Finding a Lawyer

You may want to hire a lawyer if you have a legal problem and do not know how to solve it. There are several ways to find a lawyer who is right for you:

Certified lawyer referral services or your local bar association
Legal aid agencies
Certified legal specialist directory
Paralegals or legal document assistants
Prepaid legal services plans

Certified lawyer referral services or your local bar association
You can contact your county's lawyer referral service or call your local county bar association (which will have a lawyer referral service or other resource) help you find a lawyer.

You can also find a certified lawyer referral service by:

  • Going to to find more information on a State Bar-certified lawyer referral service;
  • Calling the State Bar's Lawyer Referral Services Directory at 1-866-442-2529 (toll free in California) or 1-415-538-2250 (from outside California); or
  • Checking the Yellow Pages of the telephone book under "Attorneys" for a State Bar-certified lawyer referral service.

Legal aid agencies
If you cannot afford a lawyer, you may be able to get free or low-cost legal help in non-criminal cases from a legal services program. This will depend on your income and the nature of your legal problem.

Use to find legal aid offices in your area and find out what areas of law they cover. You will also find lawyer referral services, and other free and low-cost services in your county.

You can also check the white pages of your phone book to look for a legal aid organization located near you. If you look in the phone book or other directories, be careful because some businesses will call themselves “legal aid” when they are not. If you have doubts, call your local bar association or lawyer referral service to check.

Certified legal specialist directory
For some types of cases, you may need a very experienced attorney in a particular area of law. The State Bar keeps a list of attorneys who are certified specialists in particular areas of law. Attorneys may advertise as certified specialists only if they are certified directly by the State Bar of California or an organization accredited by the State Bar to certify such attorneys. Search for a State Bar-certified specialist.

Paralegals or legal document assistants
Paralegals, or legal document assistants, are a good resource for preparing the many forms needed in a family law case and other types of cases. BUT they have not been to law school. They are NOT qualified to give you legal advice and, by law, are NOT allowed to give you legal advice. They can only do what you tell them to do. They are not trained to spot potential problems. Click for more information on legal document assistants.

Ask your friends, co-workers, and employers if they know any lawyers who have experience with the type of problem you have. If you know any lawyers who practice in other areas of law, ask them if they have any recommendations for lawyers in the area that you need help with. Business people or professionals like bankers, ministers, doctors, social workers, and teachers are also good sources of referrals.

Prepaid legal services plans
You may belong to a prepaid group legal service plan through your employer, your union, or your credit union. In general, most basic plans provide legal advice and consultation by telephone and may also include brief office consultations, review of simple legal documents, preparation of a simple will, and short letters written or phone calls made by a lawyer to an adverse party. Other plans may offer more extended services. Check to see if you belong to a plan.

You can also purchase a prepaid legal plan, but make sure you read all their information carefully so you know exactly what services are included with your plan and at what cost. If you want to buy your own prepaid legal plan, you can check the American Bar Association’s American Prepaid Legal Services Institute's listing of legal service plans. Your regional Better Business Bureau may also be able to provide you with consumer information about particular plans.

Telephone book Yellow Pages and newspaper advertisements may provide information about a specific lawyer. Some lawyers and law firms advertise on the Internet. The same laws governing advertising in print, radio, TV, and other media apply to the Internet. In addition, sometimes lawyers join together and advertise their services as a group.

Hiring a lawyer

Often, it is a good idea to hire a lawyer.

  • If you are being sued in civil court or you are facing criminal charges, for example, a lawyer can help you understand your rights, and the strengths and weaknesses of your case. A lawyer knows the rules and procedures for arguing the case in court. And a lawyer can make a big difference in whether or not you present your side of the story to a judge or jury successfully.
  • A lawyer can help you get a divorce, file for bankruptcy, or draw up a will. Or if you have been seriously injured or mistreated, a lawyer can help you file a lawsuit. Some lawyers handle a variety of legal problems; others specialize in certain areas of the law.
  • Some types of cases are so complicated that it is almost impossible for someone who is not a lawyer to handle it on their own -- for example, appeals and medical malpractice cases. Click for more information on several types of cases where lawyers are necessary.
  • Lawyers are also very helpful to prevent legal problems down the line. Preventive legal advice can save you time, trouble, and money by preventing problems before they arise. For example, if you are going to enter into a contract with someone else, having a lawyer help draft or review the contract before you sign it can help you protect yourself in case something goes wrong. Also, talking to a lawyer before starting a new business can help you choose the best way to set up your business to avoid financial issues later on.
  • Some types of cases require that there be a lawyer. A party in a lawsuit must generally be represented by a lawyer when the case is outside small claims court AND that party is a corporation, a limited-liability company, or an unincorporated association; is a trustee, probate fiduciary, personal representative, or a guardian ad litem; or is some other type of fiduciary like a conservator or guardian in certain situations. Get legal advice if you think you may be in one of these situations to find out for sure whether you can represent yourself or must be represented by a lawyer.

Once you decide to hire a lawyer, you need to make sure you hire a lawyer that is right for you and for the type of legal problem you have.

Choosing a lawyer

First, before you meet with the lawyer, review the lawyer's background and discipline record at the State Bar’s web page on Attorney Search. Make sure the lawyer is in good standing with the State Bar.

When you meet with a lawyer, you need to ask several questions to make sure you know exactly what the lawyer will do for you and how much it will cost. You will then have to decide for yourself if this is the lawyer for you.

Here are a few key questions you should ask a lawyer at your first meeting:

  • What is your experience in this field? Have you handled cases like mine before? When is the last time you handled a case like mine?
  • What steps will be involved in my case? What are the possible outcomes?
  • How long do you expect this case to take?
  • How will you keep me informed as the case progresses?
  • Will anyone else be working on my case -- associate lawyer, legal assistant, paralegal? (If another lawyer will be the one mostly handling your case, ask if you can meet him or her.)
  • How do you charge for your time and that of your staff? Do you charge by the hour, a fixed fee, or on contingency? Do you require a retainer?
  • What other expenses will there be, and how are they calculated?
  • What can be done to reduce fees and costs? (Costs include telephone calls, photocopying, secretarial help, court fees, travel expenses, and so on.)
  • Can you put your estimates in writing?
  • How often will I be billed?
  • How can you help me? Can I do some of the work? What other information do you need?
  • What are my alternatives? Is arbitration or mediation appropriate?

Make sure to ask for simpler explanations of anything you do not understand. If you decide you want to hire a lawyer to handle only parts of your case (called limited-scope representation, discussed in detail in the next section), ask the lawyer if she or he would be willing to represent you only for certain matters. If this is your situation, make sure you read our section on limited-scope representation.

Once you get answers to your questions, ask yourself a few questions, too:

  • Will you be comfortable working closely with the lawyer?
  • Do you think the lawyer has the experience and skill to handle your case?
  • Do you understand the lawyer's explanation of what your case involves?
  • Does the fee seem reasonable?

If the answers are yes, you may want to hire this lawyer. Make sure you understand the agreement before you sign it. If you are not comfortable with any of the terms, do NOT sign it. And if you cannot work out your disagreement, you may want to find a new lawyer.

Read the pamphlet How Can I Find and Hire the Right Lawyer? from the State Bar to find more information.

Understanding legal fees

Lawyers charge for their services in different ways. Make sure you are clear about your fee arrangement with your lawyer.

Types of fee arrangements

Fixed fee (also called "standard fee"): A fixed fee is commonly used in routine legal matters. For example, a lawyer may charge all clients the same amount to draw up a simple will or handle an uncontested divorce. Before agreeing to a fixed fee, find out what it does and does not include. You also should find out if any other charges might be added to the bill.

Hourly fee: Some lawyers charge by the hour, and the amount can vary from lawyer to lawyer. Ask the lawyer to estimate the amount of time your case will take, but be prepared that your case may take longer than the lawyer initially expected.

Retainer fee: A retainer fee sometimes is like a "down payment" on any legal services that a client will need. This means that the legal fees will be subtracted from the retainer until the retainer is used up. The lawyer would then bill you for any additional time spent on your case or ask you to replace the retainer.

Sometimes, a retainer fee can mean that the lawyer is "on call" to handle the client's legal problems over a period of time. Certain kinds of legal work might be covered by the retainer fee while other legal services would be billed separately to the client. The retainer fees can also be used to guarantee that a lawyer will be available to take a particular case. This could mean that the lawyer would have to turn down other cases in order to remain available. With this kind of retainer fee agreement, the client would be billed additionally for the legal work that is done.

Contingency fee: This kind of fee is often used in accident, personal injury, or other types of cases in which someone is being sued for money. It means that you will pay the lawyer a certain percentage of the money you receive if you win the case or settle it out of court. If you lose, the lawyer does not receive a fee. Whether you win or lose, you will have to pay the court costs and certain other expenses. And, depending on the situation, these charges could be very high. Ask the lawyer for an estimate of these costs.

If you agree to a contingency fee, make sure that the written fee agreement spells out the lawyer's percentage and whether his or her share will be figured before or after other costs are deducted. This can make a big difference.

Statutory fee: The cost of some probate and other legal work is set by law (or statute). For certain other legal problems, the court either sets or must approve the fee you will pay.

Out-of-pocket costs

The lawyer will charge you for the costs of your case as well as the fees. You will be responsible for paying these costs even if your case is not successful. Costs can add up quickly. It is a good idea to ask the lawyer for a written estimate of what the costs will be.

Here are some typical costs:

  • Court reporter’s charges for depositions, trials, and written transcripts.
  • Copying, fax and long-distance telephone costs.
  • Experts and consultant's charges.
  • Filing fees, which courts require before they file legal papers.
  • Jury fees and mileage costs paid to jurors in civil cases.
  • Postage, courier, and messenger costs for mailing, shipping or personally delivering documents to you or others in your case.
  • Service of process fees to locate parties and witnesses and deliver legal papers to them.
  • Staff time for secretarial services.
  • Travel expenses for the lawyer when he or she travels on your behalf.
  • Witness fees and mileage charges.

Your lawyer may charge you for other costs as well. Make sure you understand all of the costs for which you will be responsible.

Read the pamphlet How Can I Find and Hire the Right Lawyer? from the State Bar to find more information about lawyer’s fees and costs and how to protect yourself so you know exactly what to expect.

Working with your lawyer

To have a successful lawyer-client team, make sure that:

  • You and your lawyer have the same goals.
  • You understand and are comfortable with the lawyer's working style. Make sure the lawyer gives you a clear timetable for your case - when you can expect significant developments and when and how often the lawyer will contact you.
  • You provide the lawyer with the information and documents she or he needs to understand your case.
  • You understand and agree with the lawyer's billing practices.

If you have questions or concerns about your case, talk to the lawyer about them and listen to his or her responses. If you are still not clear about what is going on, many local bar associations have client relations programs that assist clients in communicating effectively with their lawyers.

How to complain about a lawyer

If you are having serious problems with your lawyer and you have been unable to resolve them by talking with him or her, there are other things you can do.

If your dispute is about the lawyer’s fees
Many local bar associations have fee arbitration programs to help clients resolve fee disputes with lawyers. The State Bar's Mandatory Fee Arbitration (MFA) Program, run through the local bar associations, can help resolve attorney-client fee disputes without having to go to court. Lawyers must participate in such arbitration if a client asks for it. If there is no local program to handle your fee dispute or if a conflict of interest exists with the local program in your case, contact the State Bar's MFA Program.

To locate a program in your area, contact your local bar association. You can also visit the online State Bar's Mandatory Fee Arbitration (MFA) Program or call the State Bar's Office of Mandatory Fee Arbitration at 1-415-538-2020.

If your complaint is about the lawyer acting unethically
If you believe your lawyer acted unethically or intentionally mishandled your case -- maybe he or she told you that a will was filed for probate when it was not; or maybe the lawyer settled your case without your approval; or maybe you think your lawyer misused or stole your money – you can file a complaint with the State Bar.

The State Bar of California is in charge of complaints against lawyers and lawyer discipline. The Attorney Discipline System takes complaints against lawyers from citizens and other sources, investigates those complaints, and prosecutes lawyers when allegations of unethical conduct by them appear to be justified. The website gives you more instructions on filing a complaint, complaint forms, and other information.

You can also call:

1-800-843-9053 — Attorney Complaint Hotline
1-213-765-1200 (Calling from outside California)

The State Bar pamphlet What Can I Do If I Have a Problem With My Lawyer? has a lot more information about what to do if you are having problems with your lawyer.

Firing your lawyer

You have the right to fire your lawyer at any time. But he or she usually will have the right to payment for any past work already done for you.

Also, you have the right to change lawyers at any time, but if you wait until you are close to trial, consider whether this would be good for you and your case. You may not be able to find another lawyer at such a late stage. And a change can delay your case.

And remember that representing yourself in a complicated case could hurt your case.

If you fire your lawyer:

You have to fill out a Substitution of Attorney-Civil (Without Court Order) (Form MC-050). This form is required whenever someone changes who is acting as his or her lawyer. If a lawyer is representing you, and you now want to represent yourself, you need to complete this form. The Substitution of Attorney-Civil will remove one person as the lawyer in the case and replace that person with someone else (you or your new lawyer if you have one).

If you are acting as your own attorney and then hire a lawyer, you will also need to fill out this form.

Follow these steps:

  1. Fill out the Substitution of Attorney-Civil (Form MC-050). Sign this form and have the lawyer that you are firing AND the new lawyer you are hiring sign it too. Then, make a copy for each side in the case, including yourself.
  2. Have someone 18 or older, NOT you, mail the other parties a copy of the Substitution of Attorney-Civil. Make sure the person who does this for you, the “server,” does NOT mail the original. The original is for the court.
  3. Have the server fill out and sign the second page of the Substitution of Attorney-Civil (Form MC-050). This is the Proof of Service, telling the court you served all the other parties with the Substitution of Attorney. Make sure the server writes the names and addresses of all parties involved in the case.
  4. File the ORIGINAL of Form MC-050 (with the Proof of Service on page 2 filled out and signed) with the court. Take your copy to the courthouse as well and make sure it is stamped “Filed.”

Keep in mind that once you file a Substitution of Attorney telling the court that you no longer have a lawyer, you are representing yourself (unless you have a new lawyer that you have named on the form). The lawyer you had is no longer representing you and does not have a duty to help you with your case any longer.

You can hire a new lawyer later, or the same lawyer again, but that would require a new agreement with the lawyer, and you (or your new lawyer) will have to file a new Substitution of Attorney letting the court know you are represented again.

If you are changing lawyers, substituting out your lawyer for a new one, your new lawyer will most likely fill out and file the Substitution of Attorney with the court.