Three Steps to Finding the Right Estate Planning Lawyer for You
Engaging the right attorney or law firm to work with you on your estate planning will be very important to the process and the results. A lot of factors may play into your choice, including your price-sensitivity, your willingness and ability to travel, the complexity of your situation, your desire for anonymity, whether you prefer a smaller or larger law firm, your time frame, and your location. If you live in a small town, you may already know all of local attorneys and can choose accordingly. Or you may want to avoid all of them so that they don’t know your business. If you live in an urban area, you may have many options, but traffic may compel you to stay close to home.
The more complex your situation, the more likely you will need a specialist rather than a generalist. If you have a small business, it could be important that you work with a lawyer who is familiar with family business succession planning. If you are concerned about long-term care costs, it will be important that you work with an experienced elder law attorney. In terms of the size of the firm, with a smaller firm, you may be more likely to work with the principal attorney. A larger firm may have a broader and deeper level of expertise since it handles more cases and its attorneys can specialize. In addition, there’s back up in the event your attorney is unavailable, whether due to vacation or illness or, in the worst case, she can no longer work due to death or disability. The latter issue may be more important if you are seeking a long-term relationship than if you are hiring the lawyer for a single transaction.
In selecting the right attorney for you, there are three overlapping steps: First, creating a list of candidates. Second, narrowing the field based on what you learn about the options and the criteria that are most important to you. And, third, making your choice.
Making a List of Potential Attorneys
There are a number of sources for leads, both for forming the list of candidates and researching those on the list, including:
- Family and friends. Your family, friends and neighbors should be able to tell you about their experiences with various attorneys in terms of who to avoid and who to use. Of course, there may be instances where you don’t want to mention that you are consulting with a lawyer, for instance, if you needed to consult with a divorce attorney. But this is less likely to be an impediment if you are seeking an estate planning lawyer.
- Professional advisors. Your accountant or financial planner is likely to know qualified attorneys and to be familiar with their reputation and work product. Lawyers in other fields can usually recommend colleagues with the expertise you need. If you are seeking an elder law or special needs planning attorney, social workers, doctors and teachers who are working with your family may be able to recommend qualified attorneys.
- The internet. The internet is useful both in finding potential candidates for your list and in researching those already on the list. You can simply Google “Topeka estate planning attorney,” “Baltimore business succession lawyer,” or “San Antonio elder law attorney.” Your results will include advertisements for lawyers and lawyer referral groups, individual lawyer and law firm listings, and directories of law firms. Some may include websites devoted to the field of law, whether business succession, estate taxes, or elder law, which provide substantive information as well as lawyer listings. (I’m the founder of elderlawanswers.com which does this for the field of elder law.)
Vetting the Candidates
Once you have created your list of candidates, begin researching them, primarily by checking them out online, but also by going back to your friends, family members, and professional advisors to see what they know about the lawyers you’re considering. Online, you can look at the attorneys’ own websites to see what they say about themselves, what they emphasize, how much experience they have, and whether their approach meshes well with what you are seeking. You can see what they’ve written, if anything, and where they speak publicly, whether to consumers or to other attorneys and professionals. You can also check out www.avvo.com, which has an attorney rating service. Similarly, other new businesses such as www.superlawyers.com and www.bestlawfirms.com give accolades to those they deem, according to their criteria, to be the best lawyers and law firms locally and nationally. Take these ratings services with a grain of salt because they are in large part popularity contests. The lawyer who devotes all of his time and energy to doing his best to represent clients may not have as high a rating as the one who spends more time speaking, writing, and attending bar conferences.
Consider all of the information you have been able collect about your candidates, whether from recommendations of others or what you have been able to find out on the Web, in light of the criteria that are important to you, and narrow your field down to two to four finalists. This should be a gestalt of all of the information you receive – which ones feel to you like the best possible fits. Weigh the impressions of people who have worked with the attorneys in question more than anything else. The glossy website may simply indicate that the law firm hired a great marketing person and the old site that hasn’t been updated in years may indicate that the attorney doesn’t need to market because she’s in such high demand due to her compassion and results.
Factors to Consider
Once you have your finalists, call their offices and learn how they work. Here are a few questions you can ask:
- Do they charge for the first visit?
- Can they provide you with an estimate of what the total costs will be?
- Do they charge by the hour or flat fee?
- Do they do home visits (if necessary)?
- Do they prefer to communicate by phone or by email?
- Who does the work, the lead attorney or associates and paralegals?
- Do they have experience with your particular legal challenge?
- Do they perform the whole range of legal services you may need—for instance, if your application for Medicaid is denied, will they represent you on the appeal?
- How long will the process take?
- Will the attorney talk with you on the phone? As I suggested above, estate planning attorneys are unlikely to meet with you for an interview, but most will talk with you on the phone in advance of your scheduling a meeting.
There’s no right or wrong answer to these questions or, rather, there’s no right answer for everyone, but there may be one for you. Based on the information about your final candidates that you obtain over the phone, as well as everything else you have learned before you call, make your decision. It will be a good one.