Hiring a Lawyer

The following information was discussed by Attorney Whitney Hughes on the April 21, 2009 edition of Legal Briefs on KDKA's Pittsburgh Today Live.

Given that the annual KD & You and the Law is underway, it’s important to revisit how important it is to contact an attorney before a small problem becomes a large one, and how one goes about selecting an attorney when the time comes.

Also, many calls received through the program are questions about the attorney-client relationship and the problems that may come from it.

Below are some common questions as well as some helpful tips.

How do I know if I need a lawyer of if I can handle something myself?

Usually the answer to this question depends on the situation you find yourself in and how far along in the legal process you are.

May times it helps to just run a situation by an attorney to find out if there would be greater consequences by either letting a matter go or by handling it yourself.

In many civil cases which would be heard before a local magistrate (otherwise known as small claims court), many people do decide to represent themselves because there is usually a small amount in dispute and often the fees you would pay to an attorney are greater that what you would stand to recover. Keep in mind that you are not required to do so—you can retain an attorney. For larger civil cases which either go to arbitration or to the Court of Common Pleas, most will retain a private attorney.

For criminal cases, it is usually advisable that you retain an attorney. Many times the charges could be either reduced or dropped at an early proceeding by an attorney. A layperson would not know the arguments to be made or the procedure to be followed, so it is best to have some help.

I know I have to hire an attorney, but where do I start?

Steps in finding a good attorney:

  • Ask for recommendations from neighbors, friends, and family, etc.
  • Call the bar association (Lawyer Referral Service).
  • Schedule a consultation with the attorney/find out if there is a fee to do so.
  • Find out how long they've been practicing, what kind of experience they have.
  • Be up front with them about exactly what you need them to do.
  • Find out what their fees are up front.
  • Ask if they carry malpractice insurance.

I’ve decided on an attorney to hire and I’ve scheduled my first consultation. What types of things should I look for and what questions should I ask?

How does the attorney structure their fees?

All fee agreements must be in writing – make sure you are presented with a fee agreement that you understand.

If you don't understand the fee agreement, ASK. You have the right to ask questions.

I’ve hired an attorney but it always seems like we’re speaking different languages and working at cross purposes. What can I do?

Make sure you're clear about what you want the attorney to do for you. You may both have very different expectations of what the outcome should be.

Tell them everything—even that bad stuff. Keeping things close to the vest and not disclosing certain pieces of information may not only end up hurting your case, but may also end up costing you more in the long run.

If you don't understand something, ask about it. Keep in mind though, that attorneys do charge for their time, and continuous calling will probably end up costing you time and money.

As always, for any questions regarding hiring a Lawyer, you may contact the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service at 412-261-5555.