How to Pick a Lawyer
People with learning disabilities (LD) and/or associated conditions, including Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD), may require the assistance of a lawyer in connection with elementary and secondary education, postsecondary education, professional licensing, and employment. Problems may pose legal issues under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), and/or state laws. While many schools, professional licensing agencies, and employers have procedures designed to allow unrepresented individuals to receive the accommodations they may be entitled, in some instances, it is advisable to seek the assistance of an experienced attorney. Attorneys can be retained for a varying degree of assistance ranging from providing one-off advice or guidance to representation throughout an administrative or formal legal proceeding.
This article provides helpful insights on how to choose an attorney that is right for you and your situation.
What Kind of Lawyer Do I Need?
Once you have determined that you would like to seek the assistance of an attorney, you should focus on finding an attorney that is experienced in learning disability law, employment law, or other area of law that might be applicable to your situation. When looking for a lawyer, it is important to keep in mind that not all lawyers have the same areas of expertise. In fact, law school does not educate lawyers to be specialists. It trains them in legal reasoning and provides them with basic knowledge of many legal areas. As a result, lawyers who have just passed the bar have received a general legal education and may not be an expert in any particular legal area. Expertise in a given area of law is developed through the actual practice of law in that area.
People with LD, ADHD, and/or other associated conditions may have problems that involve legal issues in a number of different areas, such as education, employment, litigation, estate planning, and criminal law. When dealing with a particular issue, it may be necessary to retain a lawyer with expertise in one legal area and to consult with other professionals concerning special considerations relating to LD and/or other conditions. It is important to note that a lack of detailed knowledge and experience in a given practice area may hurt your case, so obtaining help from the right professional(s) is key. You should ask attorneys what kinds of cases they usually handle to determine if they have the experience needed to work on your legal matter.
Where Can I Find a Lawyer?
There are many ways to locate the right attorney. You may have a friend who has had a similar legal issue or a family lawyer who will be able to refer you to a lawyer with the expertise you need. If not, here are our recommendations:
- States have bar associations. Sometimes, the bar association may be able to assist you in finding a lawyer experienced in the applicable area of the law. In most states, each licensed attorney in good standing must have a profile on their state bar association’s website. Before you meet with a prospective attorney, you should always make sure that the attorney is in good standing with their state bar association. Some local areas, like counties, also have bar associations. You can search for your area’s state and/or county bar association in the White Pages, online, or by using the American Bar Association’s local referral directory.
- Martindale-Hubbell provides a directory that lists many practicing lawyers and major law firms in the United States. The directory also identifies lawyers’ areas of expertise, together with a rating similar to a “Yelp” rating. Martindale-Hubbell is available online and in some law libraries.
- The Internet can also be a helpful source of legal information. Using an online search engine to research lawyers and/or law firms can help you identify those who specialize in the areas of law that might be at issue. Law firms often have biographies of their attorneys listed on their websites to provide information about the lawyer’s education, areas of expertise, and notable cases or publications they have worked on.
- Local advertisements that you hear or see may also suggest attorneys with expertise in certain areas. If you contact a lawyer through an advertisement, you should still check to ensure that he or she has the right experience for your legal matter and what services he or she can offer in your budget.
- State and federal government agencies may offer to help with some matters, such as housing or employment discrimination after you have filed a complaint with that agency. You can contact these agencies directly or check their websites for helpful information online. The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing is an example.
- Civil rights and legal defense or advocacy groups sometimes are able to provide assistance with legal advocacy at no cost. They may have lawyers available that can help you determine the kind of legal help you need and even bring a case to trial if necessary.
- Many states have nonprofit disability law centers, such as the Arizona Center for Disability Law, Maryland Disability Law Center, and Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF). Also, the National Disability Rights Network has a website that provides information on available resources in the each state. Other groups that may be of interest are the American Civil Liberties Union and the Judge David Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Washington, D.C.
- Lastly, some disability organizations may be able to provide the names of specific lawyers who have indicated an interest in representing individuals with LD, ADHD, and/or associated conditions in specific legal areas.
How Can I Afford a Lawyer?
If you are looking for legal representation at little or no cost, you can search for legal assistance programs called legal clinics or legal aid clinics in your area. You may qualify for these low/no cost options depending on your income, where you live, and familial status. Another alternative is to check with a nonprofit disability law center in your state to see if you might be able to obtain legal assistance free of charge.
Before actually retaining a lawyer, the first step should be an initial consultation with the lawyer you have contacted about representation. A consultation provides an opportunity for the attorney to hear your story so that he or she can determine the legal issues you are facing and decide whether legal action may be appropriate for your situation (and whether that attorney is available/willing to represent you). At the same time, you should also treat the consultation as an interview of the attorney. Some lawyers charge for the initial consultation and others do not. It is wise to ask about the cost when you set up the initial consultation.
If you decide to move forward on a legal matter with an attorney or law firm, there are several different payment arrangements that may be available. Here are some of the descriptions of common payment arrangements for legal assistance:
- Fixed or flat fee: This is a pre-set payment “up front” for an attorney or law firm to handle a particular matter. Typically, attorneys or law firms reserve fixed fee arrangements for simple or routine matters.
- Hourly fee: Attorneys may bill you monthly (or more or less frequently) for fees at a specific hourly rate and for expenses incurred, such as for mail postage, travel, and filing fees. Keep in mind that a lawyer with more experience will likely charge a higher price than an attorney with less experience. If budget is a concern, ask your attorney to assign certain tasks to a more junior associate to reduce costs.
- Contingent fee: A lawyer may undertake your case and take a percentage of the monetary damages that will be recovered if the lawsuit is won or if you receive money in a settlement. If there is no money recovered for damages, the lawyer does not collect a percentage. Usually, you will still be responsible to pay for expenses incurred (out-of-pocket expenses like mail postage, travel, and filing fees). In a limited amount of cases, applicable laws allow the lawyer to recover his or her fees from the opposing side.
- Pro bono: Law firms will undertake representation free of charge in some cases. This is called pro bono representation.
When moving forward with a legal matter, do not be reluctant to discuss fees and ask questions of an attorney you are considering retaining.
What Should I Ask My Lawyer?
Your lawyer is a professional who you have retained to perform certain legal services for you. There should be a clear understanding of what services he or she will perform and what fees you are expected to pay as the client. Here are some suggestions of what you may want to ask your lawyer to ensure that you are getting the adequate services you need for your legal matter:
- When you are ready to retain your lawyer, ask for an “engagement letter,” which defines exactly what he or she will do for you and at what cost. This acts as a contract between you and your lawyer so that you know what services you are getting and for what price. Some lawyers will offer an engagement letter without your asking because this practice is encouraged by many bar associations.
- More specifically, ask your lawyer to estimate the cost of providing certain services. Examples of services include advice, negotiations on your behalf, representation in an administrative proceeding, representation in an alternative disputes resolution process, and/or representation in formal litigation.
- Ask who you can contact when you have questions. Lawyers are often busy and may have an assistant or another attorney who is working with them on your matter get in touch with you. Communication is an important part of the attorney-client relationship, so the attorney should provide you with reasonable updates on your matter.
- Ask which lawyer(s) will be assigned to work on your matter. Ask about the experience and qualifications of the lawyer(s) who will work on your matter.
- If litigation is being considered, ask whether alternative dispute resolution procedures, such as mediation, are appropriate in your case. See the section below for more information regarding the choice of litigating or not.
When Should I Litigate?
Litigation is an adversarial process where the stress can be enormous. Remember that you are seeking a practical result, such as an education placement for your child, preservation of your job, or monetary damages. The driving force should be to achieve an outcome to which you have a legal right, not to inflict harm on an employer or educational institution because you are angry. There may be other ways of achieving your goals, such as a good education or rewarding employment. For example, if you believe you have been wrongfully terminated from your job, it is important to consider the pros and cons of seeking legal action versus focusing full time on finding another job.
Alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) might be available as an alternative to litigation. ADR refers to processes outside of court used to settle legal disputes. It is important to keep in mind that litigation in the court system is costly and may take a long time. In some cases, ADR can be less expensive, quicker, and less adversarial than a lawsuit that is actually ligated in court. One of the most beneficial aspects of ADR is that oftentimes you can salvage a relationship and formulate a mutually beneficial outcome which may not be traditionally awarded in a lawsuit. For example, courts are generally limited to awarding the prevailing party monetary damages or issuing orders requiring or forbidding a party from certain actions. Inevitably, in court, there is often a clear “winner” and a clear “loser.” On the other hand, you may be able to work with a mediator, for example, so that you and the other party can come to a mutually agreeable arrangement.
ADR can occur in various forms. Mediation is the most common and includes mediators, who are trained as neutral negotiators, who assist both parties in reaching a settlement or agreement. Arbitration is another process that acts like an abbreviated version of trial. It includes limited discovery (evidence collection) and evidentiary rules. Arbitrations can be decided by one arbitrator agreed upon by the parties, or by a panel of arbitrators. Lastly, more informal processes, such as community conflict resolution or dispute settlement, can be non-legal options that may still get you to your desired result. Community mediators trained in alternative dispute resolution can help you facilitate productive discussions in an effort to reach an agreement that works for all parties involved.
Generally, you should seriously consider litigation when you and your attorney believe that you have a strong legal case, and there is no other way to achieve the desired outcome. Otherwise, it can be wise to discuss alternative options with your attorney.
This article has been prepared for general information purposes only. The information presented is not legal advice and is not to be acted on as such.
This article was generously written and provided by White & Case LLP.
Last Reviewed and Updated: 12/11/2018