NEW YORK — Need a lawyer? In New York City, you can call the local bar association. A representative will listen to your concerns and either suggest a course of action, or, if needed, refer you to an attorney.
"We receive over 100,000 calls a year and refer almost 36,000 calls to an attorney," says Christopher Marsden, a spokesman for the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.
That's one way to find a lawyer.
But, even if you live in one of the many communities where a bar association gives such referrals, there's more to know about this important issue. At some point, almost everyone must find an attorney, if for no other reason than to draft a will or execute a home purchase. Knowing a good lawyer is probably one of life's necessities, perhaps exceeded only by finding a reputable car mechanic and an efficient, low-cost plumber!
Fortunately, there are more than enough lawyers in the United States to go around - 946,000 of them as of December 1995, according to Nancy Slonim, a spokeswoman for the American Bar Association (ABA) in Chicago. By 2000, according to one study, the United States will have more than 1 million lawyers.
Lawyers come in all types: Some deal just with criminal cases or corporate law; but most are involved with civil issues. Some command huge salaries. Some earn very modest wages, working for legal-assistance groups. Perhaps the majority earn upper middle-class salaries, either in private practice or employed by a company. While not all lawyers are specialists, most tend to focus on certain aspects of law.
So, just how do you go about finding a lawyer?
Charles White, who has prepared a reference book for the ABA, says you can find lawyers through recommendations of friends and co-workers, perhaps your company, legal-aid groups, as well as from a city or state bar association.
Often you don't need a lawyer
What's often overlooked, says Mr. White, "is that not everyone who thinks they need a lawyer actually does." Many times a dispute can be handled through counseling, negotiation, or arbitration - or by calling the police if it is a criminal matter. And some companies offer do-it-yourself legal kits or computer software on issues such as writing a will.
Issues that usually require an attorney, White says, include drafting a will, divorce, dealing with probate, estate planning and settlement, civil wrongs, financial matters such as lending money to others, filing for bankruptcy, starting a business, complicated brokerage-house or tax disputes, and consumer impasses, such as discovering your car is a lemon and that your auto dealership won't repair it.
If it is necessary to go to a lawyer, says White, you should take several steps before making the visit:
*Be ready to quickly summarize your case.
*Prepare a written summary to leave with the attorney. You should have all necessary documents in proper order and easily accessible.
*Plan to pay some initial fees, perhaps after the first visit, certainly after the second. In the New York City bar program, the first half hour of consultation costs $25.
Questions to ask
Before settling on an attorney, ask him or her several questions:
How long has he been in practice? What percentage of his legal work involves your type of case? Does he have any special certification, such as in environmental law? What will be the possible range of outcomes in your case? What happens if you lose? Who specifically will work on your case? Will it be the attorney or an assistant? If the latter, what is his or her expertise?
And, perhaps most important, what will be your cost? Will you be billed by the hour or on a fixed-fee basis? If your case is on a contingency basis - such as a lawyer attempting to win a settlement in a personal-injury case - what will be the lawyer's remuneration? (Usually the lawyer gets one-third of the amount won, an ABA source says. Moreover, expenses are borne by the litigant, not the attorney.) Will you be billed at once, or over time? Must you pay with cash or a personal check, or can you whip out a credit card?
One challenge for today's litigant involves specialization. The ABA now recognizes 11 groups around the US that provide special recognition for certain types of legal work, such as in estate or probate work. But obviously, not all lawyers are specialized.
If you turn out to have chosen a bad lawyer, you can file a complaint, usually with a state or local bar group, and, in some states, with the state supreme court, White says. The bar group will then investigate the issue. You can also sue for malpractice (using another lawyer) or contact the police. If you are defrauded by an attorney, which is considered rare, many state bar associations have a client-protection fund that can be used to help offset your losses.
The ABA offers a consumer booklet entitled "The American Lawyer: How and When to Use One." To get a copy, call (312) 988-5522 and ask for No. 2350021. The cost: $2.50 plus $2 for shipping.