by Donald Ray Burger
Attorney at Law

When you need a lawyer, the initial question is how to find the proper lawyer for your situation. This article will discuss both traditional and newer approaches to this process.

Recommendations from someone you know. If you are willing to tell your friends about your legal situation, they can be a valuable source of information about a lawyer. A satisfied former client is a great recommendation in any field. Even if the friend's lawyer does not handle the type of legal situation you face, the lawyer may be able to recommend an attorney.

Yellow Pages. Every lawyer who pays for a business phone line gets an entry in the Yellow Pages. The bigger ads are very expensive. And even a full page ad cannot convey much detailed information. Further, the 1996 Greater Houston Yellow Pages contains more than 100 pages of lawyer ads and phone listings. For finding names, addresses and phone numbers, the Yellow Pages are great. For finding out something about the lawyer, they leave a lot to be desired.

Television Ads. Ugh. Enough said.

TV Guide Ads. See comments under Television Ads.

Using the Web. Because this article appears on the Web, it is clear I believe visiting web sites is one way to begin the process of finding a lawyer. The major benefit to both the client and the lawyer of this method is the chance to pre-screen the lawyer before deciding whether to make an appointment. This web site allows me to convey much more information to a potential client than I could by using other methods. I hope my web site will give you some feeling for the kind of lawyer I am.

My Background. I am a sole practitioner. That means I am in practice by myself. Although I often associate with another lawyer on a case, that association is on a case-by-case basis.

People sometimes ask me why I like being a solo. I started out as an associate with an insurance defense law firm here in Houston. At the time, there were eleven lawyers in the firm. As a beginning lawyer, I got to try lots of automobile collision cases. Insurance companies I worked with include Allstate, State Farm, USAA, Employers Casualty and Geico.

After four years, I changed law firms and went to Haynes & Fullenweider, P.L.C. There, I handled an assortment of personal injury claims, usually representing plaintiffs. I also represented businesses and the Houston Police Patrolmen's Union. I was made an officer, director and shareholder with Haynes & Fullenweider, P.L.C., in 1986. The firm split up in 1989 when Donn Fullenweider decided to go out on his own. Thus, I have been with firms as an associate and as a shareholder.

Still, I have enjoyed my work as a solo most. I decide what cases I take and I bear the consequences of my choices. I do not have any minimum billing requirements, nor do I have to justify the amount of time I spend on a case to anyone except my client. The client can establish a personal relationship with me and not worry about a new lawyer being assigned the case, as sometimes happens at the larger firms. Which brings us to one of the early choices facing a client: What size law firm should you hire?

What Size Firm To Hire. Big firms have lots of resources and may be the best choice if you have an enormous problem that needs lots of lawyers and staff on it right away. The trade off is the amount of money you will spend. Also, big firms often do not give the personal attention a solo can give.

Because of the high fees charged by named partners in big firms, day-to-day work is often done by associates. Sometimes clients find they have trouble reaching the partner they thought they were hiring and note that they may go through several associates during the course of the problem. The cost to the client both in time and money of constantly re-explaining the problem may not be worth it.

Also, when dealing with an associate, charges are often made for the time you talked to the associate and the time it took the associate to tell the partner what you said. Likewise if you get through to the partner, you may still be billed for the time the partner spends relating your call to the associate(s), the time the associate spends researching your problem, the time the partner spends reviewing the findings of the associate(s), and the time the partner spends explaining the findings to you.

Big firms often travel to court in groups. There may be a partner and several associates which can become frightfully expensive very quickly. The partner may feel the client expects the partner to appear in court, but the partner may also know that the associate knows the details of the case. And success often turns on a command of the details.

Why Hire a Sole Practitioner. A significant advantage in hiring a sole practitioner is the personal attention you can get throughout the life of your lawsuit. You do not have to worry about essential details being lost in the translation from associate to partner.

My Approach. I have certain policies I have developed over the years that I think clients appreciate. I make a serious effort to return client phone calls the day I receive them, even if only to say there have been no new developments in the case. I also copy my clients with significant correspondence on the case so they will know what is happening.

I believe there should be a written contract or retainer in every case. The retainer sets forth the scope of the engagement, the billing rate, and often establishes a trust account. See my articles on How I Bill and What Is a Trust Account for more detailed information. Any lawyer you talk to should be willing to explain all the terms of the contract and how that lawyer bills.

I am also aware that it is your case. There is no reason to keep a client in the dark about the progress of the case. In fact, although I make recommendations at different points in the lawsuit, I believe that ultimate decisions during the lawsuit (such as settlement amounts) are the client's to make. I like having the client involved in the legal matter.

Experience Counts. There is no doubt that experience counts. With each year in practice, a lawyer encounters a wide variety of cases. A commitment to continuing legal education, such as my membership in the State Bar College is important. But what about experience with the particular problem you have? Unless you have a relatively simple case or the kind of problem that happens to many clients on a regular basis, the odds are that the lawyer you hire will not have faced your exact problem before. So what you are looking for is an attorney who knows how to think about the problem and who is willing to do the legal research to understand the law as it applies to your set of facts. When you hire a solo, you can form a judgment about whether the lawyer can handle your case. When you hire one of the big firms, you sometimes don't even know who will do the detail work on your problem.

Final Thoughts. My best piece of advice is to take your time. There is no rule that says you have to sign a contract with the first lawyer you visit. Make sure you are comfortable with the lawyer before making your decision. Make sure the lawyer is willing to answer your questions and that you feel comfortable with the answers. A good fit between lawyer and client is essential for a successful relationship with your attorney. Feel free to contact me if you have specific questions.

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