
This information was prepared to give you some general information on the law. It is not intended as legal advice about any particular problem. If you have questions about the law you should consult a lawyer. If you do not know a lawyer, you can call the South Carolina Bar Lawyer Referral Service weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. The number is 799-7100 in Richland or Lexington Counties, and 1-800-868-2284 from other parts of the state.