Find Legal Help

When you need legal help, how do you find a lawyer you feel comfortable with and one you can afford?  Finding a lawyer to contact is not hard.  The yellow pages have extensive listings.  Choosing one may be tougher. Beyond asking friends, how do you learn about specific lawyers practice areas, reputation, style or fees?  Are there lawyers who can help if I cannot afford to pay?  What should you expect from the business relationship with a lawyer?  What if something goes wrong with your lawyer’s representation?  This section should help you answer those questions.

Want to represent yourself?  Or, need to represent yourself because you cannot afford an attorney?   This section also provides accesss to self-help or do-it-yourself resources.  Some commercially available materials are also reviewed to help you decide whether to spend the money or to assist in using them.

Finding a Lawyer

You do not have to have an urgent legal problem before you seek an attorney.  Urgency can interfere with shopping for a lawyer who is a good fit for you and for your legal needs.  Shouldn't you shop?  Aren't you going to place your trust in the attorney to represent your interests and resolve your problems?  Many people have their first conversation with a lawyer while telling about their immediate problem.  By the time they are through, they are reluctant to say they want to go home and think about it.  You can hire the first person you meet and it might work out well. But, there is nothing wrong with interviewing more than one lawyer and sleeping on the decision.  Get-acquainted consultations can be very useful.  Be clear with the lawyer that is what you intend when scheduling.  You will sleep better in the midst of your legal crisis if you trust the lawyer handling it.

Where do you start? Word of mouth is probably the most significant means of finding a lawyer. Ask who your friends or family members use and ask how they feel about the lawyer or law firm.  Yellow pages advertisements are a good way to find names, areas of practice and particularly who is located near you.  Lawyer referral services are available in most counties.  They may suggest the name or names of attorneys who deal with the kind of problem you are having.  If you are low income and have civil legal issues, you may want to start with a call to CLEAR to see if you qualify for legal assistance.  If you are low income and have a criminal problem, you may qualify for the appointment of a public defender and will be advised of that right at arrest.

Attorneys often limit their individual practice on one or just a few areas of law.  Specialties are not formally recognized by the bar.  However, an attorney that limits their practice to a particular area of the law, may be more knowledgeable about that area than one who does not.  This may save time, which could lower costs, but may also result in higher billing rates.  If you have different legal needs over time, that attorney may not be best suited to those issues.  There is nothing wrong with employing different lawyers or firms for different problems.  Or, you may prefer a general practice attorney or a firm which has a variety of practice areas.  Part of the hiring conversation should be about what the lawyers knowledge and experience are with your problem area and what other areas of expertise they have and how they would propose to assist you if you had a need outside their expertise.

As part of your preparation, you may want to check with the Washington State Bar Association to see that they attorney is licensed and has no disciplinary action pending against them which might affect their ability to represent you.   You might also consult private on-line ratings of lawyers.

Look for a person who not only can handle the work, but one whom you trust and feel comfortable working with.

Working with Lawyers

When you hire a lawyer, you are making a contract.  This can be done orally, but written agreements are generally preferable.  Some types of representation require written agreements.  The contract sets out the rights and responsibilities of both the client and the lawyer.  The contract is supplemented by rights and responsibilities established by the Rules of Professional Responsibility which govern lawyers.  These rules create certain ethical obligations with respect to service, handling of client funds, your access to your files and many other issues.

A variety of fee arrangements are possible.  Most services are provided on an hourly billing basis.  However, some matters may be done on a fixed fee or on a contingent fee basis.  You may be asked to pay a retainer or to make a deposit into a trust account to cover fees and expenses.  You will be responsible for certain costs in addition to the fees charged.  A pamphlet explaining legal fees is available from the Washington State Bar Association, see the Resource link below.  It is important to clearly spell out in your agreement the basis for charges.  You are entitled to detailed billing statements explaining the charges made and accounting for funds held in trust.

Good communication with your attorney is crucial.  This is a two-way street.  You should ask questions and expect answers both about the handling of the case and the charges being made.  Unspoken expectations are often the basis for problems.  Direct communication is often adequate to resolve these problems.  If the working relationship breaks down, you have the right to terminate the attorney's employment.  You will remain responsible for the fees and costs you owe.

The vast majority of attorney-client relationships proceed without serious problems.  However, should a serious problem arise, you may have one or more avenues of recourse.  In the event of a fee dispute, you may ask the Washington State Bar Association to arbitrate the dispute.  You may file a complaint about the attorney's behavior with the bar.  If funds have been misappropriated, you may be able to file a claim with the bar for compensation from the Lawyer's Fund for Client Protection.  You may also consult an attorney knowledgeable in attorney malpractice about potential claims for attorney negligence.

Self-Help Resources

Legal proceedings are inherently complicated.  Lawyers are trained to navigate that complexity.  Non-lawyers cannot lawfully represent you in legal proceedings.  When you choose to represent yourself or find that you have to represent yourself, you will generally be held to the same standard of performance a lawyer would be.  This means you are expected to follow the law, meet deadlines, use proper forms, follow procedural rules and evidence rules, among others.  Preparation is essential.

In family law proceedings you may be able to enlist the assistance of a courthouse facilitator to review forms and answer general questions.  The Resources below provide a link to courthouse facilitators.  However, they cannot provide you legal advice.  Mandatory court forms, court rules and the rules of evidence are also available on the court's website.  Links to these resources are provided below. 

This topic has a number of subsections.  We have separately treated self-help in Administrative Hearings and Small Claims court, each of which has different procedures from the trial courts generally.  We have separated self-help materials available for free from those you buy. 

 

Administrative Hearings

Administrative hearings do not involve courts.  But like courts, their proceedings are legal proceedings and require you to follow legal procedures.  Self-help guidance to prepare for these hearings is referenced below.

Small Claims Court

Small Claims Court is a division of the county district court.  It is basically a court without lawyers.  It has special procedures.  Material explaining the process is available on the court's website below.

How To Materials and Forms

Excellent materials are available to assist you in certain areas of the law.  WashingtonLawHelp has assembled a great deal of self-help material, as has Legal Voice.  Both are linked in the Resource section below.

Materials You Buy

Self-help books, materials and forms are also available commercially.  How accurate they are with respect to Washington law and how useful they will be to you is difficult to predict.  As we receive reviews of these materials, we will endeavor to share them on this site.