For The Public

Hiring a Lawyer

This material was prepared as a community service by members of the Law Practice Management Section of the D.C. Bar*  and may be reproduced for nonprofit use.

Table of Contents

Glossary of Legal Terms

 


Glossary of Legal Terms

Attorney: Also called "lawyer" or "counselor at law." A practicing attorney in the District of Columbia must be licensed in the District of Columbia, and must have graduated from an accredited law school, passed a Bar examination, and completed a limited background investigation.

Bar: An organization of lawyers. The D.C. Bar consists of all lawyers who are admitted to practice in the District of Columbia.

Cause of Action: The legal name for the claim of the person bringing the lawsuit (the plaintiff).

Civil Case: A lawsuit about legal rights that usually involves money or property; it also includes family cases such as divorce or custody.

Complaint: This is the document that initiates a lawsuit. Accompanied by a summons, it will tell you that you have a limited period of time (usually only 20 days) to respond or you will face a default judgment (i.e., you will automatically lose the case). If you receive a complaint, get some assistance and respond within the deadline.

Criminal Case: The government or "state" prosecutes someone accused of  a crime.

Defendant: The person or organization accused of breaking the law.

Fee Advance: Sometimes called "retainer" in error. A fee advance is very different from a retainer. A fee advance is payment made to a lawyer before the legal work begins. It is to be used to pay for legal services to be provided and expenses to be owed in the future; that payment is typically returned to the client if there is client money left over at the end of the legal work.

Litigation: The act or process of carrying on a lawsuit.

Mediation: When a person who has no interest in the lawsuit meets with the two parties and tries to help them adjust or settle their dispute.

Negotiation: Conferring, discussing, or bargaining to reach an agreement.

Plaintiff: The person who brings a lawsuit.

Pro Se: Appearing for one’s self, as in the case of an individual who does not retain a lawyer and appears for himself or herself in court.

Retainer: A retainer is payment to insure a lawyer's availability to work for a client and is usually nonrefundable.

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Introduction

Sometimes you know you need a lawyer—you have just been involved in a major traffic accident or your business is being hounded by creditors and you think you may want to file for bankruptcy. Other times you think you may need a lawyer—you want to buy a house or something you paid a lot of money for is not working properly—but you are not sure whether you need a lawyer or some other type of help.

Even when you think you need a lawyer, you may have many other questions: Where do I find a lawyer? How will I know which lawyer is best for me?  How do I know if a particular lawyer can handle th is job? What should I do if I am unhappy with my lawyer?       

The following information is written with to help you answer these kinds of questions.

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Do You Need a Lawyer?

There are certain situations where you should have a lawyer. For example, if you are charged with a crime, including a serious traffic offense such as drunk driving or reckless driving, or a traffic offense following an accident or collision, you definitely need a lawyer. If you are sued in a civil case, especially if the lawsuit seeks a large amount of money,  you should have a lawyer. Any time your freedom, civil rights, or finances are threatened, you should have legal assistance. Depending on the nature of the offense and whether jail time is a possible outcome, you have a constitutional right to have a lawyer represent you if you have been charged with certain crimes. That right is so important that the court will appoint a lawyer to help you if you cannot afford to pay for one.       

There are a variety of other matters which may require legal assistance  or where legal assistance would greatly improve your chances of protecting yourself. It may involve a lawsuit, such as a suit about custody of a child, or one about child support; a suit against you by someone claiming you owe him or her money; or a claim by the Internal Revenue Service that you owe back taxes. It may be that you believe you have a claim that would require filing a lawsuit, such as a claim of discrimination,  a claim for injuries from an automobile accident or as a result of bad medical treatment or toxic waste dumping, or a claim that a service  or product you purchased was defective. Or, you may have problems with  creditors and think you need to declare bankruptcy.       

Some types of legal matters do not necessarily involve going to court, but you still should consult a lawyer who is knowledgeable about handling your issue. For example, you may need a will, or you may be purchasing a home or a business and need assistance with the contract, or you may need to negotiate a separation settlement with your spouse. You may also need a lawyer if you want to become a resident or citizen of the United States.             

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Will Someone Else Provide a Lawyer for You?


Before you set out to find a lawyer, be sure that you are not already entitled to one appointed for you free of charge. If you have insurance that may cover a loss, such as automobile insurance, a homeowner’s policy, or worker’s compensation, the insurance company normally appoints and pays a lawyer to act on your behalf. If you are sued in a matter that involves an organization you participate in, such as a church or school, that organization may have insurance that will pay a lawyer to defend you. In addition, anyone charged with serious criminal offenses who cannnot afford a lawyer may be entitled to one appointed and  paid by the court.       

If you are not sure whether you need a lawyer, you can consult a lawyer  just to find out whether you have a legal problem. The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program sponsors free legal Advice and Referral Clinics where you can speak with a lawyer at no charge to determine if you have a legal problem, and possibly receive a referral to a legal or other service provider. For clinic locations and times, call the Legal Information Help Line at 202-626-3499.       

Some lawyer referral services, such as the one sponsored by the voluntary Bar Association of the District of Columbia at 202-296-7845, may either tell you over the telephone whether your problem should be discussed with a lawyer, or refer you to a lawyer directly for consultation. They charge a small fee for their service, but it is very affordable.       

Ultimately, whether you need a lawyer is a question you will have to answer for yourself, but here are some ideas to help you make your decision.        

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Handling the Problem Yourself

Your problem may be something you would prefer to try to handle yourself before getting a lawyer involved. Or, it may be one where the amount of money in dispute is small enough that it does not make sense to use a lawyer. Often it makes more sense to try to get the problem solved without going to court.       

You should keep a written record or journal of all your attempts to solve the problem.

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If You Are Trying to Rectify a Problem

You might want to start with the source of the problem. If you are unhappy with the services of a professional, such as an insurance salesperson,  real estate agent, investment broker, or accountant, then that person, or his or her supervisor, should be the first one you try to negotiate with for a solution. Similarly, if you are unhappy with a product, you should turn to the business that sold it to resolve your complaint. Many businesses have customer service representatives to deal with complaints.        

You may seek assistance from your local government’s consumer protection agency by visiting the District of Columbia Office of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs or calling them at 202-442-4400. Some television and radio stations have consumer advocates who will  investigate a consumer complaint. Some professions, such as accounting, law, and real estate and investment brokering, have professional licensing boards that will investigate complaints and impose penalties where justified. The D.C. Bar Sections publications are also available through the Sections Office at 202-626-3463 to assist you with handling consumer problems or small claims matters.       

If you believe you have been injured or your property has been damaged and the amount of damages is $5,000 or less, you can usually file a lawsuit with the D.C. Superior Court Small Claims and Conciliation Branch at 500 Indiana Avenue NW (Judiciary Square Metro stop). The filing procedures are simple,  the fees are small, and court clerks will assist you in filling out  the forms. In addition, many people represent themselves in Small Claims  Court. If you go to Small Claims Court, bring along documentation of  your damages such as medical bills, car repair bills, or pay records documenting lost income.       

The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program has a Pro–Se–Plus Divorce Clinic open to anyone seeking an uncontested divorce in D.C., regardless of income. You may register for this clinic with the Clerk’s Office for the Domestic Relations Branch at the D.C. Superior Court, 500 Indiana Avenue NW (Judiciary Square Metro stop).

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If Someone Sues You

If you are representing yourself in Small Claims Court in a case where you are being sued and you believe you do not owe the amount for which you are being sued, bring in any evidence that shows you do not owe the amount claimed. For example, if you have already paid the amount you owe, bring in proof of payment such as a canceled check. When you go to Small Claims Court, be prepared to attempt an out–of–court settlement with the other side with the help of a court–appointed mediator. The Small Claims Court mediation program, called the Multi–Door Dispute Resolution Program, is mandatory. The phone number is 202-879-1549. You cannot pursue your case in court until mediation has failed. If  you can mediate or reach a settlement informally, before you start really litigating in court, all the better. (If and when you do hire a lawyer,  he or she will likely attempt to negotiate a settlement anyway, therefore, you will save time if you do it yourself. Plus, you will save money on attorneys and keep more of the settlement to yourself.)       

Even if negotiation or mediation does not resolve the dispute, you will at least have evidence describing your efforts to resolve the issue, which may be helpful later on.       

The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program has a Pro–Se–Plus Divorce Clinic open to anyone seeking an uncontested divorce in the District, regardless of income. You may register for this clinic with the Clerk’s Office for  the Domestic Relations Branch at D.C. Superior Court, 500 Indiana Avenue NW (Judiciary Square Metro stop).       

There is one other resource that deserves mention here. The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program has a Legal Information Help Line which features recorded messages—in English and Spanish—about basic information on 30 areas of law.  It also provides current information about which legal service providers are open to take in which kinds of problems. Last year, the Legal Information Help Line received more than 14,500 calls for legal information.        

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Collecting Information

Whether you decide to try to handle a dispute yourself or get a lawyer to help you, you should gather information and documents  about your problem. If something had happened, such as an auto accident, you should gather the information while the event is still fresh in your mind. The information and documents will help you make a complaint  to a government agency, present your case in court, or inform your lawyer about the facts that he or she will need to advise you.       

First, WRITE DOWN everything you know about the situation. Do not worry about your grammar or your penmanship. You can always rewrite or edit your writing later. To the best of your ability, write down everything you know, saw or remember. Use the language that makes you feel most comfortable. Be complete and, above all, be truthful. Whenever possible, include dates of events and names of any possible witnesses.       

Keep a JOURNAL so you can update your account and include any additional information that you think of or that develops. If you cannot write, have someone else write your words down for you, or tape–record or videotape yourself.       

Give as much details as you can. Dates, locations, time of day, and other details can be vital information. You need to put everything on paper while things are fresh in your mind. Gather as many helpful documents as you can: receipts, bills, letters, broken pieces of the item you bought, drawings, tax returns—anything. All these things can become valuable evidence if you carefully identify and organize them.

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Hiring a Lawyer

Before looking for a lawyer, it is important to understand how lawyers charge for their services.

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How Lawyers Charge for Their Services

Lawyers charge for their services in a number of ways, but the typical fee arrangements are hourly fees, flat fees, and contingent fees.       

As the term suggests, an hourly fee is the fee the lawyer charges for each hour worked on the particular matter. Defending a lawsuit, negotiating a settlement of a dispute, and representing a client in a contested divorce or custody case are typically done on an hourly basis.       

Hourly rates vary depending on the lawyer and the nature of the work involved. A low hourly rate is not necessarily a bargain. You should consider the attorney’s expertise and experience in deciding whether the hourly rate is reasonable for handling your particular problem.       

A lawyer typically charges a flat fee when the service performed is relatively simple and the time needed to complete the assignment can be easily calculated. For example, lawyers typically charge a flat fee for preparing a simple will, when representing a client at a real estate closing, or in a personal bankruptcy.       

Personal injury cases, worker’s compensation cases, and Social Security disability cases are typically handled on a contingent fee basis. This means that the lawyer’s fees are based on the amount of money recovered  on your behalf. This arrangement is typically offered where the lawyer is willing to share the risks that no recovery will be obtained. It is important for you to ask the attorney who offers this type of fee arrangement whether costs associated with the case, other than attorney fees, are the responsibility of the lawyer or the client, and whether these costs are deducted from the recovery before or after the lawyer takes his or her percentage share for attorney fees.       

For example, some lawyers charge the client 33 1/3 percent of any settlement obtained on behalf of the client. That means that if the lawyer were to recover $30,000 in the settlement of a dispute, he or she would receive $10,000 as lawyer fees, whether it took one hour or one hundred hours to resolve the matter. Unless you and the lawyer make clear at the start of representation that the lawyer gets the 33 1/3 percent of the settlement after all the expenses are first subtracted, the lawyer will get $10,000 and you will get $20,000 minus all the costs incurred in the case.       

You may believe that you are unable to pay some or all of the legal fees most lawyers charge. There are some organizations that provide free legal services for low–income clients. Also, some lawyers and legal organizations make legal services available to moderate–income clients at reduced fees. The next segment of this publication includes some suggestions on how to find free or reduced fee legal services.

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Finding a Lawyer

There are many ways to find a lawyer including:

  • The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program’s Legal Information Help Line which features recorded messages on 30 legal topics and includes references to other available sources of information on finding a lawyer. The telephone number is 202-626-3499. The help line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • Legal directories such as Martindale–Hubbell, West Legal Directory, and others are available in some local public libraries. You may check the location and availability of these references on the Internet at District of Columbia Public Library’s Catalog on the Web. Various voluntary bar associations, such as the Women’s Bar Association of D.C., the National Bar Association, the Hispanic Bar Association of D.C., LGBT Bar Association of the District of Columbia , and the Metropolitan Washington Employment Lawyers Association, also have directories listing their lawyer members which may be available in local university law libraries or at the organizations’ offices.         
  • Referral services. The Bar Association of the District of Columbia  has a lawyer referral service that can refer you to an attorney who may be able to assist you with your problem. The number is 202-296-7845. You will receive a one–hour consultation for a small fee and if your case has merit, that consulting attorney may consider taking on your case for representation. Other organizations may provide referrals to specific communities or constituencies. You can find a list of local legal services providers at www.LawHelp.org/dc.
  • Friends and relatives who have used a particular lawyer are often the best source of referrals because they have personal experience with that lawyer and can tell you whether they were satisfied.
  • Ask a lawyer you know. You may know a lawyer but that lawyer does not handle the type of case you have. Still, lawyers know other lawyers and are familiar with their areas of specialty and whether they are competent.
  • Other professionals, such as real estate agents, mental health professionals, accountants, and stock brokers, who have occasion to deal with lawyers professionally can be a good source of referrals for a lawyer with the expertise to handle the type of problem you have.
  • Yellow pages. The yellow page directory has lawyers listed alphabetically. It also groups lawyers by practice area. You can look in the practice area listings for a lawyer who handles the type of problem you have. You should consider lawyer ads the same way you would consider any other advertisement. What is the ad really telling you?
  • Insurance companies. Many people know that their auto insurer will defend them after an auto accident, but many people do not know that their homeowner's insurance carrier will defend them if they are being sued for certain kinds of cases. If a dispute involves property that might potentially be insured, call the insurance carrier to see if  you are entitled to be defended. If so, the insurer will find you  a lawyer.
  • Charitable organizations, religious organizations, civic groups, and community organizations. These organizations often have a lawyer or lawyers who are active in the group and who may be able to identify lawyers in the specific practice area that you need.
  • Your employer or your employer’s lawyer may be able to recommend  a lawyer. But, do not approach them if your problem relates to your job.

Several legal service providers in the District of Columbia represent low-income people, and a list of these organization can be found at www.LawHelp.org/dc. The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia at 202-628-1200 represents low–income defendants in criminal cases and trials. Many of these organizations and services are listed in the phone book under  “legal” or under government listings. In addition, the D.C. Bar’s Pro Bono Program runs Advice and Referral Clinics monthly on the second Saturday of the month at Bread for the City, 1525 7th Street NW in the Shaw neighborhood and at the Max Robinson Center, 2301 Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE in Anacostia.       

Law schools also run clinics where professors supervise students who work on cases and represent people at no charge. You may contact any of the area law schools to see if the clinics are currently accepting your type of case.

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How to Select a Lawyer

Once you have identified one or more lawyers you may want to hire, you should telephone each one and speak to the lawyer for 5 or 10 minutes to determine whether he or she handles the type of problem you have, and to get additional information that will help you decide if you want to come in for an appointment. Be advised that getting this information may require some extra effort on your part. Give the lawyer a brief description of the problem and ask if the lawyer has experience with it. Find out whether the lawyer charges an hourly fee, a flat fee, or a contingent fee and what the hourly rate, flat fee, or contingent percentage is. Ask if the lawyer charges for an initial consultation and, if so,  how much. Get a feel for whether you think you can get along with the lawyer. If you are satisfied so far, make an appointment.       

This first phone conversation is also an opportunity for the lawyer to decide if your case is one he or she might want. If it is not, the lawyer can save you the trouble and expense of coming in. If the lawyer  does tell you on the telephone that he or she is unable to represent  you, ask for a referral to another lawyer. Lawyers are probably in the  best position to make such referrals because they usually know which lawyers handle special matters and who the competent attorneys are in that field.       

In deciding whether to hire a lawyer, there are several things you should know. First, any lawyer practicing in the District of Columbia must be licensed in the District of Columbia. To obtain a license, the lawyer must have graduated from an accredited law school, passed a Bar  examination, and completed a limited background investigation. “Licensed” means the lawyer is permitted to practice law in the place where he or she works. Some lawyers are licensed in more than one place. Being licensed or admitted to practice is sometimes also referred to as being  a member of the bar. Ask if the lawyer you are considering hiring is a member of the D.C. Bar. You can check if the person is currently a member in good standing of the D.C. Bar by calling the D.C. Bar's Membership  Office at 202-626-3475, or by using the D.C. Bar's Web site to find a member. You may also want to check with the Office of Bar Counsel at 202-638-1501 to see if any complaints or disciplinary proceedings have been initiated against this lawyer, or visit the D.C. Bar’s online attorney discipline database.       

Many lawyers concentrate, or specialize, in one or more areas of law practice. Unlike the medical profession, however, in the District of  Columbia there is only one certified legal specialty—patent law. You should know that a lawyer does not have to take any additional steps in order to say he or she “specializes” in employment law, for instance. There are no special tests or courses to take, as there are for doctors who “specialize” in heart surgery, for example. The only thing a lawyer who "specializes" in employment law has to do is spend a lot of time doing those types of cases.       

Your problem, however, may not need a “specialist.” If your problem is one where the stakes are fairly low (for example, you are being sued by a creditor in Small Claims Court), it may not be worth your money to hire a specialist. If your problem is not particularly difficult (i.e., you want an uncontested divorce and there are no minor children and no property to fight over), you may not need a specialist. (Keep in mind that pensions are considered property.) On the other hand, if your problem is difficult or complex, or the stakes are very high,  you may need the greater expertise a specialist can provide. You may wish to telephone or have a consultation with both a general practice lawyer and a specialist to determine which type of attorney you really need.       

No matter who you decide to interview, you should ask the lawyer about his or her background and experience in handling problems like yours. This is particularly important if you are considering hiring a specialist. Because any lawyer can claim to be a “specialist,” you should make sure you are indeed getting an expert.       

Some of the questions you might ask are:

  • Where are you licensed to practice law?
  • What is your legal experience?
  • How many cases or matters of this type have you handled?
  • What percentage of your practice is in this area of the law?

At your initial consultation, you should also talk to the lawyer about your problem and hear the lawyer’s views on how to resolve it. Is the lawyer’s approach to suggest ways of resolving the problem out of court, or is the lawyer more interested in pursuing an aggressive lawsuit, even when you may not want it? You should also ask about the lawyer's approach to working with you. Will the lawyer take charge and forge ahead based on his or her own view about how to handle your problem, or will the lawyer explain things to you, answer all your questions, and involve you in the process? Some of your questions may be:

  • How would you approach resolving my problem?
  • Are there things I should do to improve my situation?
  • What can I expect to happen over the next few weeks, the next few months, and until the conclusion of the matter?
  • How long do you estimate it will take to conclude this matter?
  • Will you send me copies of correspondence and court filings?
  • Are there any deadlines I should know about?

Based on the answers to these and other questions, you need to decide whether this lawyer is the one for you. Do you believe that you can work with this person? Is the approach practical and sensible? Is he or she going to let you participate in the process as much as you want?       

At the first consultation, you should talk with the attorney about fees. If the matter will be handled for a flat fee, ask what charges are included and what are not. For example, you may be quoted a flat fee for preparing a simple will. You should ask whether there are additional estate–planning services the lawyer offers and how much those services cost.       

If the matter is to be charged on an hourly basis, can the lawyer estimate what the total fee will be? Can he or she estimate what the fees will be for different outcomes, such as a settlement before filing suit,  or taking the case to trial? This can help you anticipate how much you will have to pay in legal fees.       

If the attorney’s fees are to be a percentage of the recovery, what percentage will the lawyer charge? Will the client be responsible for paying costs? What is included in “costs”? Will the lawyer take his or her percentage before or after costs are deducted? Will the percentage be different according to when the case ends? MAKE SURE YOU UNDERSTAND THE FEES BEFORE YOU DECIDE TO HIRE A LAWYER.       

If the lawyer will be charging you either a flat fee or an hourly rate, you likely will have to pay money up front. This is a fee advance (sometimes incorrectly called a “retainer”) which is credited against the fees you will owe the lawyer. You should find out how much the lawyer wants up front and whether the fee advance must be paid before the work begins. Do not assume the lawyer will begin work right away before you have  paid any money. You should also discuss whether the lawyer expects you to pay your bill in full each month or whether you can pay over time.  Some lawyers will accept monthly payments and others expect to be paid in full each month. Ask questions and find out.       

D.C. legal ethics rules require that all fee arrangements with first-time clients be put in writing. It is advisable to have a written fee agreement in every matter that a lawyer will handle for you. The document should state specifically what the lawyer has been hired to handle and what the fees are. It should state how much you must pay the lawyer before work begins and when and in what amounts further payments are due. It should also explain anything that is not included in the fees, such as out of pocket expenses (e.g., copying, postage). If you are being charged a flat fee, the agreement should state what is included in the flat fee and what is not. A written agreement helps prevent misunderstandings later. YOU SHOULD ASK ANY LAWYER YOU ARE CONSIDERING HIRING TO PROVIDE YOU WITH A WRITTEN FEE AGREEMENT.

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Additional Sources of Information

Again, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program's Legal Information Help Line at 202-626-3499 provides recorded messages on 30 topics in five areas of law (family, consumer, public benefits, employment, and housing), and gives information about the availability of free legal services. The recordings are in English and Spanish.       

The D.C. Bar Sections Office also has pamphlets on various topics such as “How Can I Protect My Rights as a D.C. Consumer?” and “What To Expect in D.C. Small Claims Court.” Call 202-626-3463 for more information about what is available.       

The American Bar Association also produces helpful publications. One such publication is Finding the Right Lawyer by Jay G. Foonberg (American Bar Association, 1995). This is a practical guide for the consumer with advice on how to evaluate a lawyer’s qualifications, what questions to ask at the first meeting, information to help you figure out what  kind of lawyer you need, and ideas on how to find the right lawyer for your particular circumstances. The cost is $14.99 in some local bookstores, or you can order from the American Bar Association at 1-800-285-2221.

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What You Can Expect From Your Lawyer and What Your Lawyer Can Expect From You

As a client, you have certain rights. They include the following:

  • Confidentiality. Your conversations with your lawyer and any documents  or information you give your lawyer are required to be kept private. Your lawyer should not discuss your private business with anyone outside of the lawyer’s firm, including the lawyer’s spouse. This also applies to any initial conversation you may have with a lawyer while seeking representation, regardless of whether or not you hire him or her.
  • Competence. You have a right to expect your lawyer to handle your matter competently. This does not mean he or she will know all the answers. It means your lawyer should know where to go to find the answers and devote the attention to your matter that it deserves.
  • Honesty. You should expect your lawyer to tell you the truth and to handle any funds of yours in a completely trustworthy manner.
  • Loyalty. Your lawyer should not have any conflicts of interest that would cause his or her loyalty to be divided between you and another person with an interest in the outcome of your matter. This prevents a lawyer from having any relationship or other interests that would prevent him or her from being totally faithful to your interest. This means, for example, that a lawyer could not normally represent the driver and a passenger in a lawsuit arising from an auto accident because the interests of the two may be in conflict.          
  • Information. You have a right to be kept informed of the progress of your matter and to have your questions answered. You should not hesitate to ask your lawyer questions and you should expect to have your questions answered. Many lawyers will routinely send the client copies of all letters coming into or going out of the office and all court filings and other documents generated in the case. Ask any lawyer you are considering hiring whether that is his or her practice. If you want to receive copies of everything, let your lawyer know.          
  • Responsiveness. Your phone calls should be answered in a timely fashion.

Your lawyer also expects certain things from you in order to handle your case most effectively. They include:

  • Honesty. Just as you have a right to expect honesty, so does your lawyer. You should provide your lawyer with full and complete information  about your matter, including, especially, information that may be bad for your case. Remember that the lawyer must keep this information confidential. Your lawyer cannot represent you well if you hold back or lie about the facts.
  • Cooperation. You and your lawyer must work together as a team. You cannot simply turn your problems over and expect him or her to call you when it is resolved. Gather the documents the lawyer asks for, fill out the forms, write down what happened, gather the names and addresses of witnesses, and try to follow the lawyer's advice. Clients who cooperate with their lawyers will generally get better results than clients who do not. If you do not cooperate, your lawyer may withdraw from the case and you will have to find another lawyer.
  • Payment of Fees. If you have agreed to pay fees or costs, your lawyer expects you to comply with your agreement.

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What If You Are Unhappy With Your Lawyer or Dispute the Fee?

Sometimes the lawyer you first choose turns out to be a dud, and you  want to fire him or her and hire someone else. As the client, you have an absolute right to fire your lawyer at any time, with or without cause.       

However, you and the lawyer may be able resolve the problems you are having. If you have a complaint or are unhappy about something, have a frank discussion with your lawyer and explain your point of view. Ask the lawyer to explain the things you do not understand. You should receive satisfactory answers to your questions. If the problem was the result of a misunderstanding, perhaps the lawyer–client relationship can be preserved.       

If you are still not satisfied after talking the problem out with your lawyer, you should seriously consider changing lawyers. Whether to do so depends on a number of things. Is the lawyer handling your case incompetently, neglecting to do things that need to be done, missing deadlines frequently, or repeatedly showing up late to court and making the judge angry? Or is the lawyer doing a competent job but your personalities clash? You have a right to change lawyers even over a clash in personality, but you will have to weigh how important it is to you to change lawyers against the additional cost and inconvenience involved in getting a new lawyer up to speed on your matter. If an important court date, such as a trial or a pretrial conference, is coming up soon, changing lawyers at this stage will be very risky and difficult. Therefore, if you are having doubts about your lawyer, you should resolve them early and not wait. Otherwise, as a practical matter you may not be able to change lawyers. If your case is pending in court, the lawyer will need court permission to withdraw from your case. That could leave you without a lawyer if you cannot find one willing to come into the case at the last minute.       

If you believe your lawyer has acted in an unethical manner, you may file a complaint with the Office of Bar Counsel, 515 5th Street NW,  Washington, DC 20001, or call 202-638-1501. Bar Counsel will investigate  your complaint and make a determination whether to prosecute the lawyer. More information on the Office of Bar Counsel and filing a complaint is available on the D.C. Bar’s Web site.       

In certain instances where a lawyer has stolen client funds, the client may receive some reimbursement through the D.C. Bar Clients’ Security Fund. For more information, call the D.C. Bar at 202-737-4700, ext. 237, or visit the Clients' Security Fund online.       

If you have a disagreement with your lawyer about how much you owe him or her, or how much you have previously paid your lawyer, you can seek arbitration of the dispute through the Attorney/Client Arbitration Board (ACAB) as an alternative to filing a lawsuit in court. For more information, call the D.C. Bar at 202-737-4700, ext. 238, or visit the Attorney/Client Arbitration Board. Generally, arbitration is voluntary. But court rules require D.C. lawyers in most instances to arbitrate fee disputes at the client's request. Staff at the ACAB can advise you about  your option to request arbitration.

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Helpful Phone Numbers

American Bar Association Consumer Publications 1-800-285-2221
Bar Association of D.C. Lawyer Referral Service 202-296-7845
D.C. Bar Attorney/Client Arbitration Board 202-737-4700, ext. 238
D.C. Bar Clients' Security Fund 202-737-4700, ext. 237
D.C. Bar Membership Office 202-626-3475
D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program Legal Information Help Line 202-626-3499
D.C. Bar Sections Office Publications 202-626-3463, ext. 254
D.C. Office of Bar Counsel 202-638-1501
D.C. Office of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs 202-442-4400
D.C. Superior Court Multi-Door Dispute Resolution  Program 202-879-1549
Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia 202-628-1200

The Law Practice Management Section of the D.C. Bar would like to thank its former chairman, Peter Wolk, for his work on the revisions to this booklet, for arranging for outside readers, and for the original translations of this booklet. The Section thanks Lydia Watts, Esquire, Executive Director of WEAVE, and Judy Conti, Esquire, Executive Director of the  DC Employment Justice Center for their review and insightful edits as outside readers. The Section further thanks Mr. Edgar Soto for his expertise  in preparing the translation of this booklet into Spanish, and Jose Gonzalez-Magaz of Steptoe & Johnson LLP and Mariano Wolff of Kirkland & Ellis LLP for their expertise in reviewing and finalizing the Spanish translation. To obtain printed copies, contact the D.C. Bar Sections Office at 202-626-3463.

The Law Practice Management Section of the D.C. Bar would like to thank the following people for their help in preparing the first edition of this booklet: Nancy Karkowsky, Lilliam Machado, Linda Ravdin, James Sandman, Eric Siegel, Nicholas Cobbs, Peter Wolk, and other members of the section for their efforts in producing this publication.        

*The views expressed herein represent only those of the Law Practice Management Section of the D.C. Bar, and not those of the D.C. Bar or its Board of Governors.

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Finding Free Legal Help

There are a number of programs that provide free legal help to low- and moderate-income D.C. residents.

Knowing your legal rights is a good first step in finding out the type of help you need. You can find free information about a wide range of topics, including housing law, family law, employment law, immigration law, and public benefits law, at www.LawHelp.org/DC.

LawHelp.org/DC can also help you find a free legal service program that may be able to help you with your problem. The Web site contains an online search form which allows you to identify what type of legal problem you have, as well as other factors that may apply to you (for example, if you are over 60, or an immigrant, or HIV-positive). When you click “submit” on the form, you will get a customized list of programs that may be able to help you. For each organization you can see income limits, contact information, and intake times and locations.

You can also browse through a complete online directory of legal assistance programs on LawHelp.org/DC.

LawHelp.org/DC is a project of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program in collaboration with the D.C. Consortium of Legal Service Providers. LawHelp.org/DC provides general information only. Information provided is not legal advice, which can only be obtained from a lawyer. LawHelp.org/DC makes every effort to keep all materials up-to-date, but laws change frequently. Therefore, LawHelp.org/DC does not guarantee the accuracy of this information.

LawHelp.org/DC is not an attorney advertisement, solicitation, or e-mail advice service.

By clicking any of the links in this section, you are leaving the D.C. Bar’s Web site. The D.C. Bar is not responsible for any information posted on the LawHelp.org/DC Web site.

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