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Legal VIEW

Picking a Lawyer: Cost Isn't Everything

November 19, 1987|JEFFREY S. KLEIN

If you are picking an interior decorator to remodel your living room or hiring a general contractor to add on a room, you do it very carefully. First, you interview several candidates, check their references, even visit other homes where you can see samples of their work. Often you ask for written estimates from several candidates.

Even a prospective house painter usually faces intense scrutiny on a new job. After all, if the painter doesn't do his job right, everyone will notice.

Ironically, hardly anyone will notice if you hire the wrong lawyer. But whether the lawyer is retained to prepare your will, represent you in court or form a corporation, the consequences of the wrong choice can be much worse than some flaking and cracking.

Warning on Hasty Decisions

But too often, people hire lawyers with less thought than picking a house painter. "Some people seem to be making attorney-selection decisions much like buying a washer or dryer--someone they found in a phone book quotes them a number, and they make their decision," complains Woodland Hills lawyer Thomas E. Stindt.

More than a year ago, Stindt left his practice with a large national law firm that primarily represents large national companies and started a small firm representing small businesses and individuals.

Large companies are sophisticated consumers of legal services. They have staffs of in-house lawyers who decide which outside lawyers to use; they pick practitioners by evaluating experience, speciality and fee. They can tell the difference between a mediocre contract and a brilliant legal strategy.

On the other hand, most small businesses and consumer clients don't have the same luxury of knowledge and resources.

Too many such prospective clients, Stindt observes, focus on the bottom line and just want to know the price. They call and ask him how much for a living trust, he says.

"I try to explain that this is like asking a painter, 'How much to paint my house?' And I tell the caller what the painter would tell them: It depends upon the size, the trim, what special needs have to be considered, present condition and many other things."

Low price doesn't necessarily mean inadequate lawyering. Some specialists in estate planning, for instance, can charge a lower price by using standard forms. But if the forms are filled in by paralegals and you don't have the chance to consult directly with a lawyer about your particular situation, your heirs might regret your choice years later.

You should recognize that lawyers are each unique, offering different training, experience, courtroom demeanor, price and style. Be selective. Interview several candidates at length. And ask about more than the price.

Legal Brief

The State Bar Assn. of California has released a fact sheet about amnesty under the new immigration law. Some items:

Immigration consultants are not attorneys and are not required to have any special training. They must give you a written contract in English and in your language. You can cancel the contract within 72 hours.

A notary public in the United States isn't the same as an attorney. In California, notaries who help prepare immigration forms can charge no more than $10.

If you believe your rights have been abused, contract the California Attorney General's Amnesty Project, toll free, at (800) 952-5225. Spanish is spoken.

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