Working with a lawyer

Learn the basics of working with and paying for a lawyer.

Table of Contents

Paying for your lawyer

There are a number of ways in which you might pay your lawyer.  The following is a list of typical fee structures: fixed, hourly, retainer, contingency, statutory. It may be beneficial for you to discuss the method of payment with your lawyer during the initial consultation.

If you are involved in a criminal case, in most circumstances you may have a lawyer appointed to you if the court decides you cannot afford a lawyer. You might also have the right to a court-appointed lawyer in some civil cases that involve the loss of a civil liberty such as a mental health commitment or loss of parental rights.

Secrecy or confidentiality with your lawyer

Generally, lawyers must keep your statements confidential should you speak to him or her privately. Any conversation that you have with your attorney which you and he or she intend to keep private is considered to be completely confidential. Indeed, all communications between you and your lawyer, whether they be written, spoken, or otherwise, fall within this rule of confidentiality which in the legal profession is referred to as the "attorney-client privilege." This strict rule of confidentiality applies not only to the attorney involved, but to his or her partners, associates and other staff members, including the lawyer's secretary.

There are some narrow exceptions to the rule of confidentiality between lawyers and their clients. These involve instances where a client reveals his or her intention to commit a crime or fraud in the future in which there is a likelihood that serious injury to anther's person or property will be caused. In those circumstance, the lawyer may disclose the client's communication to the authorities.

Special concerns for criminal cases

Getting a lawyer

Although the U.S. Constitution ensures that every defendant has the right counsel, it does not make legal representation mandatory if a defendant chooses to represent himself. Nonetheless, it is a good idea to get a lawyer to help you understand your rights, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your case, present the defense strategy that best meets your interest, be your zealous advocate operating within the complex set of rules and procedures for arguing your case in court, and with your permission, to serve as a negotiator for an advantageous disposition of your case without you running the risk of going to trial.

If you are arrested, you have the right to use the telephone at the police station to call your family, a friend, or a lawyer. You also have the right to talk to an attorney before answering any questions. If you receive a summons to appear in court for arraignment on criminal charges, you will have time to contact a lawyer and consult with him or her before your court date. If you do hire a lawyer, he or she should go to court with you to participate in your arraignment.

In most circumstances you may have a lawyer appointed to you if the court decides you cannot afford a lawyer.

Making decisions

First, in a criminal case you decide whether to: go to trial or plead guilty; have jury trial or a bench trial; testify or maintain your right to be silent. In a civil case your lawyer should consult with you before making any settlement decision.

Staying informed

Your lawyer should keep you informed about any major developments in your case, including those which may require you to make a decision or give your approval.  Every criminal case also involves a number of less significant number of events and occurrences that your lawyer will handle without first consulting you, but he should keep you informed about your overall progress of your case. It is especially important that your lawyer keep you advised of your court dates so that you appear as required for all scheduled events. If you have any questions about your case you should feel free to call your lawyer to discuss them.

Filing a complaint against your lawyer

If you have a problem with your lawyer and need to file a complaint, see Filing a Complaint Against My Attorney from the Board of Bar Overseers.

For more information, call (617) 728-8750.

Additional Resources