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January 10, 1999

CHOOSING A LAWYER

 By CINDY KRISCHER GOODMAN, Herald Business Writer

One minute Mickey Mouse was on the shelf. The next, he lay in pieces on the ground. Also shattered: Ivel Paroulek, a Disney Store salesperson who not only severely injured her knee in the fall, but encountered a common problem - finding a lawyer.

To sue or not to sue? Would legal fees be affordable? Are the gobs of personal injury lawyers advertising in the yellow pages any good?

Those questions hounded Paroulek as she contemplated how to deal with what turned out to be more than a simple slip-and-fall case. Her case would get into the complexities of workers' compensation and the Americans With Disabilities Act.

``I didn't know who to turn to,'' Paroulek said.

Paroulek says she found her Fort Lauderdale attorney, a workers' compensation specialist, through a recommendation from a lawyer friend.

But not everyone has a lawyer friend and, at one time or another, almost everyone needs to consult a lawyer - whether it is for a basic transaction such as buying a home or for more complicated dealings such as initiating or defending a lawsuit.

With the number of lawyers skyrocketing, the difficulty lies in finding the right one. Most people are unaware of the resources available and uninformed about what questions to ask when seeking an attorney.

* First step: Determine whether you really need a lawyer.

``The first thing a consumer should do before hiring a lawyer is to get basic understanding of what legal issues are,'' said Gerry Goldsholle, president of Advice and Counsel, an Internet service that provides free legal information. ``An educated consumer is the best client for a lawyer and society at large. People who just go to a lawyer and don't understand anything can be taken advantage of or create unnecessary litigation.''

Some legal needs can be fulfilled without a lawyer. The Florida Bar runs a hot line for callers with recorded advice on legal matters. Also, Nolo Press publishes plain-English self-help law books, software, legal forms, audio and video tapes under the theory that with good, reliable information, Americans can handle routine legal problems without an attorney.

For minor legal problems, small claims court and mediation also are alternatives to using a lawyer. However, if a lawyer is needed, where does the search begin?

* Ask for recommendations from friends and business associates.

``If you're looking for a divorce attorney, ask around,'' said Edith Osman, a Miami attorney and president-elect of the Florida Bar. ``A lot of other people have been divorced. But you also have to think about who you need to make you feel comfortable in terms of gender and age. In divorce there might be personal issues that you have to sit in an office and talk to your lawyer about. That's less true if you're closing on a house.''

Businesses often have some of the same problems choosing the right law firm.

``For small to medium companies, talking to other business persons who have had good experiences is the best way to find a good lawyer,'' said Jose Sirven, executive partner at Holland & Knight in Miami. ``Referrals from accountants or bankers also are a good source. Certain complex matters almost always should be done by larger firms but not every business has those transactions.''

* Consult referral and information services for names and background information.

The Internet has become an emerging resource for finding an attorney and obtaining background (see box, this page). Martindale-Hubbell, a comprehensive legal directory, launched an online service for consumers in August. The Web site, www.lawyers.com, allows users to find attorneys by geographic areas and by specialties.

``It's a much better resource than the yellow pages or billboards because it tells where a lawyer went to school, their practice areas, associations they belong to and where they have worked,'' said Scott Stieler, a spokesperson for Martindale Hubbel's lawyers.com. ``It allows people to go into [engaging a lawyer] with their eyes open.''

The Florida Bar Association also has an online attorney directory at www.flabar.org.

Internet phobic or just plain lacking a computer? Libraries and bookstores carry directories of leading lawyers listed by specialty and by state. Some directories - such as the Best Lawyers in America - include only those approved by their peers. Others, such as Leading Lawyers in Florida, include those approved who were willing to pay a membership fee.

And, both local and state bar associations offer referral services by phone (see box at right). The recommended lawyer charges a nominal sum for an initial consultation. From there a fee is negotiated. The Florida Bar also can provide information on whether a particular lawyer has been disciplined for unethical conduct.

So, once you know where to search, how do you narrow down the list?

* Choose a lawyer that specializes in your area of need.

Someone with a medical malpractice suit should not go to real estate attorney. While it sounds obvious, it may require some research to understand a lawyer's expertise. It's easy for lawyers to say they specialize in an area of law. That could mean anything from having many years of education and training down to having just a desire or some brief training.

The Florida Bar certifies attorneys in 15 specialties. Of more than 58,000 lawyers in Florida, only 3,500 are board-certified in one of the practice areas. To become certified, lawyers must show experience in the area, complete educational requirements and pass a written exam. The bar will make a list of those certified in a particular specialization available upon request.

``In our town there are a lot of good lawyers, but I see that list as a tremendous resource,'' said Miami lawyer Herman Russomanno. ``Some matters can be handled by a general practitioner but, depending on the quality of case and type of case, you may need a specialized attorney.'' The same applies for businesses.

``If I were thinking about hiring a law firm I would ask for its brochures and printed material,'' said Carl Schuster, managing director of Ruden McClosky Smith Schuster & Russell in Fort Lauderdale. ``Those brochures are very broad, so if you need a lawyer for a specialty area and it's not in that brochure, then you are probably at the wrong firm. You should be looking elsewhere.''

* In the initial meeting, ask the right questions.

``Ask who is going to handle the file,'' said Osman of the Florida Bar. ``You should know if it's going to be a partner or an associate or maybe even a paralegal.''

Lynn Futch, president of the Broward County Bar Association, said often people feel embarrassed to ask questions. She feels no lawyer should object to being asked about his or her experience.

``If it's a family lawyer, ask how many divorces have you done? Have you handled child support issues? How well do you know the courts and what hours are you available if I have an emergency?'' Futch said.

Schuster said businesses should ask a law firm for examples of similar transactions or lawsuits. Companies should also ask the firm whether it represents the other side of a transaction or competitors.

Futch, who has sat on several lawyer grievance panels, said the biggest mistake people make when selecting a lawyer is that they don't provide the lawyer with enough information to do the best possible job.

``They don't articulate their problem well, they don't bring the appropriate documents . . . there's not enough communication and that goes both ways.''

Futch said client complaints often center on attorneys' lack of communication. For example: ``He didn't call me back enough. He didn't send enough mail or get things done quickly enough.''

All this makes a case for making sure you feel comfortable talking with the lawyer, and the best time to determine that is during the initial meeting.

* Find out the fee structure up front - it may save anguish later.

How much should one pay to defend against a lawsuit or to fight a traffic ticket?

Legal fees run the gamut based on a lawyer's experience, overhead costs and complications that arise, particularly with litigation. You should always negotiate.

Sometimes the initial consultation is free; sometimes there's a charge, which can range from $150 to $300, or more for some divorce lawyers.

There are low-cost competent attorneys and very experienced, very expensive attorneys,'' said Jerry Butterfield, a spokesman for the Florida Bar in Tallahassee. ``My advice is to shop around.''

Some lawyers, particularly personal injury lawyers, work on contingency. That means a client pays nothing unless he settles or wins his case. The lawyer gets to keep an agreed-upon percentage of the judgment or settlement, usually between 33 and 40 percent.

Other lawyers charge a lump sum for work such as real estate closings, wills and immigration matters. Real estate lawyers typically charge about 1 percent of the purchase price for a home closing, while estate lawyer charges vary.

``A basic, simple will should cost about $500 but people with substantial assets who may want a living trust as well should expect to pay between $1,500 and $3,000,'' said Martin R. Press, managing partner of Broad and Cassel in Fort Lauderdale. ``But a living trust will save people money in the end.''

Most corporate attorneys and litigators charge hourly fees. In South Florida, the hourly fee ranges from $110 for less experienced lawyers to $450 an hour for senior partners in large firms. Sirven, at Holland & Knight, suggests that even when a firm quotes an hourly rate, a client should ask the lawyer to estimate a total cost based on his experience in similar matters.

``That way at least the client is aware upfront that he may be in for a long, expensive ride,'' Sirven said.

Lawyers also vary on how they bill - some do it monthly, others when the legal matter is wrapped up. Some lawyers insist new clients pay a retainer, which is an advance payment or deposit.

For those who are unable to afford a lawyer, options still may exist. The Florida Bar offers a low-cost panel for those who meet the financial requirements. And the Legal Aid Society, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, Legal Services of Greater Miami and Legal Aid Services of Broward offer free legal help to people whose income is 125 percent of the poverty level or less. Put Something Back, a volunteer organization of lawyers, offer free legal services to those who otherwise couldn't afford it.

``The biggest problem is people wait too long,'' said Marcia Cypen, executive director of Legal Services of Greater Miami.

``If people don't have a lot of money and they are looking for a lawyer, they should come in as soon as they think they have a problem, not when a lawsuit is filed and the answer is due the next day.''

* If relations go sour, seek out options.

Not everyone who chooses a lawyer is satisfied the first go around. Switching lawyers is possible.

``Sometimes it costs more money but if someone is unhappy it may be worth it,'' said Osman of Miami's Carlton Fields and president-elect of the Florida Bar.

Doris Small, a 74-year-old Aventura resident, said she went through four lawyers before she finally found one to draw up a will and living trust that incorporated her wishes.

``It's frustrating when you feel you can't get someone who does want you ask them to do,'' Small said. ``One lawyer put in a line that required I use his firm as my personal representative.''

Complaints against lawyers are heard by the Florida Bar, which makes information on disciplinary action available to the public. However, suing is the only way to receive compensation for lawyer negligence. Miami lawyer Warren Trazenfeld has made legal malpractice suits his specialty. He believes clients should know upfront whether an attorney has legal malpractice insurance - national statistics indicate about 40 percent of lawyers carry it. He said it's difficult for a client to be compensated if no insurance exists.

``If your lawyer has made a mistake that can be corrected, you need to find another lawyer,'' Trazenfeld said. ``But when it can't be corrected - either a statute of limitations has run out or a defense that should have been raised was not - your only recourse is to sue.''

Still, plenty of satisfied legal consumers do exist. Former Disney store saleswoman Paroulek settled her suit against her former employer and now works as a receptionist at a personal injury law firm - Montero, Finizio, Velasquez, Weissing & Reyes. Says Paroulek: ``I speak with people firsthand who come to this firm as a result of an accident of injury and can tell them my story.''

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