Price shopping is something that is baked into US culture in such a way that it can often be exploited. Your average person is conditioned to view one price and immediately see if there is a lower one out there. When shopping for a specific TV, or a specific car, this strategy works great. You know the TV you want or the car so you go out and get the best deal you can find. The only difference is that you pay less for the same thing. This strategy is often used when people are looking for an attorney. The difference here is that no two attorneys are alike nor do they offer the exact same thing.
When dealing with attorneys, pricing is just the beginning of the story. You have to understand what it is that attorney is bringing to the table and how far they are willing to go for you. If you simply compare prices between two attorneys, you are likely to start comparing apples to oranges at your own detriment. The better way to approach hiring an attorney for the budget conscious consumer would be to look at the combined value of the services that attorney intends to provide. Most consumers have never hired an attorney before and we understand this. This article is meant to serve as a guide to understanding the value of the services provided. Let's begin with the most important questions you should ask an attorney to get a clear picture of the value they offer.
Questions to Ask Before Hiring Any Attorney
Before approaching an attorney, you should already have listed all of the questions you intend to ask or cover during your first consultation with them. Do not be afraid to print them out and take them with you. You should also bring a notepad with you so that you can take notes about what the consulting attorneys speaks about and what services they intend to provide while representing you. Listed below is a general list of questions you should ask any attorney. Depending on the type of case, you will want to add/adjust if necessary but the below should serve as a good base to start from.
- "What type of cases do you generally handle?" - This question is very powerful because it ignores the common "I have been practicing for x more years than the other guy". If an attorney has been practicing DUI law for 20 years and the other attorney has been practicing for 5 years but exclusively for debt related cases, then then latter likely has more experience relevant to your legal needs. There is value in all experience, but the value is very different between general experience and relevant experience. Additionally, if a sizeable portion of the attorney or firm's overall workload consists of a relevant practice area, then it is likely they have workflows and processes in place that will allow for the more effective and more effecient handling of your matter.
- "How many similar cases have you or your firm handled" - Similar to the previously mentioned question above, this question gets directly to the experience relevant to your legal needs. If two attorneys have the same number of years of experience, you may need to ask about the rate of cases they handle. A higher volume of cases may indicate that the attorney or firm is generally more successful and sought after than the other firm. At the very least, it shows that the firm has gained more experience in the practice area even though it was during the same amount of time as the other attorney. This is a very good follow up question to the first.
- "How and when are updates of my case communicated" - This question is often overlooked and/or undervalued as a question. Attorneys who do not give updates in any uniform way may indicate that they or their firm does not have effecient or effective workflow processes in place. Human error always has a presence in any business. The more uniform workflows and processes that have been developed and deployed by the firm, the less chance human error can occur. If tasks such as "follow up with client" are automatically assigned and scheduled, then less "I forgot" situations occur. Additionally, you want to be sure that the attorney will give updates as necessary throughout your legal matter.
- "What is the likely outcome of my case?" - This question serves many purposes. First, it demonstrates the confidence of the attorney in your matter and may even help reassure you that your legal matter does have viable options for dealing with it. The next purpose of this question is to see if the attorney is going to be direct with you or sugar coat things just to get you to signup as a client. Most attorneys(practice area dependent) know what their overall win rate is or the general statistics behind their overall results. In areas such as Creditor Lawsuit Defense, the win rate is fairly straightforward. They are typically a loss or a win. In practice areas such as DUI however, it is not straight forward at all. More often than not, DUI defense is about getting the best results possible in terms of lesser charges/sentences/fees/fines. This practice area, and other similar practice areas, deserves this question to be a high priority on your list. Many attorneys, unfortunately, might imply that they will get your DUI case dropped or win it without ever telling you what the statistics are behind such a claim. This question can serve to weed out attorneys that would rather sell you a fairly tale than to be realistic with you.
- "What happens if you lose?" - This is another important question to ask. This question's purpose is to determine how far or how long the attorney is willing to work for you under the given fee structure. You must determine if the attorney is willing to appeal if they lose and if they do appeal, who pays costs associated with the appeal. This is especially true in creditor lawsuit cases. There are many firms who are willing to handle creditor lawsuit cases but do not appeal loses. Those few who do generally do not cover cost, such as filing fees. So if you have one firm charging much less than another but the more expensive firm is handling appeals and cost, your dollar might be going much further with them than the first. As in, the cheaper firm might actually be charging more for the actual work included.
- "What happens if they appeal?" - Another great question, especially in creditor lawsuit defense cases. Just because you(or the attorney you hired) gets a win at the Magistrate level, it doesn't mean that's the end of the matter. If the scope of representation doesn't cover what is necessary in your specific legal matter, you may end up facing an appeal without an attorney representing you. Many attorneys do not cover defending against appeals in their scope of representation so that they can quote a seemingly cheaper fee. That means it is possible to win at the magistrate level and lose at the Court of Common Pleas. This puts you in a situation where you paid for an attorney and still have to pay the full amount of the claim alleged against you + court cost. An attorney experienced in the practice area you need help with should know when appeals should be covered in the scope of representation. An attorney should never risk your overall well being simply so they can undercut the price of another law firm.
- "Are there other legal considerations for my case?" - It is quite common for one legal matter to give rise to other related legal matters. For instance, creditor lawsuit defense often gives rise to claims against the creditor under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act("FDCPA"), Fair Credit Reporting Act("FCRA") and Telephone Consumer Protection Act("TCPA"). This question is a quick way to determine if the firm you are speaking to is knowledgeable on the subject and if your legal matter does give rise to one of these, they will be able to handle it for you as well. There are many firms that handle Magistrate level Creditor Defense cases but have no experience in handling FDCPA claims since they are a federal matter. This is often very unfortunate for the client who hires a firm like that since these types of cases allow for stautory damages to be paid to the client and the client's fees to be paid by the creditor. For more on this subject, please see our article about FDCPA claims.
Determining the Value of an Attorney's Scope of Representation
As already said, the overall price quoted by an attorney does little in determining the value or quality of representation. You should ask all of the previously mentioned items, at minimum, and determine how important each question is to you and your legal needs. Everyone has different tolerance levels so each individual may quantify the answer to each question differently. Sometimes, it may be as straight forward as dividing the fee among the different major areas of the Scope of Representation and determining how much each value is in each portion of their services. Refer to the chart below for an example(although this is likely to be different for everyone). The table below assumes a typical creditor defense case where client is being sued for $12,000, the maximum allowed in the Magistrate court. Firm 1 is a typical firm who cuts their scope of representation down to minimums for the purpose of quoting a seemingly cheaper fee and the second firm is one with a comprehensive scope of representation designed to give the client the best possibility at getting the best permanent outcome.
|Firm 1's Fee
|Firm 2's fees
|Magistrate Litigation - This is the primary component and cannot be removed
|Magistrate Litigation - This is the primary component and cannot be removed
|Appeal if loss - Not covered - You will have to pay another fee, assuming the firm has the experience necessary to handle a case of this type at the Court of Common Pleas and is willing to do so.
|Appeal if loss - Covered. Firm assumes cost associated such as filing fees.
|Defense against appeal - not covered. Will need a new agreement and new fee, if firm is willing to do it at all(they may not have the necessary experience and decline to do so).
|Defense against appeal - covered. If creditor appeals loss at Magistrate, firm will defend again at the Court of Common Pleas
|Continuation of Representation in the event of Dismissal/Withdraw* - Not covered
|Continuation of Representation in the event of Dismissal/Withdraw* - Covered. If the Plaintiff re-files, firm handles the defense.
|Followup consultations to check for legal claims that could be brought against the creditor such as FDCPA, FDCRA and TCPA claims - Not covered - Assuming the firm even handles FDCPA claims, you will need to bring these to their attention so that the new legal matter can get started.
|Followup consultations to check for legal claims that could be brought against the creditor such as FDCPA, FDCRA and TCPA claims - Included - If the firm determines that a viable FDCPA claim exists, client will be notified and given the opportunity to begin the new legal matter.
*Dismissals and Withdrawal by Plaintiff are not final judgments. These situations allow for the Plaintiff to file the case again if they want to.
**Total is not a quote for legal services by Starks Law and is intended only for educational purposes. Individuals should not take this as an indication of the cost of services for their legal matter.
As you can derive from the information in the table above, a simple quoted fee does not give the full story at all. The first firm seems much cheaper, but in the end, could be either far more expensive at best or leave you unrepresented on appeal at worse. As you can also see, simply charging the core components that make of the Scope of Representation can demonstrate that you are actually paying far less for the primary component than the firm quoting an overall lower fee.
When you boil it all down, you can also simply ask yourself "Does a $500 car that doesn't run have more value than an $1,800 car that can at least get me to work?".
In conclusion, ask questions. Try to determine why the firm is quoting the price, not simply how much. Take the reasoning behind the price and compare that to your reasoning for seeking an attorney. As always, if you want to discuss what Starks Law can do for you and what our scope of representation would be for your specific legal matter, give us a call anytime during business hours. Consultations have been and will always be free at Starks Law.