HOW TO CHOOSE AND USE A LAWYER

You should choose a lawyer as you would a doctor, dentist, accountant or anyone who provides professional services. Check the credentials of different attorneys. Discuss fees with them candidly. And, whatever you do, don't forget to talk with them about the wisdom of retaining legal counsel. For example, does it make sense to spend $500 in legal fees and court costs to recover a $100 bad debt?

General practice lawyers handle a wide variety of legal problems. When problems are outside their area of practice, they may refer you to a lawyer who has concentrated his or her practice in areas including, but not limited to, civil litigation, criminal law, taxation, worker's compensation, labor relations, or real estate.

The first step is to define the nature of your legal problem then you need to identify an attorney with experience handling similar matters. Once you have defined your legal issue, there are a number of ways to find a lawyer to help you. If you need additional information or help choosing a lawyer, you may contact the Rhode Island Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service, Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. by telephone at: (401) 421-7799.

HOW TO FIND A LAWYER

Personal Referral

Most people seeking a lawyer begin by asking advice from a personal acquaintance or someone whose opinion they value including family members or friends. Other common referral sources are employers and non-profit organizations and associations.

As noted, the Rhode Island Bar Association has a Lawyer Referral Service (LRS) that will refer you to competent and reliable lawyers. Under the LRS plan, a lawyer will consult with you, up to a half hour, for free. If additional legal work is recommended, it is your decision to continue. At this point, it is appropriate for you to discuss the lawyer’s fees.

Reduced fee and legal assistance is available for those who qualify under federally regulated income guidelines. If your initial contact cannot handle your problem, you may request an additional referral. For further information, contact the Lawyer Referral Service by telephone: (401) 421-7799 or by email wkelley@ribar.com.

You may request a referral via e-mail by clicking here.

 

Lawyer Referral Service for the Elderly

Everyone aged 60 or older is eligible for a free, half-hour consultation with an attorney. In many communities, this Rhode Island Bar Association program holds legal clinics at senior organizations or Ask A Lawyer programs designed to provide you with information concerning relatively simple matters. For immediate legal information, you may be referred to an attorney through the Lawyer Referral Service for the Elderly, Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., by telephone: (401) 521-5040 or by email eking@ribar.com.

Pro Bono Program

The Rhode Island Bar Association Volunteer Lawyer Program (VLP), funded through a grant from Rhode Island Legal Services, Inc. and the Rhode Island Bar Foundation, provides pro bono (free) legal services to qualified low-income Rhode Islanders. Participating attorneys provide legal assistance, at no charge. The client’s income must qualify under federally regulated guidelines to receive pro bono assistance, and the case must fall under one of the areas of law handled by the VLP. Clients may be responsible for filing fees, court costs and other out-of-pocket expenses. For information, telephone: (401) 421-7758 or 1-800-339-7758 or by email jellis@ribar.com.

Lawyers For The Arts

Lawyers for the Arts is a component program of the Lawyer Referral Service of the Rhode Island Bar Association providing legal assistance to artists and arts-related organizations. Reduced fee and pro bono services may be available and are based on income eligibility. For additional information on this program, contact the Lawyer Referral Service at: (401) 421-7799 or by email jellis@ribar.com.

Armed Forces Legal Services Project

The Rhode Island Bar Association United States Armed Forces Legal Services Project is specifically designed to provide those serving in the military and their families with legal assistance. Coordinated with the Attorney-Advisor at the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, volunteer attorneys directly represent military personnel by accepting civil law cases including family law, probate issues, landlord/tenant, real estate, contracts, consumer, bankruptcy, collections, employment, immigration/naturalization, and income tax. For additional information on this project, contact the Lawyer Referral Service at: (401) 421-7799 or by email eking@ribar.com.

ATTORNEY ADVERTISING

From 1908 to 1977, lawyers were forbidden to advertise their services. This prohibition came about through the belief that even the most well-intentioned advertising could be unintentionally false, misleading or deceptive due to the complex nature of legal services. A 1977 ruling of the United States Supreme Court (Bates v. State Bar of Arizona) lifted this prohibition. Lawyers are now permitted to advertise certain information in newspapers, yellow pages, on radio, television and the Internet.

The nature of your legal issue will help to define the type of lawyer you will want to retain. Rhode Island does not have a procedure for certifying specialties in the law. While some lawyers choose to limit their practices to certain areas of law, do not confuse this with specialization.

You should take the following steps when you contact a lawyer whose advertisement you have read or heard.

  • Don't take the ad literally. Ask the lawyer for references and check his or her experience with your type of case.
  • Ask the lawyer about the specific services advertised and what these include.
  • Discuss the lawyers’ fees, ask what services these cover, and whether there will be any extra charges before you agree to pay the fees.
  • Keep a copy of the ad so that you can check to see whether the lawyer is performing as advertised.

SMALL CLAIMS COURT

Small claims courts offer citizens the chance to resolve minor disputes quickly and inexpensively without lawyers. Most small claims courts limit their cases to those involving claims up to $2,500. Anyone with a grievance can bring suit in small claims courts for a minimal filing cost set by the Legislature. However, you should file suit only after you have exhausted other avenues for redress, for example, writing directly to the person or company involved in your complaint or discussing the matter with the Better Business Bureau. The small claims court is listed in the telephone book in the blue pages under city listings.

DETERMINING THE COST OF LEGAL ASSISTANCE

Some lawyers charge only a small fee, if any, for the first consultation. Others may ask for a retainer fee. All attorneys should advise you concerning probable future costs after the first visit.

Fees charged by lawyer for the performance of legal services are usually based on the following considerations:

  • Time and labor required, the novelty and difficulty of the questions raised, and the skill needed to perform the required legal services. You can help keep costs down by having all your facts and documentation together when you see a lawyer.
  • Likelihood that accepting of your case will limit the lawyer’s ability to take on other cases.
  • Fees usually charged in the geographical region for similar legal services.
  • Amount of damages sought and the results achieved.
  • Time limitations imposed by the client or by circumstances.
  • Nature and length of the professional relationship.
  • Experience, reputation, and ability of the lawyer performing the work.

Lawyers are entitled to receive reimbursement for expenses incurred in connection with your case including, but not limited to travel costs; meals away from the office; telephone calls; postage; and fees prescribed by law to pay the court on your behalf. To minimize misunderstandings about fees, ask the attorney in advance what his or her services will cost. Every case is different. Therefore, a lawyer may not be able to quote you a specific sum. However, he or she can give you an estimate. Having a written estimate helps ensure there are no unexpected costs in the future.

LAWYERS’ COMPENSATION

You may discuss the matter of fees with your lawyer at any time. There are four principal methods for compensating a lawyer, though others may be agreed on. They are: (1) retainer; (2) contingent fee; (3) specific job; or (4) hourly rate. Some attorneys may use a combination of fee arrangements. In some cases, the court will set lawyers’ fees.

Retainer

Individuals or a business may employ a lawyer on a retainer basis requiring a down payment or advance of fees for specified legal services. In return for the retainer, the attorney works for you on any matter for which you may need his or her services. Additional costs may be added to the final bill for services involving extra time and effort on the part of your lawyer. In Rhode Island, attorneys are required to refund all unearned advance fees. Always request that your lawyer give you a receipt for the advance on the fee.

Contingent Fee

Another fee arrangement used in certain non-criminal cases, especially in accident and negligence cases, is called a contingent fee. This fee is contingent (depends) upon the lawyer obtaining a monetary recovery. If the court makes a financial award, the lawyers’ fee is a percentage of the recovery. Court costs and out-of-pocket expenses are normally the client's responsibility. Costs and expenses of litigation may be taken from the amount awarded or settled upon.

Specific Job

One of the most common methods for charging fees is for the specific job, for example obtaining a divorce, preparing a will, or purchasing or selling property, There are some cases which your attorney can closely estimate approximate charges. In many other instances, depending upon the complexity of the case, an estimate may be impossible to determine.

Hourly Rate

Sometimes the lawyer will base his or her charges on a fixed dollar amount for each hour spent on your behalf called an hourly rate. Do not hesitate to ask your lawyer about his or her hourly rate and for an estimate of how many hours will be spent on your case.

WORKING WITH YOUR LAWYER

Once you have selected a lawyer, you may take certain steps to help your lawyer and satisfy yourself concerning the quality and expediency your legal services.

  • Be honest with your lawyer. Always tell the truth. An attorney can't be expected to give you well reasoned legal advice if the information you provide is faulty.
  • Tell your lawyer every fact that is relevant to the situation, even if it doesn't appear to be in your favor.
  • Have your lawyer analyze your case and give you both the positive and the negative aspects.
  • Take your lawyer's advice. Don't waste your money or your lawyer's time if you don't have confidence in his or her special knowledge and skills.
  • Don't expect your attorney to give a simple answer to a complex question. Many legal problems cannot be explained simply.
  • Be sure you understand the technical language contained in wills, contracts, leases or any other legal document. However, do not challenge your lawyer on every sentence on every page.
  • Keep your lawyer fully informed of any new developments that might affect your case.
  • Don't pester your lawyer. Respect your attorney's time. Avoid repeated telephone calls and unnecessary questions.
  • Ask your lawyer to keep you informed about the progress of your case. The lawyer is retained to work for you.
  • Be skeptical of attorneys who promise certain results. Airtight cases just don't exist.
  • Request copies of all letters and documents prepared on your behalf.
  • Don't sign any document or paper until you fully understand what you are signing.

ADDRESSING PROBLEMS

If you have concerns about how your case is being handled, arranging a conference with your lawyer can ease your concerns. He or she may not be aware of your dissatisfaction. It is always your choice about which lawyer you want to represent you.

If you have a fee dispute with your lawyer, consider arbitration as an option. For information on fee arbitration, contact the Rhode Island Bar Association at (401) 421-5740 or click here for more information.

Should you decide to discontinue using your lawyer, he or she has certain obligations and duties to you including returning all documents and papers in his or her possession, filing necessary withdrawal stipulations with the court, and helping your new lawyer become familiar with your case. Please note that a dismissed lawyer may be entitled to a fee for services actually rendered.

If you find or suspect unethical lawyer conduct, you may file a complaint with the Rhode Island Supreme Court Disciplinary Counsel's office. The Supreme Court may disbar, suspend, or censure a lawyer for unprofessional conduct. To reach the Disciplinary Counsel, telephone: (401) 222-3270 or click here.

NOTE

This piece is produced as a public service by the Rhode Island Bar
Association and intended to provide background information. This is not a
substitute for legal advice and representation by a licensed attorney of the
Rhode Island Bar.