Frequently Asked Questions

Selecting a Lawyer

How do I select a lawyer? 

If you need legal assistance but do not have a lawyer‚ there are several sources that you may use to help you locate and select an attorney:

1. Recommendations from friends‚ family members‚ and co-workers can be helpful‚ particularly if you ask an individual who has had a legal question similar to yours. 

2. The Federal Bar Association will begin offering a free “Need an Attorney” search listing to the public this summer. The general public will be able to search for an attorney in their local area. The directory includes participating FBA members. This is not a referral service and the FBA does not endorse the services of any of its members.

3. Yellow Pages and other advertising are becoming more commonplace among attorneys. Some ads list specific areas of practice such as bankruptcy‚ real estate‚ and others. It is the lawyer’s own choice to be listed in these areas‚ and there are no guarantees that the lawyers listed have any more knowledge or experience than any other lawyer. If you use these listings as a guideline‚ rely on your own independent investigation as well in choosing an attorney to represent you. 

4. Legal Directories‚ such as the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory‚ can be found in many public libraries. These contain biographical information on attorneys in each state‚ and listings of attorneys by state and city.

When do I need a lawyer?
Many people believe they need an attorney’s services only to solve a problem or to get out of a difficult situation. Often‚ the best time to see an attorney is not when you are in legal trouble but before that trouble occurs. Preventive law is one of the most valuable services that a lawyer can perform. By eliminating potential problems, preventive law can save you time‚ money‚ and needless worry.

Lawyer Client Relationship

Can I handle my own legal problems?

It is not illegal for you to represent yourself in court or to handle your own legal matters. There are also "kits" and "forms" which some people use for such matters as getting a divorce or making a will. Judges and court personnel are not allowed to give you any legal advice as your case proceeds. Attorneys are trained to provide professional legal assistance to you‚ to be aware of all court procedures‚ filing requirements‚ deadlines‚ and other details that a non-attorney easily could overlook.

Can I change attorneys? 

You may discharge you attorney simply by informing him/her of your wishes. Giving notice is a matter of courtesy and may be necessary so that if a lawsuit has been filed‚ the attorney may ask for the court for permission to withdraw. Even if you discharge your attorney‚ you are still obligated to pay for any services which have been performed already on your behalf‚ and costs which have been incurred.
What should my attorney expect from me? 

Upon being retained as your legal counsel‚ your attorney should expect that you will: 

  • Be completely honest about all facts concerning your case‚ whether or not they are favorable to you.
  • Be on time for appointments and not take up an excessive amount of time with visits or phone calls relating to minor details or petty matters.
  • Take his/her advice.
  • Understand that no lawyer can guarantee results in a contested matter.
  • Be patient and understand that legal matters are rarely "open and shut" cases; they require time and research. 
  • Pay a reasonable fee for the work performed.

What should I expect when I hire an attorney? 

You are hiring an attorney to work for you‚ as your advocate. You should expect your attorney to: 

  • Confer with you to pinpoint the problem.

  • Research and analyze all available facts and information relating to your problem.
  • Interview those involved.

  • Negotiate a settlement if both sides can reach a fair agreement. 

  • Keep you informed about what is going on in your case and answer your questions.

  • Discuss fees with you at your first visit‚ and come to an agreement about the way in which the fee will be paid.

  • Be candid with you about your problem, your prospects for success‚ the time it will take‚ and the advisability of accepting any settlement offered. 

  • Keep in confidence anything you say.

What should I look for in an attorney? 

Some of things that you should look for in an attorney‚ include: 

  • The attorney’s reputation in the community.

  • The attorney’s experience with your type of legal problem (don’t hesitate to ask about this during your initial meeting.)

  • The attorney’s communications skills – willingness and ability to talk to you in a language you understand and to keep you informed about the progress of your case‚ responsiveness to your questions and concerns.

Let your attorney know at your first meeting that these qualities are important to you. 

Legal Fees

How do attorneys set their fees?

Legal fees are set and determined by an agreement or contract between the attorney and the client. The agreement as to what the attorney is to do and how much the client is to pay may be oral or in writing. The amount of the fee and the basis for the charge are determined by a number of factors: 

  • The amount of time spent on your problem 

  • The attorney’s ability, experience, and reputation 

  • The results obtained 

  • Overhead costs such as secretarial and para-professional assistance‚ investigators‚ and other personnel 

  • Your ability to pay 

  • The primary types of fee arrangements are: 

  • Hourly rate, in which the total fee is determined by the attorney’s hourly charge times the number of hours required to do the job. 

  • Fixed fee, in which a specific amount is agreed upon for a known service, such as divorce, bankruptcy, will, incorporation, contract, and defense of a criminal charge. 

  • Contingent fee, in which the attorney receives a percentage of an amount recovered on the client’s behalf. The client always is expected to pay any out-of-pocket expenses incurred in prosecuting the litigation. If no recovery is made‚ the attorney receives no fee. 

  • Retainer is merely a method by which the attorney is paid. This is when the client makes a "down payment" from which the charges that accrue as the work progresses are deducted.

Law and the Courts

What is the role of witness in court?
A witness plays an important role in a court proceeding, providing valuable information about the matters under consideration. If you are subpoenaed as a witness in a trial‚ it is your duty to appear and testify. The lawyer who asks you to come to court can provide you with more specific information about your court appearance.

What if I do not know a lawyer?
Your right to legal counsel if you are arrested is a fundamental one in our country. You may retain a private attorney‚ or‚ if you cannot afford to do so‚ you should immediately contact the public defender’s office to represent you.

Should I have a lawyer with me? 

It is advisable to speak with a lawyer and have him/her with you when you appear in court. The judge must inform you of the charge against you and of your right to have a lawyer‚ if you do not have one. The judge must allow you a reasonable time to send for a lawyer‚ even to the point of postponing the hearing so that you can get one.

Can I be released on bail? 

Bail is the posting of security to ensure your appearance in court. The amount of bail is determined by the court but in most cases‚ you may be released without bail on your own signed promise to appear in court.

Do I have to answer any questions?
It is your right under the Constitution of the United States to refuse to answer any questions‚ or sign any statements concerning the crime. You are entitled to the aid and advice of a lawyer at all times‚ which includes a public defender if you cannot afford a private attorney. If you make any statements to the police‚ you give up those valuable constitutional rights and any information which you provide to the police‚ either oral or written‚ will be used against you in a court of law. 

An admission of guilt is a confession‚ and will be admissible as evidence in a trial and may produce a conviction the same as if it were written and signed.

A police officer or prosecuting official has no legal authority to induce you to make a confession or admission of guilt either by force or threats‚ or by promises of leniency‚ or that no prosecution will take place. Such promises are not binding on the court and may be used only to induce a statement.

Do I have to submit to a search? 

A police officer‚ following a lawful arrest‚ has a right to search a person‚ including your automobile if you are arrested in it. You may not resist the search. However‚ you are not required to consent to any search‚ and if you do consent to the search‚ you may be waiving valuable constitutional rights.

What if I am innocent? 

All arrested persons are presumed innocent‚ however‚ it is a crime to resist an officer who lawfully arrests you. Do not talk back or be disorderly‚ because it most likely will result in additional charges being filed‚ and possibly use of excessive force by the arresting officer. If it turns out that you have been arrested illegally‚ the law does provide legal remedies.

Law and the Consumer

What are my credit rights? 

Buying on credit allows you to make purchases now and pay for them over an extended period of time. While credit buying can be a major convenience‚ consumers should recognize both the cost and the legal responsibilities attached to credit. 

Under the federal Equal Credit Opportunity Act‚ creditors may not use your age (so long as you have capacity to contract)‚ race‚ color‚ sex‚ marital status‚ religion‚ national origin‚ or receipt of public assistance to discourage or prevent you from applying for a loan‚ to refuse you a loan if you otherwise qualify‚ or to lend you money on terms different from those granted to another person under the same circumstances or the fact that you have exercised any rights under the Consumer Credit Protection Act or state law.

A creditor may not require a consumer who applies for credit to get his/her spouse’s signature on any credit instrument except in certain very limited cases. A creditor also may not require information about your spouse’s income‚ or otherwise discriminate against you. A creditor who violates this requirement may have to pay damages to both spouses. Further‚ a guarantee obtained in this manner is unenforceable by a creditor. 

If you are denied credit‚ the creditor must send you a notice in writing which sets forth specific reasons for the denial of credit‚ or tells you how to request an explanation. 

You may review your credit file maintained by a credit reporting agency at any time and challenge any false‚ incomplete‚ or obsolete data. Even if you are unable to provide that the information is false‚ you may file a brief statement which the credit bureau is required to include in your report.

There are specific procedures to correct billing errors without damage to your credit rating. When you are seeking a loan or applying for a credit card‚ be sure you check to see what the annual percentage rate or interest will be.

What protection is there against a fraudulent seller in a credit card transaction?
The Truth-in-Lending Act permits a credit card holder to avoid paying for fraudulent charges in certain situations. To obtain this protection‚ a cardholder must save the relevant billing statements and must notify the card issuer within 60 days after receiving the billing statement.

What can be done about defective products, fraudulent advertising or unfair sales practices? 

There are laws on both the state and federal level to protect consumers from unsafe products‚ deceptive business practices‚ and misleading ads. Generally‚ a business is required to be honest and accurate in advertising its products‚ and services and in attempting to persuade you to purchase the products or services. The Federal Trade Commission regulates business practice and is the agency which should be contacted in case of complaints. If you are injured in any way by a defective product‚ you also may have private remedies against the manufacturer or against others involved in making the product available. Talk to a lawyer if you believe you have a products liability claim.

Can I get out of a contract?
In some cases‚ yes. Certain types of consumer sales contracts must have provisions allowing you to cancel within a specified period of time. If a contract is not legally executed‚ it may be possible to have it invalidated. Some circumstances that may lead to the cancellation of a contract include fraud‚ misrepresentation‚ or coercion.

Simply changing your mind or deciding you cannot afford that for which you contracted however‚ is generally not a sufficient reason to release you from a contract. If you break a valid contract‚ the other party may be able to sue you and be awarded damages.

What is a contract?
A contract is a legally binding agreement in which property‚ goods or services are provided in exchange for something of value‚ such as money. Some common types of contracts into which an individual might enter include: 

  • A purchase agreement for a home; 

  • A sales contract or "installment purchase plan" for an automobile‚ appliance‚ or other major purchase‚ including catalogue purchases; 

  • A lease; 

  • Door-to-door sales agreements;
  • An authorization to perform home repairs or services; 

  • A mortgage or personal loan;
  • An employment contract.

Contracts are not always written agreements. A verbal agreement may be an enforceable contract. A simple promise, however, is not usually a contract. Many of our day-to-day transactions actually involve a contractual relationship. Certain contracts may be required to be in writing. For example, contracts for the sale of real estate are usually required to be in writing. 

Contracts are usually legally binding. Be sure you understand exactly to what you are agreeing. If you have questions, see your lawyer before you sign. If you agree to something which is not in your interest, an attorney may not be able to undo the damage.


When should I file for bankruptcy?
You should consider filing for bankruptcy only after other attempts to resolve financial difficulties have failed. Although the decision of whether to file bankruptcy can be made only after a thorough review of your finances, the bankruptcy process is most useful to those who: 

  • Have failed in attempts to pay or reschedule debts;
  • Have a significant amount of unsecured debt. An unsecured debt is one in which the creditor has no specific interest in property of the debtor to collect on in the event that the debtor does not pay the debt. Common examples of unsecured debt are: Credit card purchases; Catalog purchases; Utility service bills
  • Needs to stop debt collection pressure exerted by creditors. The filing of bankruptcy prevents creditors from taking any further action to collect a debt, including, for example, continuance of a foreclosure action and phone calls to the debtor demanding payment.

The consumer bankruptcy laws are intended to wipe out most of your debts, and to give you a "fresh start." However, a bankruptcy filing will remain on your credit report for ten years if you file under Chapter 7 or seven years if you file under Chapter 13. Further, certain types of debts, such as taxes, student loans, and child support may not be discharged (wiped out) in bankruptcy. If you file bankruptcy, you may be prevented from filing again for six years, depending upon the type of bankruptcy filed.

If I file for bankruptcy‚ do I get to keep any possessions?
A debtor who files for bankruptcy is allowed to exempt certain property from creditors. Bankruptcy for a consumer should be a last resort. Payment plans and credit counseling are ways to avoid bankruptcy. Before deciding to file bankruptcy, you should consult an attorney and also may want to talk to a credit counseling service.