How Do I Find a Lawyer?
No lawyer is an expert in every field of law. Fortunately, there are many ways to find a lawyer who is an expert in handling your particular legal problem.
Word of Mouth: Friends and relatives can be a good source of information about lawyers. But someone who was happy with his divorce lawyer might not be able to help you find a lawyer for a personal injury case.
Lawyer Referral Services: A good way to find a lawyer is through a Lawyer Referral & Information Service. The Knoxville Bar Association, like many bar associations across the country, operates such a service. Here is how it works: First, call the Knoxville Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral & Information Service at (865) 522-7501. The staff will arrange for you to have a FREE consultation with an attorney who practices in the area of law in which you need assistance. The Service will provide contact information and instructions for contacting an attorney who handles the type of issue you have.
Scheduling an appointment with a lawyer through the Lawyer Referral & Information Service will help you determine whether you need to hire a lawyer, the approximate cost for the services of the lawyer, and an estimate of approximately how long it will take to resolve your legal matter.
Knoxville Bar Association’s Law Firm Listings: The Knoxville Bar Association provides a searchable, alphabetical directory of law firms with a brief description of each firm for the public on their website at www.knoxbar.org/lawfirms. You may search by area of practice, firm names, and/or city. If you are interested in finding an individual attorney, you may click on the link for the “INDIVIDUAL ATTORNEY SEARCH.” You may view detailed profiles of local attorneys including their areas of practice, websites, full biographies and more.
Knoxville Legal Resources Guide: The Knoxville Bar Association has provided handbooks on their website at www.knoxbar.org to assist the public in understanding more about the law. One of these handbooks is the Knoxville Legal Resources Guide, which includes information, telephone numbers and websites for nearly two dozen offices and agencies. It can be found at www.knoxbar.org/LRG.
The 2014 Legal Handbook for Tennessee Seniors: This publication is available for download from www.help4tn.org under the “Senior Legal Issues” topic. The Handbook contains practical information on a wide range of topics, including issues such as applying for Social Security benefits, long-term care considerations and estate planning, as well as sections addressing online security and health care legislation.
Making an Appointment. Before you make an appointment to talk to a lawyer, you should ask three questions:
- “Do you handle ____________ cases?” Be sure the lawyer takes your type of case.
- “Do you charge for the first visit?” If you get a referral through the Knoxville Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral & Information Service, you will not pay for the consultation. In all other situations, ask the lawyer if there is a charge for the first consultation and, if so, how much it is.
- “Do you represent [the opposing party]?” Be sure that the lawyer does not represent the person on the other side of your case. Even if another lawyer represents the other person now, the lawyer you call may have represented that person in the past or have some other conflict involving that person.
Be Prepared: When you meet with the lawyer for the first time, write down the questions you want to ask and bring all of the papers related to your case.
Free Lawyers: You may be able to get a lawyer without charge. If you think you are eligible, go to “How Can I Get a Free Lawyer?”
How Can I Get A Free Lawyer?
When the Government Pays for Your Lawyer: You always have the right to hire a lawyer. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, the government might pay for your lawyer through public funds if you are involved in one of these types of cases:
- You are age 18 or older and could go to jail because you are charged with a crime or contempt of court;
- You are under age 18 and are accused of doing something that would be a crime if committed by an adult;
- You face certain types of proceedings concerning your criminal sentence;
- A court is going to decide if your children are “dependent or neglected;”
- A court is considering appointing someone to be your conservator;
- A court is considering terminating your parental rights; or
- You are under age 18 and want a court to allow you to have an abortion without your parents’ consent.
- Other situations covered by >You can afford an attorney, and the court will not appoint someone to represent you;
- You cannot afford a lawyer, and the court will appoint someone to represent you; or
- You can afford to pay part of the cost to hire a lawyer. The court might let you pay this in installments.
Public Defender’s Office: If you have been charged with a crime and cannot afford an attorney, you might be eligible for an attorney through a public defender’s office. Every judicial district has an elected Public Defender who represents most defendants charged with a crime when the court decides that the defendant cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Sometimes a private lawyer is appointed to represent a defendant when the Public Defender’s Office cannot take the case (usually because of a conflict of interest or other ethical barrier).
“Legal Aid” Lawyers: If you have a civil (non-criminal) legal issue, you may be able to get a free lawyer through Legal Aid of East Tennessee, Inc. (“LAET”), a non-profit law firm with six offices in East Tennessee (Chattanooga, Cleveland, Johnson City, Knoxville, Maryville, and Morristown) representing 26 counties. Lawyers who work for LAET do not charge fees to clients. Because LAET receives part of its funding from the federal government, there are laws that limit who LAET’s lawyers may represent and what cases they may take. The types of cases LAET may take are also impacted by the sources of their various grant funding.
Since LAET does not have the resources to help everyone, LAET sets case-acceptance priorities. Most LAET cases involve domestic violence, denial of public benefits (TennCare, food stamps, Social Security, etc.), landlord-tenant disputes, and consumer issues. For more information, see “Legal Aid of East Tennessee.”
Pro Bono Lawyers: The Pro Bono Project is sponsored by LAET. The Pro Bono Project helps low-income people find a lawyer willing to represent the client without charging a fee. These lawyers are not required to take these cases and are not appointed by a court. They are not paid for this work.
The Pro Bono Project must follow the same rules that apply to LAET. Therefore, the Project can only try to find volunteers to represent clients who have limited income, and the Project is not allowed to find volunteers to work on cases that Legal Aid is prohibited from taking.
The Pro Bono Project is operated through the Knoxville office of LAET, 607 West Summit Hill Drive, Knoxville, Tennessee 37902-2011. You may call the Pro Bono Project at (865) 637-0484 or visit www.laet.org.
Reduced or Sliding-Scale Fees: A private lawyer might agree to charge a low-income person less than the lawyer’s regular fee. This is a private matter between you and your lawyer.
Fee Agreements: It is a good idea to have a written agreement with your lawyer that explains what your fees will be. This agreement should also talk about how expenses are paid. “Expenses” include charges that the lawyer pays for postage or photocopies on your case, fees charged by expert witnesses and court reporters, and fees the court charges for filing papers. You can find more information about fee agreements under “Legal Fees–How Do Attorneys Charge?”
Contingency Fee Cases: Sometimes lawyers charge a “contingency fee.” This means that the lawyer takes a fee out of the money the client collects from the other person in the lawsuit. If the client does not collect any money, the lawyer will not get a fee. You can find more information about contingency fees under “Legal Fees–How Do Attorneys Charge?”
Making the Other Party Pay Your Lawyer: There are only three situations in which the loser of a lawsuit must pay the winner’s attorney’s fees:
- The parties have a contract that says that the loser has to pay the winner’s attorney’s fees.
- There is a law that says the loser should pay the fees. These laws only apply in a few specific types of cases. (In a case brought under the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act, for example, a judge is allowed to order the loser to pay the winner’s attorney fees.)
- The loser’s conduct is so horrible that the judge is shocked and thinks the loser should pay the fees. Almost everyone who goes to court thinks that the other person’s conduct is so bad that the judge will be shocked. In reality, judges do not get shocked very often. And they rarely award attorney’s fees in cases that do not have an “attorney fee contract” or an “attorney fee statute.”
Legal Aid of East Tennessee
Legal Aid of East Tennessee, Inc. (“LAET”), is a non-profit law firm with six offices serving 26 counties in East Tennessee. LAET does not charge fees to clients. Because LAET receives part of its funding from the federal government, there are laws that limit who LAET’s lawyers may represent and what cases they may take. The caseload of LAET is also impacted by the terms of their various sources of grant funding.
Financial Limits: In most cases, LAET cannot represent someone who has income or assets over a certain amount. However, LAET has two programs that can serve clients of any income level:
- People in danger from domestic violence; and
- People age 60 or older with cases impacting their basic needs. Some examples include Medicare appeals, TennCare issues, Food Stamp problems, housing problems, nursing home appeals, Social Security issues, and being sued on a debt.
Types of Cases: Federal law does not allow LAET to represent the following people:
- people charged with a crime, including traffic offenses, misdemeanors, and felonies;
- But LAET may be able to help get your criminal record expunged.
- people who are incarcerated in federal, state, or local jail/prison, even if the case is not about a criminal matter;
- tenants being evicted from public housing due to certain drug-related charges; and
- undocumented immigrants, unless the legal problem involves domestic violence, stalking, or sexual trafficking against the undocumented immigrant or that person’s child.
- But LAET may be able to help if you are closely related to a U.S. citizen and have an application pending to change your immigration status, have asylum status, have refugee status, are a grantee of withholding of deportation, are an H-2A worker, or are a conditional entrant.
In addition, the law does not allow LAET to take the following types of cases:
- Political activities, like challenging the boundary of a legislative or judicial district, grassroots lobbying to change a law, or voter registration;
- Abortion rights matters;
- Class-action lawsuits;
- Fee-generating cases, where a lawyer would get paid a percentage of the money if you win. Some example of fee-generating cases are slip and falls, auto accidents, worker’s compensation, and medical malpractice.
Even if a case is not prohibited under this list, LAET does not have the resources to help everyone. In fact, LAET estimates that they are only able to meet about 20% of the legal need in our community. Therefore, LAET sets case-acceptance priorities. Most LAET cases involve domestic violence, denial of public benefits (TennCare, food stamps, Social Security, etc.), landlord-tenant disputes, and consumer issues. Sometimes, when LAET cannot represent you directly, they can tell you where to get help or give you advice that will help you handle the case yourself. There are numerous self-help resources available on LAET’s website, including brochures “anytime attorney” videos on numerous topics.
LAET also represents community groups who serve low-income clients, and LAET staff is often available to present programs to community groups about individual’s legal rights.
LAET’s main Knoxville office is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Saturday appointments may be available. The office is located at 607 West Summit Hill Drive, Knoxville, Tennessee 37902-2011. You may call Legal Aid at (865) 637-0484 or fax to (865) 525-1162. You may also go to LAET’s website at www.laet.org.
Similar legal aid services exist in Middle and West Tennessee. The Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee & the Cumberlands (LAS) has eight offices across the middle of the state, including an Oak Ridge office that serves Anderson, Campbell, Claiborne, Morgan, Roane, Scott, and Union counties. You can learn more about LAS at www.las.org. West Tennessee Legal Services (www.wtls.org) and Memphis Area Legal Services (www.malsi.org) assist the western counties of the state.
What If I Am Unhappy With My Attorney or Their Fees?
If you think that your attorney is not performing their duties, the first step in resolving the problem is to talk with the attorney directly. Tell the attorney about your concerns and ask for an appointment to discuss the matter. Often that discussion will clear up your problem.
Poor Communication: Many problems between attorneys and clients are the result of poor communication. Both the attorney and the client are responsible for maintaining communication. Your attorney should respond to your telephone messages and letters. But since lawyers have so many clients and often work outside the office (such as in court), you will not always be able to reach your attorney immediately. If you cannot talk to your lawyer when you call, be sure to leave a detailed message about what you need. This approach may help the lawyer contact you more efficiently. However, if your attorney is not returning your phone calls or addressing your concerns, the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility recommends contacting your attorney in writing by sending a letter via certified mail return receipt requested, and keeping a copy for your files. If your attorney has not responded to your letter in 10 days, you may consider reaching out to the Board’s Consumer Assistance Program at (800) 486-5714 to help re-establish contact with your attorney.
Second Opinions: If you are unhappy with the advice your attorney gave you, remember that you hired the attorney for their professional opinion, and this opinion may not be what you wanted it to be. You are always allowed to get a second opinion, but lawyers must follow rules about when they can talk to another lawyer’s client; so always inform the second attorney of the purpose of the inquiry.
Hiring Another Lawyer: If you are still dissatisfied after talking with your attorney, you have the right to discharge the attorney and obtain another. If you do hire another attorney, you should tell the new attorney that a different attorney represented you in the past. If you have a pending court case when you decide to hire a new lawyer, both lawyers may be required to file certain papers with the court to clarify who is responsible for your case.
Representing Yourself: Individuals are also entitled to act as their own attorney if they so desire; but, if this decision is made after a lawyer has begun representing you in a court case, you must give notice to the court and all parties that you have decided to represent yourself.
Disagreements about the Lawyer’s Fee: If you and your lawyer disagree about the lawyer’s fees, discuss the problem with your attorney. You may also want to review your fee agreement if you signed one, or request an itemized bill representing your attorney’s work on your case. If these steps do not solve the problem, you may consider using the Knoxville Bar Association’s Fee Dispute Resolution Committee, which provides free, informal mediation to resolve fee disputes between attorneys and their clients. To engage the Fee Dispute Resolution Committee, you will need to fill out a complaint form, available online or via mail, and provide any related correspondence, including billing statements, fee agreements, and other correspondence. You and your attorney must both be willing to participate, and your attorney must practice in Knoxville or one of the contiguous counties. The Committee’s opinion is not binding, but it often resolves the problem. You may call the Knoxville Bar Association (865) 522-6522 for more information. Fee disputes may also be resolved by the courts. You should contact another attorney for information about how to proceed if you wish to have the dispute decided in court.
Ethics Complaints: If you feel that your attorney has been unethical, you may file a complaint with the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee. Complaints must be submitted in writing, preferably using the Board’s online complaint form. The Board will investigate your complaint and determine whether to file formal disciplinary charges against the attorney. You may contact the Board of Professional Responsibility at (800) 486-5714 or visit their website at www.tbpr.org.
Suing Your Lawyer: If you have been damaged because your attorney was negligent in handling your case, you may sue the attorney for professional malpractice to recover money the lawyer’s negligence cost you.
If you want to get a new lawyer, you must first end the attorney/client relationship with your first lawyer. In other words, tell your attorney that you no longer want them to represent you. You may talk to the lawyer in person, but you should also follow up by putting your request in writing. Then, both you and your attorney will know that you intend to end your attorney/client relationship.
Most new attorneys will not agree to represent you until you have ended your previous attorney/client relationship with your first attorney and have your file available for review by your new attorney. Only by reviewing your file can your new attorney determine how much more work remains to be done. Your new attorney will also probably want to know what problems existed between you and your first attorney so that the same problems do not occur again in your new attorney/client relationship.
Your File: Ask your original lawyer for your file, so you can give it to your new lawyer. The lawyer must give you the personal papers in your file (such as deeds or stock certificates), but the lawyer will probably keep their “work product” (things the lawyer did on your file) until you pay any fees you still owe that lawyer.
Paying the Original Lawyer: Your original lawyer may be entitled to a fee for their legal services until the time of termination. You may also have to reimburse that lawyer for expenses the lawyer paid on your behalf.
If your first lawyer was working on a contingency-fee basis, there are some extra things to keep in mind. Attorneys invest time in contingency-fee cases with the expectation of being paid for that time with a percentage of the amount you may be awarded. The original lawyer in a contingency-fee case is entitled to payment for the services that they provided to you even though the agreement was that the attorney would be paid when the lawsuit is over. Thus, you may have to negotiate with your first attorney to decide how that attorney will be paid in the event that you obtain a recovery either by settlement or by judgment while represented by someone else. Sometimes, your new attorney may be able to assist you in negotiating with your first attorney on these matters.
Pending Court Cases: If your first lawyer did something in court for your case, the judge must sign an order allowing a new lawyer to represent you.
Legal Fees - How Do Attorneys Charge?
There are several issues that lawyers must consider when they decide how much to charge:
- How much time and labor will the service take?
- How novel or difficult are the issues involved?
- How much skill is required by the case?
- If the lawyer takes this case, will it keep the lawyer from taking other cases?
- What are the fees normally charged in this area for similar legal services?
- Are there unusual deadlines or other time limitations?
- What will be the length and nature of the professional relationship?
- What is the attorney’s experience, reputation, and ability?
Generally, there are three ways that clients pay attorneys for their services:
- Contingency fees,
- Hourly rates, or
- Fixed fees.
Contingency Fees: A contingency-fee case is one in which you pay the lawyer a percentage of whatever money you collect from the other person in the lawsuit. If your case is lost, the lawyer is paid nothing for their time. However, you may be required to pay the lawyer’s expenses (such as filing fees, court reporter fees, etc.). Although the attorney may advance some of those costs to you if you cannot afford them, you may remain responsible for reimbursing your attorney for those costs whether you win or lose.
In some cases (such as social security and worker’s compensation) there may be a limit on the percentage or the dollar amount that an attorney may charge. In most personal injury cases, the law does not specify what the attorney can charge, but it must be reasonable under the circumstances. Sometimes the lawyer may charge a certain percentage (such as one third) of what the client collects if the other side does not appeal, but charge a higher percentage (such as 40%) if the lawyer has to handle an appeal.
While you may be hoping that an attorney will take your case on contingency, this fee arrangement is generally only used in personal injury, Social Security, worker’s compensation, and civil rights matters. In other words, cases where there is some expectation of a financial award via settlement or court judgment. Tennessee lawyers cannot collect a contingency fee for representing a client in a criminal defense case. They are also not allowed to use contingency fees in most domestic matters.
Hourly Rates: Lawyers charge by the hour for many types of services. Different lawyers charge different hourly rates; and sometimes, a lawyer charges one rate for one type of case and another rate for another type of case. Periodically, your attorney should give you itemized statements of the time that they have worked on your case. The lawyer’s hourly rate may seem very high, but remember that lawyers are highly trained professionals and law offices have overhead expenses such as rent, utilities, support staff, etc. A lawyer’s hourly fee is not the lawyer’s “take-home pay.”
Fixed Fees: Attorneys may charge a fixed fee for standard matters when the lawyer can predict how much time it will take. Typical matters for which a lawyer might charge a fixed fee include preparing a simple will or deed, handling a routine bankruptcy, drafting a basic contract, or defending a minor criminal charge.
What Are Retainers? A lawyer may ask a client to pay a certain amount in advance. In “fixed fee” or “hourly rate” cases, lawyers often require the client to pay all or part of the fee in advance. In addition, the lawyer may require the client to pay a certain amount in advance to pay for expenses – even in “contingency fee” cases. If money is left over after the expenses are paid, the lawyer may refund that amount to the client.
Fee Agreements: In most cases, you should have a written fee agreement with your lawyer. The fee agreement should explain:
- What the lawyer plans to do for you: For example, if the lawyer agrees to represent you in a trial, does the lawyer also agree to represent you if the case is appealed?
- The fee: Is the fee “contingent,” “hourly,” or “fixed”? Will the fee structure change if there is an appeal or something unexpected happens?
- Expenses: What expenses do you have to pay? When are they due?
- Retainer: Do you have to pay anything in advance? What will happen if retainer funds are left over at the conclusion of the case?
You should never be afraid to discuss attorney’s fees or to negotiate attorney’s fees with your attorney at the beginning of your representation. Having a clear understanding between you and your attorney on the issue of fees will assure a good working relationship between you and your attorney.
The materials contained in LAWLINE ONLINE are intended to, and do, provide only a broad overview of various legal topics. The general information contained in this material is not designed nor intended to be a substitute for legal advice on a specific legal issue or question. In addition, the information provided in this material is only general guidance and may not be applicable to seemingly similar individual problems because only slight changes in facts could change the applicable advice. If you have a legal problem or question, please consult an attorney.
Any publication, distribution, or other use of these materials without the express written consent of the Knoxville Bar Association is prohibited.
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