Q: What's the best way to find a good estate lawyer to prepare my will -- one who knows what he's doing, and won't overcharge for his service? -- BL via email
A: This isn’t as difficult a task as many people believe - but you do have to be willing to invest at least as much time locating a lawyer as you would spend shopping for a car.
Bear in mind that law is a highly specialized profession. If you’re looking for expert assistance to create your will or a trust for a loved one, or you need legal help administering an estate on which you’ve been named executor, you definitely want an estate lawyer -- not a terrific matrimonial, real estate, or criminal lawyer who occasionally draws up wills.
Here’s a five-step process for finding a good lawyer:
1. Ask for recommendations from friends, colleagues, and professional sources like your tax accountant. That should start you with a short list of names. (If you’re new in town, skip this step and go straight to step #2.)
2. Look up these names in the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory. It provides basic biographical information about most practicing attorneys. It also give you links to their websites, where you can learn more about them and their practices. If you’re starting from scratch, search the Martindale-Hubbell directory for estate lawyers in your city and/or your zip code. (You can do similar searches at this site for every type of legal specialty.)
In many cases, Martindale-Hubbell gives you a letter-rating for the attorney's ability and standing in the legal community. A means "very high to pre-eminent"; B means "high to very high"; and C means "fair to high." These ratings are based on confidential input Martindale-Hubbell has received from other lawyers and judges.
You really can't draw any conclusions if there’s no letter rating next to a lawyer’s name -- nor should a rating be your only reason for hiring someone. But if a lawyer is recommended by friends or colleagues and is also highly-rated, you can be confident that he or she is a knowledgeable practitioner.
3. Telephone the most promising prospects and ask for a preliminary consultation. Also ask if there's a consultation fee. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn't. If there is, ask if the fee will reduce your total bill should you decide to hire the lawyer.
This preliminary meeting doesn't commit you to anything. It's an opportunity for you to describe what you want to accomplish, to hear what the lawyer recommends, and to learn what he or she charges. Last, but by no means least, it's a chance to find out how well you click. Don't hire an attorney you’re not comfortable with, regardless of his or her expertise.
4. Before the preliminary consultation, think about what questions you want to ask. (Among other things, the way the lawyers answer will help you make your choice.) One way to prepare is to read the short, easy-to-understand Nolo Press articles about wills, trusts, and estate planning, at www.nolo.com.
Some attorneys mail you a questionnaire to fill out and bring with you. For a consultation about estate planning, "I always suggest that people bring a list of their assets and copies of their current will and power-of-attorney, if they have one," says Stephen J. Silverberg, a New York estate lawyer who is currently president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.
5. When you’ve chosen a lawyer, ask for an engagement letter that spells out the services to be provided, and the charges for those services. "You want to know everything upfront -- there should be no surprises," says Silverberg.
There is no standard legal fee. The cost depends partly on what you need; partly on the attorney's overhead and reputation; and partly on what other lawyers in the area charge for similar work. It also depends on the size of the firm. A sole practitioner won’t charge the same fees as a 100-attorney firm. One reason to comparison-shop is that it will give you an idea of the range of the fees in your community.
Expect to pay part of the fee in advance, and the balance when the job is finished.
Please send your questions to Lynn@LynnBrennersFamilyFinance.com. I'm sorry I can't respond personally to every email. Questions are only addressed online.
(c:) Lynn Brenner, All Rights Reserved