No lawyer is an expert in every field of law. Fortunately, there are many ways to find a lawyer who is an expert in handling your particular legal problem.
Word of Mouth: Friends and relatives can be a good source of information about lawyers. But someone who was happy with his divorce lawyer might not be a good source of information to help you find a lawyer for a personal injury case.
Specialists: Sometimes you might need a lawyer who specializes in the type of case you have. Other times, you might need a "general practitioner" who handles many different legal problems. A lawyer is not allowed to accept a case if the lawyer does not have enough experience to handle it. If you go to a lawyer who does not handle the type of case you have, that lawyer may be able to help you find someone else.
Tennessee does not allow lawyers to call themselves "specialists" except in a few areas of the law:
• A "patent lawyer" is someone who is admitted to practice law before the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
• Lawyers may also be certified by the Tennessee Commission on Continuing Legal Education and Specialization in 14 fields:
Civil Trial Legal Malpractice
Criminal Trial Medical Malpractice
Consumer Bankruptcy Elder Law
Business Bankruptcy Estate Planning
Creditors' Rights Family Law
Accounting Malpractice Juvenile Law
DUI Defense Social Security Disability
You can get information about lawyers who are certified as "specialists" at the Commission’s website: www.cletn.com. Remember that many lawyers are experts in one or more of these areas even though they are not certified as "specialists."
Advertisements: You will find advertisements for lawyers in the telephone book, in newspapers, and on television. Tennessee has strict rules about how lawyers may advertise to make sure ads are not misleading. An advertisement can be useful to tell you if a lawyer handles a particular type of case or if the lawyer offers a "free first visit." However, not all lawyers choose to advertise, and the ad should not be the only thing that helps you choose a lawyer.
Making an Appointment. Before you make an appointment to talk to a lawyer, you should ask three questions:
• "Do you handle ____________cases?" Be sure the lawyer takes your type of case.
• "Do you charge for the first visit?" Ask the lawyer if there is a charge for the first consultation and, if so, how much it is.
• "Do you represent _____________?" Be sure that the lawyer does not represent the person on the other side of your case. Even if another lawyer represents the other person now, the lawyer you call may have represented that person in the past.
Be Prepared: When you meet with the lawyer for the first time, write down the questions you want to ask, and bring all of the papers related to your case.
Free Lawyers: You may be able to get a lawyer without charge. If you think you are eligible, go to "How Can I Get a Free Lawyer?"
Legal Fees - How Do Attorneys Charge?
There are several issues that lawyers must consider when they decide how much to charge:
• How much time will the service take?
• Does the lawyer have special skills or experience with this type of legal issue?
• Does the case involve unusual issues?
• If the lawyer takes this case, will it keep the lawyer from taking other cases?
• Are there unusual deadlines?
Generally, there are three ways that clients pay attorneys for their services:
• contingency fees;
• hourly rates; or
• fixed fees.
Contingency Fees: A contingency-fee case is one in which you pay the lawyer a percentage of whatever money you collect from the other person in the lawsuit. If your case is lost, the lawyer is paid nothing for his or her time. However, you must pay the lawyer’s expenses (such as depositions, filing fees, court reporter fees, etc.) Although the attorney may advance some of those costs to you if you cannot afford them, you remain responsible to reimburse your attorney for those costs whether you win or lose.
In some cases (such as social security and worker's compensation) there may be a limit on the percentage or the dollar amount that an attorney may charge. In most personal injury cases, the law does not specify what the attorney can charge, but it must be reasonable under the circumstances. Sometimes the lawyer may charge one percentage (such as one-third) of what the client collects if the other side does not appeal, but charge a higher percentage (such as 40%) if the lawyer has to handle an appeal.
Hourly Rates: Lawyers charge "by the hour" for many types of services. Different lawyers charge different hourly rates; and sometimes, may charge one rate for one type of case and another rate for another type of case. Periodically, your attorney should give you itemized statements of the time that he or she has worked on your case. The lawyer’s hourly rate may seem very high, but remember that law offices usually have high overhead expenses. A lawyer’s hourly fee is not the lawyer’s "take-home pay."
Fixed Fees: Attorneys may charge a fixed fee for standard matters when the lawyer can predict how much time it will take. Typical matters for which a lawyer might charge a fixed fee include, preparing a simple will or deed, handling a routine bankruptcy, or defending a minor criminal charge.
Retainers: A lawyer may ask a client to pay a certain amount in advance. In "fixed fee" or "hourly rate" cases, lawyer often require the client to pay all or part of the fee in advance. In addition, the lawyer may require the client to pay a certain amount in advance to pay for expenses – even in "contingency fee" cases. If money is left over after the expenses are paid, the lawyer will refund that amount to the client.
Fee Agreements: In most cases, you should have a written fee agreement with your lawyer. The fee agreement should explain:
• What the lawyer plans to do for you: If the lawyer agrees to represent you in a trial, does the lawyer also agree to represent you if the case is appealed?
• The fee: Is the fee "fixed," "hourly," or "contingent"? Will it change if there is an appeal or something unexpected happens?
• Expenses: What expenses do you have to pay? When are they due?
• Retainer: Do you have to pay anything in advance?
You should never be afraid to discuss attorney's fees or to negotiate attorney's fees with your attorney at the beginning of your representation. Having a clear understanding between you and your attorney on the issue of fees will assure a good working relationship between you and your attorney.
What If I Am Unhappy With My Attorney or His/Her Fees?
If you do think that your attorney is performing his or her duties, the first step in resolving the problem is to talk with the attorney directly. Tell the attorney about your concerns and ask for an appointment to discuss the matter. Often that discussion will clear up your problem.
Poor Communication: Many problems between attorneys and clients are the result of poor communication. Both the attorney and the client are responsible for maintaining communication. Your attorney should respond to your telephone messages and letters. But since lawyers have so many clients and often work outside the office (such as in court), you will not always be able to reach your attorney immediately. If you cannot talk to your lawyer when you call, be sure to leave a detailed message about what you need. That will help the lawyer contact you more efficiently.
Second Opinions: If you are unhappy with the advice your attorney gave you, remember that you hired the attorney for his/her professional opinion; and this opinion may not be what you wanted it to be. You are always allowed to get a second opinion, but lawyers must follow rules about when they can talk to another lawyer’s client; so always inform the second attorney of the purpose of the inquiry.
Hiring Another Lawyer: If you are still dissatisfied after talking with your attorney, you have the right to discharge the attorney and obtain another. If you do hire another attorney, you should tell the new attorney that someone else represented you in the past. If you have a pending court case when you decide to hire a new lawyer, the lawyers must file certain papers with the court to clarify who is responsible for your case in court.
Individuals are also entitled to act as their own attorney if they so desire; but, if this decision is made after a lawyer has begun representing you in a court case, you must give notice to the court and all parties that you have decided to represent yourself.
Disagreements about the Lawyer’s Fee: If you and your lawyer disagree about the lawyer’s fee, discuss the problem with your attorney. If that does not solve the problem, you may contact the Chattanooga Bar Association for information concerning the Chattanooga Bar Association Fee Dispute Arbitration Committee. The papers that you need in order to begin this process are available at www.chattbar.org, 'for the public'; 'how to file a fee dispute'. Please download the Complaint form and the Client's Consent to Arbitrate form, fill out and mail both to Chattanooga Bar Association, 801 Broad Street, Suite 420, Chattanooga, TN 37402 or email to Lynda Hood at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suing Your Lawyer: If your attorney has been negligent in the manner in which he or she has represented you, you may sue the attorney for professional negligence to recover money the lawyer’s negligence cost you.
Ethics Complaints: If you feel that your attorney has been unethical, you may file a complaint with the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee. The Board will contact the lawyer after reviewing your complaint. You may contact the Board of Professional Responsibility at www.tpbr.org or (800) 486-5714.
If you want to get a new lawyer, you must first end the attorney/client relationship with your first lawyer. In other words, tell your attorney that you no longer want him or her to represent you. You may talk to the lawyer in person, but you should also follow up with a letter. Then, both you and your attorney will know that you intend to end your attorney/client relationship.
Most attorneys will not agree to represent you until you have ended your attorney/client relationship with your first attorney and have your file available for review by your new attorney. Only by reviewing your file can your new attorney determine how much more work remains to be done. Your new attorney will also probably want to know what problems existed between you and your first attorney so that the same problems do not occur again in your new attorney/client relationship.
Your File: Ask your original lawyer for your file, so you can give it to your new lawyer. The lawyer must give you the personal papers in your file (such as deeds or stock certificates), but the lawyer will probably keep his or her "work product" (things the lawyer did on your file) until you pay any fees you still owe that lawyer.
Paying the Original Lawyer: Your original lawyer may be entitled to a fee for his or her legal services until the time of termination. You may also have to reimburse that lawyer for expenses the lawyer paid on your behalf.
If your first lawyer was working on a contingency-fee basis, there are some extra things to keep in mind. Attorneys invest time in contingency-fee cases with the expectation of being paid for that time with a percentage of the amount you may be awarded. The original lawyer in a contingency-fee case is entitled to payment for the services that he or she provided to you even though the agreement was that the attorney would be paid later. Thus, you may have to negotiate with your first attorney to decide how that attorney will be paid in the event that you obtain a recovery either by settlement or by judgment. Sometimes, your new attorney may be able to assist you in negotiating with your first attorney on these matters.
Pending Court Cases: If your case has been filed in court, the judge must sign an order allowing a new lawyer to represent you.