Friday, April 19, 2013

Finding the Right lawyer for your situation

This brief article was posted on a website called Investorguide.com.  The article brings up some good points.  There is also a follow up article called "Interviewing a Lawyer" that is worth reading as well. 

Finding the Right Lawyer.
by: Chuck Jaffe

When you need a lawyer, ask relatives and trusted friends who have been in a similar situation. Their reference will go a long way, although you must remember that each case is different.

Go beyond friends and family, however, to consider the legal referral services in many communities, many of which will recommend a lawyer to evaluate your situation—often at a reduced cost. Many of the referral organizations have minimum competency or experience requirements. Even that is no guarantee that you will find the right lawyer, however. Some referral services are more advertising than substance, with lawyers paying to get a spot on the referral list. In those situations, there is no attention paid to a lawyer’s skill.

Lawyers also can advertise now on television, in newspapers, on the radio, and in the phone book. This may help you remember their name, but it does not make them the best lawyer for your case. Moreover, be careful of pricing issues; the advertising may talk about specific types of services and fees, but your case may not fall into the simple-and-straightforward category and you may not be able to get the advertised special.

A Lawyer’s Job
Once you decide not to represent yourself, only a lawyer can represent you in legal proceedings. All lawyers must pass a state bar exam and a character review in order to receive a license to practice law. Because practicing law without a license is a crime in most states, lawyers are the only ones who can be your advocates, although paralegals, bankers, and others may help draw up papers. (In some states, paralegals—working under the direct supervision of lawyers—can handle minor matters and even offer direct consultation in limited areas.)

You’re hiring someone for his or her informed judgment and knowledge of legal procedures. A good lawyer listens to your problem and searches for the best, most prudent course of action.  The simplest places to start are with the American Bar Association, which features a referral service prominently on its website, www.abanet.org, and with Martindale-Hubbell, which has a definitive database of lawyers and firms and a search service on its website, www.martindale.com. The American Bar Association site also includes contact details for your state bar association, where the database of lawyers may include more options that are convenient to your home; your state association may can also tell you which counselors are part of its regional committees, which can be particularly helpful if you have a special need.

Interviewing a Lawyer
by Chuck Jaffe

You may agree with William Shakespeare’s assessment in Henry VI that “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” but the plain truth is that there will come a day when you need a lawyer on your side. In fact, over your lifetime, you may need several lawyers, each covering different specialties, so no matter how many lawyer jokes you swap with friends, you should at least know how to contact and select an attorney when your time of need comes.

Lawyers, of course, come in all shapes, sizes, and specialties, but for our purposes, we will limit the discussion to attorneys who work with financial specialties, most notably taxes, estate planning, elder care, and real estate. That’s not to say that the questions and concerns raised in Interviewing a Lawyer could not apply to divorce attorneys, bankruptcy lawyers, or specialists in consumer issues, worker’s compensation, intellectual property, or personal-injury cases, but rather that hiring advisors for those specialties might require additional questions that won’t be raised here.
There was a time when lawyers were almost a one-size-fits-all group. The same guy who wrote your will also went to court with your cousin to defend against reckless driving charges. It’s the country-lawyer image portrayed in old movies, and it’s about as current as those black-and-white films; today, law is highly specialized and most attorneys concentrate in just a few areas.

Can I Do This Myself?
The oldest axiom in law is that any man who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client. It was, of course, lawyers who were behind that saying, and they only make money when they have clients to represent.

There are many situations when you may not need or want a lawyer. You can buy software, like Quicken’s Willmaker, for less than $50 that will walk you through the process of doing a simple will and financial powers of attorney and the alike. There are packages that will enable a do-it-yourself bankruptcy, trust, and divorce, too.

That said, these generic services may be insufficient for your needs. At the very least, you may want to have a lawyer review any documents you develop through the software programs; the consultation will add to your costs, but your efforts will dramatically reduce your legal bills compared to what would have happened if the lawyer had done all of the paperwork from scratch.

In consumer cases, almost every community has some form of small claims court, where you can resolve disputes valued up to a few thousand dollars by representing yourself in informal proceedings (and with minimal court costs).

Many financial disputes contractually agree to settle disputes through arbitration, where an impartial observer—generally former judges, current and former lawyers, and business people—settles your dispute in a binding situation. The ground rules, including maximum allowable monetary damages, are set when you agree to arbitration; the process is quick and results are private, unlike court hearings. While many people suggest having an attorney with you, one is not necessary. The mediation process is similar, except that the neutral mediator only offers suggestions to resolve the dispute. There is no settlement unless you and your opponent come to terms.

With that in mind, recognize the stakes of the game you’re playing. If you can represent yourself well, and your needs are straightforward and don’t stretch the limits of the software or generic documents you rely on, you may be satisfied representing yourself. But if you make mistakes that wind up creating trouble with the Internal Revenue Service, forcing your heirs to pay estate taxes that they might have avoided, or more, the price tag is steep.

That doesn’t mean a lawyer won’t take up almost any request that comes his or her way, but it puts the onus on you to gauge whether the lawyer has the skill to handle your specific needs.
There are three factors that typically drive people to hire an attorney to help with their various financial matters:
  1. How complicated is the situation? Complications can be caused by technicalities of the law, the type of assets involved, the number of parties to a case (and the fact that some of them live out of state), or the general complexities of the situation. An estate plan is a lot easier to draw up when a couple has an only child who will inherit everything than when it’s the second marriage for each spouse, with several kids from each prior marriage and two together, and then countless nieces and nephews whom the couple wants to make gifts to. If the situation could turn adversarial, think of it this way: If the other side, for any reason, has an attorney, chances are that you should, too.
  2. How much is at stake? That’s not just a monetary question, since your home, assets, or life estate may be involved. You may be struggling with money, but that doesn’t mean you’d want to face a foreclosure proceeding—with your house on the line—without an attorney on your side.
  3. Do I need someone to speak for me? This is a personal decision, but whether it is in a courtroom or in legal documents, you need to be represented in a way that complies with the law and that gets the job done. If you can’t get that done, or if the situation is emotional and could provoke anger or just make you look bad, you may want to get representation in order to keep everything calm and moving.

What Kind of Legal Specialist Do You Need?

Some lawyers cover a wide range of issues and areas, while others focus in on a single type of law or on a few closely related specialties. In alphabetical order, here are the major areas of legal practice, including those outside of the financial realm, and what each type of lawyer provides:
  • Business lawyers give advice on general corporate matters, from startups to mergers and acquisitions, business taxation, contract and partnership issues.
  • Consumer lawyers represent clients in disputes with stores and consumer products companies.
  • Criminal lawyers do the obvious, defending or prosecuting cases of criminal wrongdoing.
  • Estate planning lawyers write wills, set up trusts, establish powers of attorney, and counsel clients on property management, inheritance, tax, and probate issues. Some also act as executor on the client’s estate. Many estate-planning specialists also work on elder-care and senior law issues.
  • Family lawyers—more widely known as divorce attorneys or domestic-relations lawyers—handle cases of divorce, separation, annulment, child custody, and support. Many family lawyers also specialize in “elder law issues,” the rules and regulations and rights of seniors and the infirm.
  • Governmental lawyers are generally considered an extension on business lawyers, helping clients comply with (or dispute) local, state and federal rulings, regulations, and statutes.
  • Immigration lawyers represent people in immigration and naturalization proceedings, helping them to become citizens or to avoid deportation.
  • Intellectual property lawyers, commonly called “patent attorneys,” advise clients on issues involving copyrights, trademarks, and patents.
  • Labor lawyers cover a wide range of issues. They can represent employers, unions, or individuals in cases involving workplace safety, compliance with government regulations, and questions of allowable union activity, but also get involved workplace discrimination cases.
  • Personal injury lawyers take on cases of people hurt through the intentional or negligent actions of a person or company. Many also specialize in worker’s compensation claims for people injured on the job.
  • Real estate lawyers help clients analyze real estate contracts, mortgage paperwork, disputes with brokers or agents and contractors, and process the paperwork involved in a closing. They can also get involved in neighbor disputes and other property-ownership issues.
  • Tax lawyers counsel individuals and businesses in federal, state, and local tax matters, interpreting the tax code when sticky situations arise. While a tax attorney can represent you in an audit, most will not work directly on completing your annual tax return, although some will be affiliated with accountants—or will have tax preparers on their staff—to handle the paperwork.
Financier J. Pierpont Morgan once described what he wanted from an attorney, saying, “I don’t want a lawyer to tell me what I cannot do, I hire him to tell me how to do what I want to do.”  You may not have Morgan’s enormous fortune, but you want his kind of lawyers, ones who can help you achieve your goals.

Unfortunately, that may mean involve telling you what you can’t do. Good lawyers know better than to waste time. They should argue on your behalf, but also be ready to fight with you in order to keep you out of trouble. You need someone who knows and pays attention to details and who does not let the little things slide.

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