What to Ask before Choosing a Lawyer

A lawyer will work with you and your business closely, handling issues that are very important to you and that may involve sensitive topics. Further, beyond being a legal advisor, a good lawyer is also a general advisor to you and your business. It is critically important for you to think carefully about what you are looking for in a lawyer and to make sure you are comfortable with and trust the lawyer you choose.

While your trust and confidence in your lawyer should, like in any good relationship, grow over time, you can set yourself up for a successful lawyer-client relationship by asking the prospective lawyer some key questions before you hire them.

Questions About Initial Consultations

Be it over the phone or in person, the first time you meet with a lawyer is typically called a “consultation.” A consultation is a time for you and your prospective lawyer to discuss your needs, ask questions, get to know each other, and determine if you both want to work together and what that work will look like.

Lawyers are trained to be your advocate, but are also trained to view an issue objectively from all sides in order to attain the best result for you. This means a good lawyer will be honest and may tell you things that are hard to hear, like if you don’t have a strong case or whether attempting to reach a particular result would likely be expensive or time-consuming.

The following questions will help you prepare for and make the most of your consultation:

  • Would you be willing to consult with me to give me your initial impressions of my problems/goals and discuss what sort of services you could offer me?
  • Would the initial consultation be free, and if not, what would it cost me?
  • How long is the initial consultation?
  • What should I bring with me to our consultation to make the most of the time?
  • Are there documents I should send to you before the consultation?
  • At this meeting, will you be able to give me an estimate of the work you could provide, and the cost?
  • How soon can we schedule this meeting?
  • What preparation will you do before the consultation?
  • Who should or can come with me to the consultation?

Consultation Confidentiality

It’s important to understand that confidentiality does apply to an initial lawyer consultation. While you generally do not form a lawyer-client relationship until after this initial consultation, during the consultation you have what is called a prospective client-lawyer relationship. This means that nearly any information you give a prospective lawyer is confidential and remains between you and the lawyer, even if you ultimately do not hire that lawyer. Information may be confidential even if it is completely unrelated to the legal issue you discussed during the consultation.

Questions to Help You Make Sure Your Lawyer has the Right Background and Expertise

In advance of your consultation, you should think about what kinds of issues you expect your lawyer to handle. Because farming is a demanding and unique profession, it is important that your lawyer understands the business and your perspective.

Here are some questions that will help you determine if the prospective lawyer has the background and expertise to help you:

  • Have you worked with farm businesses before?
    • If yes, what type/size?
    • If yes, what did you do for them?
  • If values or politics are important to you: how did you come to practice in this area of law and why do you work with the types of clients you do?
  • Can you give me the names of some current or prior clients like me that I can speak to?
  • Do you have any certificates, special recognition, or training in X, Y, Z area of the law?

Questions to Help You Understand the Terms of Your Client-Lawyer Relationship

While it is not strictly required, it is a very good idea and a typical practice to have the terms of your lawyer-client relationship spelled out in a written agreement, often called a “representation agreement.” The agreement could also be called an “engagement letter.” This kind of agreement is a contract that sets out the ground rules, such as how you will be charged for communicating with your lawyer, who will work on your matter and at what rates, when you will receive a bill, the terms of any retainer, and the scope of representation.

You should take the time to read the representation agreement or engagement letter carefully and ask any questions you may have about it. Do not feel pressured to sign this agreement during or immediately after the consultation; it is reasonable and prudent to take time to read and understand it outside of your consultation.

Here are some questions to ask about legal representation agreements:

  • What are your rates?
  • Will you charge me every time I talk with you or send you an email?
  • Who else from your office will work on my case and what are their rates?
  • Will you always charge as much as you can, or do you sometimes charge less, for example, if your work was inefficient, if your work didn’t end up being used, etc.?
    • If so, how often do you charge less?
  • What is and what is not covered in the scope of work you will do for me?
  • What decisions can you make without talking to me first?
  • What charges come out of my retainer and what charges should I expect to pay every month?
  • Do you offer any alternative payment arrangements?
  • What if I can’t pay my bill when it’s due?
  • What are my responsibilities as a client?
  • Can you provide an estimate?
  • Do you work on an hourly basis only, a flat fee basis only, or a combination?