It can feel intimidating to talk to a lawyer. I've learned the hard way that if your lawyer can't explain things to you as if you are a smart 14-year-old, you should find a lawyer who can. A lawyer is supposed to make your life easier, not more stressful.
Your first step in finding a lawyer is to ask your family, friends or acquaintances. Ask why they like him or her and what the lawyer did for them. If you're consulting a lawyer about a divorce or estate planning, it's important that he/she has experience in these areas of expertise.
Credentials count, but this is about more than education and experience The law is complicated enough; you need someone who can explain things to you in addition to being qualified to advise you.
In the event of divorce, or the death of a husband, you will be working closely with the lawyer. You want things explained clearly to you because you'll be emotionally upset. A lawyer's jargon and lack of ability to communicate clearly will upset you even more.
Before you choose someone, phone the office to ask if the lawyer will give you an introductory meeting at no cost. This allows you both to get a sense of whether you can work well together.
For example, I couldn't work with someone who is patronizing. I need someone to give me information, explain all the options, show me the pitfalls, and outline the costs. Many lawyers think that reassuring and protecting a woman is doing her a favor. I call that the 'Don't worry about a thing, dear' attitude that keeps women from being able to make decisions. On the other hand, many women just want their lawyer to take care of everything. I'm not one of them.
Before Your First Meeting
Write out a list of your own questions. You can also include the following process questions to get started:
1. What does the lawyer need from you in order to evaluate your situation?
2. What are your options?
3. How many similar matters has he or she handled?
4. What percent of the practice is in the area of expertise you need?
5. What is the process for handling your situation?
6. How does the lawyer charge for services (by the project, hour, retainer?)?
7. What is an estimate for the time required?
8. Will the lawyer handle the case personally or would a paralegal or clerk be handling it?
9. If others will be involved in the work, can you meet with them also?
Remember, every question is a legitimate one. There are no silly questions. You just need to have the question answered.
Before Your Second Meeting
Now that you've met and had the process questions answered, save time and money by organizing information your lawyer said would be needed.
Go in again with a written set of questions.
Take a tape recorder with you. Why? Because it's hard to remember all the things your lawyer says. It's like going to the doctor. You don't go when things are fine. You go when there is a problem, when your emotions are high or you're not feeling well. A tape recorder means you don't have to rely on your memory at a time when your memory may let you down.
Try to remember that a lawyer is only a person like you with extra training in legal education and procedure. What you are paying for is his/her information, skill and time. You are the client and your lawyer is providing a service you are buying.
Helga Hayse is author of "Don't Worry About A Thing, Dear" - Why Women Need Financial Intimacy. She teaches women about participating and understanding their marital finances. She speaks to financial planners and estate planners about how to encourage crucial conversation between generations. Visit her site at http://www.financialintimacy.com for her frequently updated blog, free articles and more information about her book.
(c) 2009, Helga Hayse. Reprints welcomed so long as the article and byline are kept intact and all links are made live.