If you find yourself in a situation where you think legal advice is needed, or someone has advised you to seek the services of an attorney, I encourage you to ask these 10 questions, the answers to which can help you find an attorney best suited to meet your needs.
1. Is a lawyer really necessary? As a threshold question, you may want to briefly take a step back and determine whether you have a legal problem which requires the involvement of a lawyer. Legal expertise is extremely valuable to resolve a legal problem, but some or part of your problem might be resolved through non-legal means. For example, a care coordinator could be hired to help you navigate insurance matters or help you identify and evaluate placement, or in-home care options, at a much cheaper rate than retaining an attorney.
2. Where can I get a referral to a good attorney? Local agencies and organizations often serve as a good referral source. Some organizations compile and maintain lists of lawyers skilled in a particular subject. For example, the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys has a searchable online database which can be found at https://www.naela.org/ . You may also want to try calling your local bar association or support groups for specific diseases. If you know any attorneys, ask them for a referral to a special needs planning or elder law attorney. Another attorney may be in position to know who handles such issues and whether that person is a good attorney. Talk with other families who have used an attorney and see if they will honestly share their experiences with you. Social workers and staff at medical provider offices may also be a good source for referrals.
3. What questions should I ask before I meet with any attorney? Once you have a list of attorneys, I recommend first going to the Florida Bar website (https://www.floridabar.org) to ensure he or she is a member in good standing of the Florida Bar. Then, call the law office and ask the following questions:
- How long has the attorney been in practice?
- Does his or her practice emphasize a particular area of law?
- How long has he or she been in this field?
- What percentage of his or her practice is devoted to elder law or special needs planning?
- How are appointments scheduled?
- What is the average time for the lawyer to return phone calls to clients?
- Is there a fee for the first consultation, and if so how much is it?
- Given the nature of your problem, what information should you bring with you to the initial consultation?
4. What experience does this lawyer have in resolving my particular issue? This is probably the single most important question you can ask. Special needs law and planning encompasses many different fields of law and is often defined by the clients to be served. Even Special Needs Law attorneys do not specialize in every one of these areas. Because of this, you will want to hire the attorney who regularly handles matters specific to your particular case and who will know enough about the other fields to question whether the action being taken might be affected by any of other areas of law. For example, if you are going to update your estate plan and you have a disabled child, the attorney needs to know enough about the public benefits that your child is currently receiving, or may become eligible to receive, to prevent disqualifying him or her from benefits in the future.
5. How many lawyers should I interview? Not every attorney is right for each client. Determine what kind of attorney is best suited for your personality and the legal issue at hand. If you have a contested legal problem which may require court intervention, an attorney with a litigation experience is necessary. If you are looking for an attorney that will encourage and provide hands on support throughout the process, you will want an attorney that exhibits patience and has the time to dedicate to the matter. Ideally you can interview three attorneys before making a decision on who to retain. The attorney-client relationship must be built on mutual trust and understanding. You need to feel comfortable enough to be able to share your issues with the lawyer and confident that the lawyer is competent and capable of handling your matter.
6. How should I prepare for my initial consultation? The key to a successful consultation is preparation and managing expectations. You will likely be asked to fill out a form or provide information in advance of your meeting. Having your information with supporting documentation organized will help the attorney to evaluate your problem more efficiently. Typically, a free consultation is one where you are meeting the lawyer and explaining your issue to the extent that the attorney has enough information to determine whether or not he or she can help you. If so, the attorney can then provide you with your options and legal strategy, along with a price for the legal services. Legal advice is usually reserved for after you have retained a lawyer. Some attorneys will offer longer consultations and charge for them, either at their hourly rate or at a discounted rate. Other attorneys will charge for the consultation, but the charge can be applied to future services if you retain the lawyer. Whatever the situation, be sure to clarify what the goal of the consultation is before the consultation occurs.
7. What questions should I ask during my initial consultation? Use the initial consultation to assess whether you like the personality of the attorney and whether you think he or she will be a good match to resolve your legal issue. Even if you get the answers you want to the questions below, if you do not “connect” with your attorney, you may find yourself unsatisfied with the attorney-client relationship as time goes on. Retaining the right attorney from the start saves you time and money because engaging a replacement attorney may often cost you bringing that replacement attorney up to speed on your legal issue and the work that has been partially done by your first attorney.
· What will it take to resolve it?
· Are there any alternate courses of action?
· What are the advantages and disadvantages of each possibility?
· How many attorneys are in the office?
· Who will handle your case?
· What is in the involvement of staff (e.g. legal assistants and paralegals in your case)?
· Has that attorney handled matters of this kind in the past?
· Is that attorney a member of the local bar association, a health advocacy committee, or trust and estates committee?
· How are fees computed?
· What is the estimate of the cost to resolve your problem and how long will it take?
8. How do elder law and special needs law attorneys charge for their services? There are several ways of charging for legal services and understanding what kind of fee structure the attorney is proposing is extremely important. Some lawyers offer a flat fee for services. This means that you will pay one set fee regardless of whether it takes the attorney two hours or ten hours to complete the work. In a flat fee scenario, some fees are to be paid entirely up front before the work is performed. In other cases, a portion is due at the time the lawyer is hired and the remaining balance is due upon completion of the work. Some services are billed on an hourly basis. In this situation, it is important to know what the attorney’s hourly rate is and whether there are paralegals and legal assistants who bill time to your file as well. Oftentimes, a lawyer will ask for an initial retainer to hold in the firm’s trust account which the attorney will bill against as he or she performs work for you. You may be asked to replenish the initial retainer if it falls below a certain amount. In addition to fees, attorneys may also charge you out-of-pocket expenses. Out-of-pocket expenses typically include charges for copies, postage, messenger fees, court fees, deposition fees, long-distance telephone calls, and other such costs. Find out if there will be any other incidental costs.
9. What is in the involvement of staff (e.g. legal assistants and paralegals in your case) and other professionals in your case? Elder law and special needs planning attorneys use a variety of legal tools and techniques to meet the goals and objectives of their clients. A good attorney will ask questions about other professionals already involved with your situation and collaborate with them to provide their clients with quality service and ensure their needs are met. They will also be able to identify whether there are certain tasks which can be delegated to a paralegal or legal assistant which can save you money. Using a holistic approach, a good special needs law attorney can advise and counsel clients throughout the legal process.
10. What should I sign when hiring a lawyer? Once you decide to hire the attorney, ask that the engagement terms be put into writing. It can be in the form of a contract or a letter that both the lawyer and the client signs. It should cover, at a minimum, who the parties to the agreement agree, what the scope of the services are, and what the fee structure is for payment. Some attorney engagement agreements are lengthy and you may want time to read and digest it on your own time before signing. Be sure to have the attorney answer any questions you have about the engagement agreement before you sign it. If you both decide to make modifications to the engagement agreement, be sure to put those changes in writing as well.
Sierra A. Butler is a principal and shareholder at Butler Elder Law, P.A., a member of Ferrari & Butler, PLLC where she concentrates her practice on Elder, Estate, and Special Needs Law. Sierra serves as a Director for the Manatee County Bar Association Young Lawyers Division and Membership Chair of the Manatee American Inn of Court. She is also a member of the Penick (Elder Law) Inn of Court, the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, and Cheers for Charity, a women’s giving circle committed to supporting local charities. www.butlerelderlaw.com 941.251.6611 Offices: Bradenton, Sarasota & Venice