''You need a lawyer.''
For many people, those four words may be the most worrisome they ever hear. In the first place, a situation that requires a lawyer's advice and assistance may be an unpleasant one.
In the second place, if a person doesn't already know a lawyer, he may not know how to find one who can handle his problem.
Finally, when you do find someone you are comfortable with, you don't know how much he'll charge. So a person may avoid the help he needs, figuring he cannot afford it.
In recent years, however, the lifting of prohibitions against lawyer advertising has brought the legal profession increased public attention and awareness. In some cases, it has also brought lower fees for such standard legal services as wills, assistance with real estate purchases, bankruptcy, and some business incorporations.
In addition, most urban areas have seen the growth of legal ''clinics'' where many of these services are performed at highly discounted rates. If a person just needs a very simple will, for instance, this can often be done at one of these clinics by filling in some blank spaces in a standardized text. The same thing can sometimes be done for handling bankruptcies or incorporating new, small businesses.
If your legal needs cannot be met by one of these clinics -- and many legal experts argue there are few things that can be thoroughly handled in a clinic -- how do you find a lawyer?
The first thing many people do is ask someone they know, a co-worker, banker, relative, or neighbor if they have used a lawyer for a similar problem.
Another way is through those advertisements. Many of these ads list the lawyer's or law firm's areas of specialization. This can be a good start, but you should remember that there are no special qualifications needed to place an ad in a newspaper, on television or radio, or in the Yellow Pages.
Another possible source of information about lawyers might be your local, state, or county bar association. Many of these associations have their own lawyer referral services, which can tell you which lawyers in your area specialize in the kind of help you need. In addition to services sponsored by local bar associations, some larger urban areas have private legal referral agencies.
Not every lawyer practicing in a particular location, however, will be listed by one of these services. The lawyer first has to ask to be listed by the service. Then he has to meet the referral services' qualifications for listing, and meet certain standards of legal ability and experience. So when you call a referral service, ask what its standards are.
Once you have found a lawyer -- or a few candidates from which to make a final selection -- one of the first things you should ask each candidate is how much he charges. Many people are afraid to ask lawyers how much they charge, even though they would ask anyone else who sells them a product or service.
Don't accept lines like ''We'll worry about that later,'' or ''Don't be concerned about it.'' You should be concerned about it. It's your money. While many legal cases can run into unexpected complications that add unexpected legal fees, you should have some idea of what the basic fee for the service is and what additional fees might come up later. Will the lawyer charge you every time you call him to ask a question? If the case involves seeking damages from another party, what percentage, or ''contingency fee,'' will he take?
While inexpensive services are nice for some things, be wary of lawyers who tell you their fees are drastically lower than anyone else's or who guarantee their fees. A lawyer, particularly one who works in an office or clinic, has a certain amount of overhead that his fees must cover, including rent, salaries, utilities, and legal books and periodicals. About the only way a lawyer can charge super-low rates and still cover overhead is to handle as many cases as he can cram into his schedule.
If you go this route, you may get just the attention and qualifications you pay for.