Say you're having a dispute with a landlord over a lease. Or facing possible foreclosure proceedings amid the widening subprime mortgage crisis. Or being sued.
Whatever the situation, you might want to seek legal advice to make sure your rights are protected when it comes to civil matters in an increasingly complex society, but with more than 33,000 attorneys in Maryland alone, it can feel daunting.
Scouring the Internet or the Yellow Pages is not the only option. Several area bar associations offer referral services to help locate lawyers who specialize in certain litigation.
Legal experts say consumers should not be intimidated during the search process; you're hiring someone to work for you. So ask tough questions about how much experience the counselor has, any disciplinary actions they've faced and how much they charge before making a decision.
Taking the time to do some homework before hiring an attorney can save potential headaches down the road, lawyers say.
"There might be a number of lawyers perfectly capable of handling your matter in a very quality, exemplary fashion," said Ronald H. Abernethy, a public defender in Napa, Calif., who chairs the American Bar Association's lawyer referral and information services committee. "There is a bit of finding someone who you feel comfortable with."
Consider asking friends, relatives and colleagues for recommendations.
Like seeking any sort of specialized service, word of mouth is often a reliable way to find an attorney, says Katherine Kelly Howard, president of the Maryland State Bar Association. Contacting lawyer referral services operated by local bar associations is another option; many of Maryland's county groups operate one.
The referral is free. And many referral services provide a half-hour consultation with the recommended lawyer for a minimal fee, Howard says. After that, it's up to you and the lawyer to decide whether you would like to establish a formal relationship.
The Bar Association of Baltimore City has been operating its referral and information service for more than 20 years.
The service, which focuses on attorneys practicing in the city and Baltimore County, is also certified by the American Bar Association, which means it meets certain requirements such as making sure participating lawyers have malpractice insurance. Lawyers also must apply and be screened for various legal expertise before they are accepted on the referral panel, says Dennis McIver, director of public services at the Baltimore bar association.
In the past year, the service provided about 3,590 referrals for cases ranging from worker's compensation to personal injury to criminal matters.
In many cases, volunteer lawyers who take referral requests find that consumers don't need an attorney but information and some basic legal advice.
Once you've gotten several referrals, evaluate the lawyer as if you're conducting a job interview.
For starters, make sure they have the basic qualifications: They are licensed to practice law in the state and haven't been disciplined. The Maryland Judiciary through its Web site provides information on disciplined attorneys as well as those admitted to practice in the state.
Ask about their credentials. How long has the lawyer been in practice? Has the attorney recently handled cases similar to yours? And ask about a range of outcomes you could expect. "Knowledge is power," said Howard, of the Maryland State Bar Association
Be wary of promises that you'll win because there are many factors involved in how a case is settled, according to the MarylandPeople's Law Library, a legal information Web site maintained by the Maryland State Law Library.
Avery Strachan, a trial attorney with Silverman Thompson Slutkin and White in Baltimore, who co-chairs the lawyer referral committee at the Bar Association of Baltimore City, says consumers should also consider retaining an attorney who practices in the specific jurisdiction where the case will be handled.
"Every jurisdiction has its own way of doing things," she said.
Ask for references, though that request may be limiting because of client-attorney privilege.
Cost is another factor to consider.
Hourly fees and other costs such as a retainer vary and depend on the time and effort it takes to resolve a case as well as the lawyer's experience and reputation.
But don't be bashful in bringing up money during the interview or at any time for that matter.
The Maryland State Bar Association says an attorney should be able to give you an estimate based upon past experience on a similar case. For moderate- and low-income individuals and families, there are groups that provide free or low-cost legal help based on financial need.
The Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland Inc., the statewide clearinghouse for such services, recruits volunteer lawyers and provides resources to legal advocates for the poor.
Among the largest pro bono group is Maryland Legal Aid, which provides free civil legal services to the "poorest of the poor," said Joe Surkiewicz, the bureau's director of communications. Its 140 lawyers tackle issues such as family law, housing and custody cases, among others, Surkiewicz said.
Other groups include the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, which helps clients with landlord-tenant and consumer disputes and offers self-help bankruptcy classes. And Civil Justice Inc., a nonprofit group in Baltimore, operates a free referral service to lawyers who have agreed to provide legal services at reduced costs, in most cases.
Another growing area in the legal industry is providing routine legal advice, referrals and services such as drawing up wills or other documents over the telephone or Internet for flat or reduced fees.
Some consumers are turning to prepaid legal service plans, usually offered by union or trade groups and employers. Depending on the level of the plan or subscription service, consumers can access a lawyer for simple or more complicated legal matters.
Whatever avenue you choose, attorneys say you should feel comfortable sharing personal information with that lawyer, and there is mutual respect.
"It's like a doctor," Strachan said. "It's someone who's going to know personal information about you. There's a reason why lawyers are referred to as counselor. We act as advocates and counselors."
Where to find legal help
*Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland: probonomd.org
*Maryland Legal Aid: mdlab.org
*Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service: mvlslaw.org
*Maryland People's Law Library: peoples-law.info
*Maryland State Bar Association: msba.org
*American Bar Association: findlegalaid.org
*To search for attorneys admitted to practice in Md: www.courts.state.md.us/cpf/ attylist.html
*Attorney disciplinary actions: www.courts.state.md.us/atty grievance/sanctions.html