Ten Things to Ask When Hiring a Lawyer

If you think you need a lawyer, chances are something serious is going on in your life. Except for divorce situations, most military service members never need to hire a lawyer. When a crisis situation occurs, soldiers and airmen normally don’t have any significant experience evaluating different lawyers. Finding the right lawyer for your situation can make all the difference in the outcome of your case. This is especially true for service members given the unique aspects of military life. For example, in divorce or family law cases, it’s essential for your attorney to understand how military retirement benefits are divided, especially for National Guard clients (division of retirement points, not automatic 50%). Likewise, a lawyer preparing a will for a service member should address military funeral benefits, SGLI/VGLI life insurance, death gratuities, DoD survivor benefits etc. Yet another example, the average criminal law attorney may not know the implications of a criminal allegation on a security clearance, or how entering a plea bargain can administratively end a military career.

This article is designed to provide military personnel some questions to help determine if a particular attorney is a good fit for you.

1. How long have you been licensed to practice law?
You want to gauge if the attorney has the experience needed for your legal matter. A brand-new lawyer may not be well-suited for your case. On the other hand, you may not need to hire the legal big gun for a relatively minor matter.

2. What areas of law do you focus on? Who is your typical client?
General practice attorneys are becoming rare. Most lawyers try to specialize in a few areas to maximize their competency. If you encounter a lawyer who claims to handle any type of legal matter, you should proceed with caution. After all, you wouldn’t hire a pediatrician to perform heart surgery.

3. What sets you apart from other attorneys?
Every lawyer has a law degree. Does the attorney possess additional degrees or certifications, or have past employment or unique expertise relevant to your legal matter?

4. What is your track record with this type of case?
Don’t be shy about asking this question. Be wary of vague answers. Ask about taking cases to trial versus settlement.

5. Do I really need a lawyer? Are there other alternatives to solve my problem?
A true professional will tell you if you are potentially wasting money by hiring them. Ask if your legal problem can be handled through an out-of-court arrangement or mediation.

6. What are the possible outcomes of my case?
It’s a major “red flag” if your attorney guarantees a specific outcome. Seasoned lawyers will have an idea of the range of possible outcomes.

7. What will this cost?
Various fee arrangements exist depending on the type of issue you’re facing. Contingency fee (normally personal injury cases), hourly rate, and flat fee agreements are all common when hiring a lawyer. You need to have a clear understanding of how you will be expected to pay the lawyer.

8. Will you provide me with a representation agreement?
This is a contract between the attorney and the client that specifies exactly what the attorney will do for you. It should be easily understood and written in plain English. Run from any lawyer that balks at a written representation agreement.

9. How do you communicate with your clients?
Poor communication with the attorney is a major source of frustration for clients. Ask how often you will hear from the attorney and in what form – email, phone calls, written letters? If you don’t feel like you can communicate your concerns with the potential attorney, or they don’t seem to understand what you’re saying, this is probably not the right attorney for you.

10. How do you define “winning” this case?
If you’re up against the government, a corporation or powerful individual, you may need aggressive representation to protect your legal rights. On the other hand, some cases need a delicate, low-key approach, especially when you run the risk of negative media exposure or reputation issues are at stake. Sometimes you just need the issue to “go away” and fast.