Find a Lawyer Who Fits

Find a Lawyer Who Fits

Hiring the wrong lawyer wastes money, leading to a frustrated and hostile client relationship. You need to find the lawyer who fits.

People pick lawyers the way they buy cars: Some people hire a flashy status symbol they can’t afford and others pick the cheapest model, then waste money trying to keep it on the road. Picking a cheap lawyer with a low hourly rate or a discount “alternative” fee may cost more, too, if the lawyer doesn’t have relevant experience, wastes time, or wants to quit or change the deal if things get complicated.

Practical clients find a “best buy” that gets them where they need to go at a reasonable price. The best lawyer has substantial relevant experience solving the same problem you have. Relevant experience saves time on your project and makes mistakes less likely. You want the lawyer who’s a good fit.

Don’t obsess about hourly rates or whether your accountant or father-in-law recognizes the lawyer’s name. And forget about hiring a whole firm – their old fashioned department store business model may provide them with marketing and cross-selling advantages, but their goal is to force your problem to fit their legal inventory, not find the most cost-effective fit for your situation. Most projects really need just one experienced lawyer: Two or more underemployed or inexperienced lawyers will launch you into the $35,000 a month club.

How do you find this good-fitting lawyer? Somebody could write a book about it – and we did – but here’s one of our best techniques. To find out what your potential lawyer’s really made of, ask for an itemized fee estimate or budget. Just knowing this amount, and having the lawyer create it, will tell you whether your expectations are realistic and make it easier to break the ice if the cost begins to soar. Itemizing the budget gives you a roadmap of the path and time it will take, not just the cost. If you can’t live with the budget, you need to keep looking – most legal budgets end up being low, either on purpose (to attract your business) or because lawyers just don’t budget well.

But those are the obvious reasons to ask for a budget – we’re looking for a deeper insight. For us, how the lawyer presents the budget is a litmus test for the lawyer you can’t trust, and especially for the lawyer who lacks relevant experience. Most lawyers will resist giving you any budget, and those who will usually cover themselves with caveats, assumptions, disclaimers, and other excuses. But lawyers with relevant experience can give you an itemized, fairly accurate budget without making it read like a cell phone contract or throwing a fit. Too many caveats or an unwillingness to budget indicates a lack of relevant experience (or someone you can’t trust), so keep looking. Changing lawyers later is messy and expensive: Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions up front.

John Toothman, Esq., is an experienced lawyer and founder of The Devil’s Advocate, the legal fee management firm at His publications include The Civilian’s Guide to Lawyers: How to Hire a Lawyer, currently available through Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s PubIt, with additional volumes to be published soon.

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