Hiring a Lawyer

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If you think you might need a lawyer, read this article to learn about how to find a lawyer and what you can expect in the process.

Do I Need a Lawyer or Can I Represent Myself?

Generally, you have the choice to either represent yourself or hire a lawyer. If you hire a lawyer you have an expert working for you to make sure your case is handled correctly. Representing yourself can be challenging, but in some cases it might be the right decision.

There are many things you may want to consider when deciding if you will hire a lawyer:

  • Is your legal issue complicated? If so, you might want a lawyer to help you through the process.
  • Does the other party have a lawyer? If they do, you may want a lawyer as well.
  • Is the outcome of the case extremely important to you? A lawyer may be able to help you to get to the best possible outcome.
  • Can you get a lawyer for free? If so, you should strongly consider taking the help they can give you. Read the next section to learn more about finding free legal help.
  • Is your case a good fit for limited scope representation? If so, you can hire a lawyer to help with part of your case, and only pay for the services you need. To learn more, read Limited Scope Representation(LSR): A More Affordable Way to Hire a Lawyer.

There are also times where it might be reasonable to represent yourself. For example, if you have a good understanding of the issues and the case is not complicated, you might try to do it yourself. If the case will not have a very big impact on your life, you might choose to represent yourself. Some people have to represent themselves because they have a legal problem and can’t afford a lawyer. If you are in this situation, read the section at the end of this article called “Representing Yourself.”

What If I Want a Lawyer but I Can’t Afford One?

There are a few kinds of free lawyers. They include legal aid lawyers, public defenders, and pro bono lawyers.

In some cases you have the right to a lawyer even if you can’t pay for one. For example, you have a right to a lawyer in criminal cases. Criminal cases are things like an OWI, assault, or theft. You also have the right to a lawyer if you are a parent accused of abuse or neglect in a Child Protective Services case. If you are in either of these situations and can’t afford a lawyer, be sure to ask the judge for a lawyer at your first court date. Public defenders are lawyers who handle criminal cases for people who can't afford a lawyer. Sometimes you may be assigned to a different court appointed lawyer if your county does not have a public defender's office or if the public defender's office has a conflict of interest in your case.

In other kinds of cases you do not have the right to a free lawyer. There is no right to a free lawyer in most civil cases. Civil cases are things like eviction, debt collection, divorce, and public benefits. You may still be able to find free legal help if you have low income. Legal aid lawyers, sometimes called legal services lawyers, are lawyers who work on civil cases. Legal aid lawyers work for organizations that pay them. They do not charge fees to their clients. Use the Guide to Legal Help to see if you qualify for free legal help from your local legal services office. Even if they can’t represent you, they may be able to give you advice and other help. They may also be able to refer you to a pro bono lawyer.

A pro bono lawyer is a lawyer who is not paid to take a case. Often, a pro bono lawyer works in private practice (a law firm) and usually charges clients. Sometimes these lawyers will take a case without charging fees as a service to the community. This is different from legal aid or legal services lawyers. Legal aid lawyers are paid by the organizations they work for, but do not charge their clients. Finding a pro bono lawyer can be complicated. They do not belong to a single organization that you can call. Contacting private practice lawyers to ask if they will take a case for free is not likely to lead to much help. Sometimes legal aid organizations have connections to pro bono lawyers. If a legal aid organization can't take your case, you can ask if they have referrals to pro bono lawyers that might take a case like yours.

If you can’t find a free lawyer to help you, you can also look for lower cost legal help. You might consider hiring a lawyer only for parts of your case instead of the whole thing. This is called Limited Scope Representation. To learn more, read Limited Scope Representation (LSR): A More Affordable Way to Hire a Lawyer.

The State Bar of Michigan’s Modest Means Program is another resource to find a lower cost lawyer. This program allows you to hire a lawyer for a reduced hourly rate if you qualify. Visit the State Bar of Michigan’s Modest Means Program webpage to learn more about it. The Guide to Legal Help will also give you information about the Modest Means Program if you qualify.

Do Not Take Legal Advice from People Who are Not Lawyers

Do not take legal advice from someone who is not a lawyer. Even if a friend or relative has had a similar issue, your case could be different in small but important ways. Legal matters also have strict deadlines. If you take incorrect advice and miss a deadline or leave something out of court papers, you might not be able to file a claim or participate in a case. Lawyers have to follow ethical rules. This means that lawyers are only allowed to handle cases that they are informed enough to take on. They also have to give correct information.

Be careful of businesses that say they can help with a legal matter without saying they are lawyers. They might try to charge you money and purposely mislead you about the things they can do. Common names for these businesses are immigration consultants and travel consultants. There are also people who take advantage of the Spanish term “notario publico.” This translates to “notary public” in English. In some Spanish-speaking countries a notario publico is a person who has legal knowledge and can represent others. In the United States a notary public can only witness signatures on forms. 

Be careful when doing internet searches for legal help - but be sure to research whether the businesses you find are located in Michigan, are licensed to practice in Michigan, and whether or not they are lawyers.

All lawyers practicing Michigan law need to be registered with the State Bar of Michigan. You can use the Member Directory Search to find out if a person is a lawyer in Michigan.

If your lawyer is representing you in federal court only they do not have to be licensed in Michigan, but must be licensed to practice in federal court. Some examples of federal court cases are bankruptcy and immigration.

Hiring a Lawyer

If you want to hire a lawyer but do not know how to find one, there are resources available to help you. These resources will help you to find either a full representation lawyer or a limited scope lawyer.

  • Use the Guide to Legal Help to get personalized lawyer referrals. If you might qualify for free or low cost lawyers, they will be listed on the results page. The Guide also helps connect you with private lawyers through the State Bar of Michigan’s Lawyer Referral Service, and any local lawyer referral services in your area.

  • Call the State Bar of Michigan’s Lawyer Referral Service. They will match you with a lawyer for a $25 referral fee. The service comes with a 25-minute initial consultation with the lawyer.

  • Use the State Bar of Michigan’s Lawyer Search to find lawyers in your area. The search is free but some lawyers may charge for an initial consultation. Be sure to ask how their consultation fee works before you get started.

  • Find out if there is a local bar association in your area. The State Bar of Michigan’s A Practical Guide to Hiring a Lawyer has a list of local bar associations that have a lawyer referral service.

  • Ask a friend or a colleague for a referral.

The State Bar of Michigan’s A Practical Guide to Hiring a Lawyer is useful if you decide to hire a lawyer. It has information about how to decide if you need a lawyer. It also covers how to find and hire a lawyer, and what you can do if you believe your lawyer has committed an ethical violation.

Your Relationship with Your Lawyer

Starting the Relationship

One of the first contacts you will have with your lawyer will be a phone or in-person consultation. Some lawyers do this when you first call them. Others might set an appointment to talk in detail at a later date.

At the initial consultation, the lawyer will ask questions to learn more about you and your case. You can ask questions about how the lawyer would handle the case and how much they will charge. Before a lawyer agrees to represent you, they will check for possible conflicts of interest. A conflict of interest means that the lawyer has relationships or information that could impact their judgment in your case. If there is a conflict of interest, the lawyer cannot represent you. There are many complicated ways a lawyer could have a conflict. Although it is disappointing to hear someone can’t represent you, the best thing to do in this situation is to move on and look for a different lawyer.

When you talk to your lawyer, it is important to be as honest as possible. Keeping information from your lawyer could cause problems in your case. A lawyer cannot share anything you tell them in confidence. This is called lawyer-client privilege. Your lawyer might ask you not to bring other people with you into meetings with them. Having others in the room means that the things you talk about will not be confidential.

If you hire the lawyer, they should give you a signed agreement saying they will represent you and explaining how much they will charge for their services. This is called an engagement letter. It is also known as a retainer agreement. Do not sign the agreement if you do not understand it or if you have questions. If something in the letter is different than what you expected, ask your lawyer about it before you sign.

Expectations of a Lawyer

There are ethical rules that all lawyers in Michigan have to follow. Your lawyer has to keep you informed about your case, including telling you about any settlement offers that arise. They have a general duty to be competent, which means they can’t take a case if they do not have the skills to handle it. Your lawyer must meet deadlines and explain your case to you in a way that allows you to make informed decisions.

It is also important to understand that your lawyer does not have to do everything you tell them to do. Your lawyer works for you, but they still have to keep others in mind. There might be claims you would like to raise but your lawyer might tell you they cannot. This is because a lawyer can’t raise claims if it is clear that there is no legal basis for them. A lawyer cannot lie or mislead other people, even if it would help with your case.

Problems with Your Lawyer

If you are not satisfied with how your lawyer is handling your case, let them know. You can end your relationship with your lawyer at any time, but it is a decision to consider carefully. A new lawyer will need time to catch up with your case. They also may not be able to reach a different outcome than your current lawyer. If you decide to end your relationship with your lawyer, your engagement letter may include specific steps you must take. If it does not include specific steps, you can send a letter to your lawyer letting them know that you are ending the relationship. If you want proof that you sent the letter, you can send it by certified mail.

If your lawyer committed an ethical violation, you can file a complaint with the Attorney Grievance Commission.

Understanding Legal Fees

Your engagement letter should say how you will be billed and what fees you will have to pay. In addition to paying your lawyer, you might also need to pay other fees in your case. For example, courts charge filing fees and most lawyers have clients pay these fees. You can ask your lawyer for an estimate of these costs.

In some rare cases, the other side of your case may have to pay your legal fees. Discuss this possibility with your lawyer during your first meeting.

Hourly Fees

If your lawyer charges you hourly, that means that you will pay a certain amount, called their hourly rate, for each hour of work they do on your case. It is common for this to be broken down into 6-minute (0.1 hour) or 15-minute (0.25 hour) increments. Lawyers usually send regular invoices listing the number of hours they have worked and the total amount you owe. An hourly rate agreement usually has very specific details about the rate the lawyer will charge and how they will bill you. Even though the agreement is specific, it is often hard to predict how much your total fee will be. It is impossible to know all of the things that might happen in your case and how much time it will take your lawyer to handle them.

Retainer Fees

Your lawyer may charge you a retainer fee when you hire them. It is often used along with an hourly fee. The retainer is like a down payment for your lawyer’s services. The fee will sit in a separate account, called a trust account. The lawyer is only allowed to take money from that account after they earn it by working on your case. If there is money left over from your retainer fee after your case ends, the lawyer has to give it back to you. If your retainer runs out, you may have to pay another retainer fee or start to pay hourly. The engagement letter you have with your lawyer should explain this.

Fixed Fees

A fixed fee is a set amount charged for your whole case or a specific part of your case, no matter how many hours it takes. A fixed fee gives certainty about the total cost of the services.

Contingent Fees

Contingent fees are paid to the lawyer only if they win the case. If you win, the lawyer will get a certain percentage of the money you got in the case. If you lose the case, they do not get paid. In either situation you are still responsible for things like postage costs, filing fees, and other court costs. Since the lawyer only gets paid if you win money in the case, lawyers generally only accept contingency fees in cases that are likely to win enough money from the other side to cover the lawyer’s fees.

Limited Scope Representation (LSR)

Hiring a limited scope representation (LSR) lawyer is one way to keep fees lower. Unlike full representation, LSR lawyers help you with parts of your case instead of the whole thing. LSR lawyers may charge hourly or fixed fees, and may charge a retainer. To learn more, read Limited Scope Representation (LSR): A More Affordable Way to Hire a Lawyer.

Representing Yourself

If you represent yourself, you can use the Michigan Legal Help website during the process. This website has articles that explain legal concepts, Do-It-Yourself tools to complete legal forms, and instructions to guide you through the steps. If you need help finding what you need on Michigan Legal Help, there are a few options:

  • Use the Guide to Legal Help. It will give you links to the tools that are most relevant to your legal issue. It will also tell you if there are other resources in your area such as Self-Help Centers;

  • Click the “Need Help?” button at the bottom right corner of your screen. During operating hours, you can chat with a trained operator who can give legal information and help you find the tools you need. After hours, you will have the opportunity to send an e-mail with your question;

  • Visit a Self-Help Center near you if you prefer in-person assistance.