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.
Specialists: Sometimes you might need a lawyer who specializes in the type of case you have. Other times, you might need a “general practitioner” who handles many different legal problems. A lawyer is not allowed to accept a case if the lawyer does not have enough experience to handle it. If you go to a lawyer who does not handle the type of case you have, that lawyer may be able to help you find someone else.
Tennessee does not allow lawyers to call themselves “specialists” except in a few areas of the law:
- A “patent lawyer” is someone who is admitted to practice law before the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
- Per Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 21; Section 11. Identification of Specialists, Lawyers may also be certified as being a legal-specialist by any organization that has been accredited by the American Bar Association's House of Delegates to award specialist certifications to lawyers. The lawyer will then register that certification with the CLE Commission who will record the certification in a Roll of Certified Specialists. As of 2018, the list includes the following specialties:
- Business Bankruptcy • Elder Law
- Civil Pretrial • Estate Planning
- Civil Trial • Family Law
- Consumer Bankruptcy • Juvenile Law – Child Welfare
- Creditor Rights • Legal Malpractice
- Criminal Trials • Medical Malpractice
- DUI Defense • Social Security Disability
For more information and to view the Roll of Certified Specialists in Tennessee, visit www.cletn.com, General Info, Specialists. Remember that many lawyers are experts in one or more of these areas even though they are not certified as “specialists.”
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 Lawyer Referral & Information Service at 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 and the approximate cost for the services of the lawyer and will give you an estimate of approximately how long it will take to resolve your legal matter.
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.
The 2014 Legal Handbook for Tennessee Seniors: This publication is available for download from the Tennessee Bar Association at www.tba.org under the “Publications” tab. 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.
Advertisements: You will find advertisements for lawyers in the telephone book, in newspapers, on television and radio, and on the internet. Tennessee has strict rules about how lawyers may advertise to make sure ads are not misleading. An advertisement can be useful to tell you if a lawyer handles a particular type of case or if the lawyer offers a “free first visit.” However, not all lawyers choose to advertise, and the ad should not be the only thing that helps you choose a lawyer.
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 Law 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 _____________?” 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.
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 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 court proceedings concerning a criminal sentence,
- A court is going to decide if your children are “dependent and 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.
Asking for a Court-Appointed Lawyer: Before the court can agree for the government to pay for your lawyer, you must give the judge an “Affidavit of Indigency.” You can get this form from the court clerk. You must tell how much money you make, how much property you own, and what debts you have. After reviewing your financial information, the judge could decide
- 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. 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 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 seven offices in East Tennessee. 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.
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 Knoxville Bar Association is a co-sponsor of the Pro Bono Project of Legal Aid of East Tennessee, Inc. 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 of Legal Aid of East Tennessee, Inc. 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 Legal Aid of East Tennessee, Inc., 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 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. (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 eight 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.
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 over age 59 who live in Knox County and need no more than brief services.
Types of Cases: Federal law does not allow LAET to represent the following people:
- people charged with a crime,
- people who are in jail or prison, even if the case is not about a criminal matter,
- tenants being evicted from public housing because of a drug-related offense,
- non-citizens who are in the U.S. illegally, unless the service is related to helping the person avoid being the victim of domestic violence, stalking, or similar acts, and
In addition, the law does not allow LAET to take the following types of cases:
- Any case that would attempt to “reform” a state or federal welfare system,
- Abortion rights,
- Voter registration or voting issues related to legislative redistricting,
- Legislative activity, including “grassroots lobbying” to change a law,
- Class-action suits,
- Some cases in which a private lawyer could collect a fee from the other person in your lawsuit.
Even if a case is not prohibited under this list, LAET does not have the resources to help everyone. 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.
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.
What If I Am Unhappy With My Attorney or His/Her Fees?
If you think that your attorney is not performing his or her 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. That will help the lawyer contact you more efficiently.
Second Opinions: If you are unhappy with the advice your attorney gave you, remember that you hired the attorney for his/her 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 someone else 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 fee, discuss the problem with your attorney. If that does not solve the problem, you may contact the Knoxville Bar Association’s Fee Dispute Resolution Committee. The telephone number of the Knoxville Bar Association is 522-6522. If your attorney is a member of the Knoxville Bar Association and agrees to participate, members of the Fee Dispute Resolution Committee will review the matter. The Committee's opinion is not binding, but it often resolves the problem. 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.
Suing Your Lawyer: If you have been damaged because your attorney was negligent in handling your case, you may sue the attorney for professional negligence to recover money the lawyer’s negligence cost you.
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. The Board will contact the lawyer after reviewing your complaint. You may contact the Board of Professional Responsibility at (800) 486-5714 or visit their website at www.tbpr.org.
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 him or her to represent you. You may talk to the lawyer in person, but you should also follow up with a letter. Then, both you and your attorney will know that you intend to end your attorney/client relationship.
Most attorneys will not agree to represent you until you have ended your 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 his or her “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 his or her 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 he or she 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 will the service take?
- Does the lawyer have special skills or experience with this type of legal issue?
- Does the case involve unusual issues?
- If the lawyer takes this case, will it keep the lawyer from taking other cases?
- Are there unusual deadlines?
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 his or her time. However, you must 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 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 one 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.
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 he or she has worked on your case. The lawyer’s hourly rate may seem very high, but remember that 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, or defending a minor criminal charge.
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 will 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: 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 “fixed,” “hourly,” or “contingent”? Will it 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?
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 advice and may not be applicable to apparent similar individual problems, since only slight changes in facts 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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