How to Find the Right Lawyer for Your Small Claims Suit - dummies

How to Find the Right Lawyer for Your Small Claims Suit

By Judge Philip Straniere

Choosing a lawyer you like for your small claims suit isn’t essential, but it will make the process more pleasant. Working with a lawyer for your small claims suit who is competent, trustworthy, and will do a good job for you is more important than personality or looks.

If you have no idea about how to find a lawyer, contact your local county bar associations. Bar associations often also maintain a referral list just for these purposes. This is a list of local lawyers who have expertise in a particular area of the law. These referral services are usually free, but you will have to make your own deal with the lawyer if you decide to hire one.

Smart ways to find good lawyers for small claims court

There are several bad ways to find a lawyer: Jotting down a phone number as it flashes by on the bottom of the television screen during a 30-second commercial; responding to a pop-up ad on the Internet; and picking a lawyer out of the Yellow Pages based on a really eye-catching ad are all methods not to use.

Although a personal recommendation from a person you trust or firsthand experience is the best way to choose a lawyer, the Internet has made it easier to research legal firms to find the ones that may meet your needs. Check the following as you peruse lawyer’s websites:

  • Location: You want a lawyer who practices in your general area, not only for your own convenience but also because a lawyer who lives far away is less likely to take your case. Using the Internet or television referrals may start you with an attorney somewhere else in the state or the country and then refer you to a totally different local lawyer affiliated with the one who advertised.

  • Legal degrees: Most lawyers list their credentials, professional organizations, and other experience on their website. You want your lawyer to be licensed and a graduate of something besides a mail-order school. However, you probably don’t need someone who was on law review at a top-five law school; you’ll be better served by an experienced practitioner from a local school who knows the people and procedures in your area.

  • Areas of expertise: Many lawyers specialize to some degree. You want a lawyer familiar with and experienced in handling your type of case. Most lawyers never go to court — they’re transactional lawyers, which means that they don’t do litigation and are more at home preparing wills, handling real estate matters, or incorporating businesses — so make sure the attorney’s area of expertise is what you need.

After you narrow the pool of potential attorneys, call the office of each and set up an appointment for a consultation. If you like one better than the other or one has an office in an area you prefer, your choice is made. Always ask if there’s any charge for a consultation so you’re not surprised if the lawyer actually wants to be paid for his advice.

Some lawyers may offer a “free” consultation, but remember that sometimes you get what you pay for. Obviously, if you’ve already gathered any documents or other evidence, bring it with you. The attorney can then hone in on your particular problem and not give a generalized answer to your generalized question.

A bad start to the conversation is “I have a friend who has this problem.” This will result in a response such as “Why don’t you have your friend schedule an appointment” as you’re ushered out the door.

Make sure you feel comfortable with the person and are willing to accept his advice and guidance. Sometimes the job of the lawyer is to tell you things you really don’t want to hear — including the fact that you have an unwinnable case.

Protect yourself with a retainer for small claims suits

Get a written retainer. A retainer is a document that spells out every single detail regarding the rights and obligations of both you and your attorney. This document reduces any disputes in the future concerning the lawyer’s fee and the service he provides you. A written retainer prevents surprises and misunderstandings, mostly on your part. In some states, the lawyer is required to provide you with a written retainer.

Three ironclad rules apply to retainers:

  • Rule #1: Always have a written retainer with your lawyer.

  • Rule #2: When you think a handshake is enough, re-read Rule #1.

  • Rule #3: Read the retainer before you sign it!