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What You Should Do Before Meeting with Your Attorney

a man ponders over blue, yellow, and red legal scales in front of a blue skyGetting ready for your first consultation with a lawyer can be a stressful experience. What should you expect? How should you prepare? Is there some sort of “homework” you should take care of before walking through the door? Every lawyer does business differently, which can make it difficult to know exactly what to expect during your first meeting. Fortunately, the great unknown doesn’t have to be so great. Whether you’re meeting with a divorce lawyer, an injury lawyer, a criminal lawyer, or whoever, here are five tips for ensuring that you’re prepared during your initial consultation:

1. Have your own questions ready.

The topic of conversation will undoubtedly focus on you and your situation. In other words, any attorney you meet with for the first time is going to have a lot questions for you. They’ll want to know as many details as possible so they can most accurately assess the kind of case they’d be working on if you choose to hire them. And, of course, they will also be calculating how much to charge for their potential services.

While it’s important to be honest and straightforward when answering questions directed toward you, it’s just as crucial that your concerns are addressed. Maybe you need a prospective timeframe. Maybe you have questions about the lawyer’s own experience with cases similar to yours. You’ll almost definitely need some information about the legalities surrounding your circumstances. So what’s the best way to make sure you walk away from this meeting with more answers than questions?

Make a list.

Write down everything you can think to ask. You might have to narrow it down if it gets too dense, but a thorough run-down of all that you don’t know will make it much easier to pick out the essential questions. At the meeting, have your list out and keep an eye on it — who knows, the lawyer might answer some of your questions before you even ask them.

2. Figure out your financial limitations.

Depending on what you need representation for, this could mean different things. No matter your reasons for seeking an attorney, you’ll of course need to know exactly how much you can spend without going broke. Look back on your previous budgeting. Look ahead to the next year, or at least the upcoming months. Will any big spending be necessary in the near future? How much can you spend on a lawyer and still have a comfortable safety cushion for emergencies?

Sometimes it pays to bring financial information to your first meeting with a lawyer. This is especially true for divorce cases, when your finances will come under scrutiny. If you want to be really prepared, come with copies of the past few years’ tax returns, credit card statements, payment invoices, and any other documentation relevant to your current financial circumstances. Even if you don’t need this stuff, it pays to cover all your bases.

As far as paying for legal representation, everybody does it differently. Many attorneys opt for an hourly rate, which will vary depending on the size of the firm. Sometimes lawyers charge a simple flat fee — but simple methods are typically reserved for simple circumstances, so it depends on what exactly you need representation for. You should also be careful to check whether any costs aren’t included in the flat fee so you aren’t surprised later. Other options for payment include contingency fees, which means there’s no upfront payment but the attorney will received some percentage of the settlement, and retainers, which are basically preemptive bulk payments for hourly rates that will be deducted as necessary.

3. Remove the little stresses.

There’s a good chance that you aren’t exactly in the calmest phase of your life if you’re seeking legal representation. That doesn’t mean you should condemn yourself to an unnecessarily stressful experience.

Do some research so you don’t feel overwhelmed and underprepared. Call ahead and ask for meeting specifics — what time? How long? Will there be a charge? For all the seemingly impossible uncertainties that tend to come with the legal process, there are countless little things you can control. Focus on what you can take care of on your own, seek information about the stuff you can’t, and approach your initial consultation with as much confidence as possible.

4. Have an endgame.

What are you trying to accomplish? It’s important that you know why you’re hiring a lawyer in the first place, by which I mean you should know how you want this story to end. Obviously you want a satisfactory resolution in the courtroom, a settlement or whatever. But the clearer you are about what your endgame is, the better a lawyer will be able to understand your main concerns and proceed efficiently.

Knowing your endgame is a lot like knowing what you’re paying for. The product you want to see produced. And once you and your lawyer are on the same page in terms of the conclusion, you can work together much more effectively to figure out the path that leads there. Attorneys are well-versed in the various subtleties of the legal process — they don’t need help drawing the map, they just need help planning the route.

5. Don’t settle.

Seriously. Even if you’ve gone through a couple of different consultations with lawyers and are starting to get tired of the whole deal, don’t settle for legal representation you don’t fully trust. It’s too expensive and too time-consuming. After all, what happens if you go through the whole legal process and realize too late you’ve made the wrong choice? You’ll either have to start over, or that’s it. You lose.

The good news is that “dating around” with different attorneys before making a choice isn’t as expensive as one might think. Sure, some lawyers charge a fee for an initial consultation. But just as many, if not more, offer that first meeting for free. They know just as well as you do that they might not be the right fit. They also know that they might be the right fit for folks who aren’t willing or able to fork over a bunch of money before even starting the legal process. Since there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find plenty of lawyers who don’t charge for their initial consultations, why not take advantage of that? Don’t settle — look around and make sure you’ll be getting what you pay for.

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