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 that you might pay your lawyer. Typical fee structures are fixed, hourly, retainer, contingency, or statutory. It may be helpful for you to discuss the method of payment with your lawyer during the initial consultation.

If you’re involved in a criminal case, in most circumstances, you may have a lawyer appointed to you if the court decides you can’t 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 losing parental rights.

Secrecy or confidentiality with your lawyer

Generally, lawyers must keep your statements confidential if you speak to them privately. Any conversation that you have with your lawyer which you and he or she intends to keep private is considered to be completely confidential. All communications between you and your lawyer, whether written, spoken, or otherwise, fall within this rule of confidentiality, which is called "attorney-client privilege." This strict rule of confidentiality applies not only to the attorney involved, but to their 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 that they intend to commit a crime or fraud in the future in which it’s likely that they could cause serious injury to another person or property. In those circumstances, 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 to a lawyer, it doesn’t make legal representation mandatory if a defendant chooses to represent themself. It’s still 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’s best for your interests
  • Be your zealous advocate while following the rules and procedures for arguing your case in court
  • Serve as your negotiator to help you get a favorable disposition of your case without you running the risk of going to trial

If you’re arrested, you have the right to use the phone at the police station to call your family, a friend, or a lawyer. You also have the right to talk to a lawyer 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 them before your court date. If you do hire a lawyer, they 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 can’t afford a lawyer.

Making decisions

First, in a criminal case, you decide whether to:

  • Go to trial or plead guilty
  • Have a jury trial or a bench trial
  • Testify or use your right to be silent

In a civil case, your lawyer should talk to you before making any settlement decision.

Staying informed

Your lawyer should keep you informed about any major developments in your case, including those that may require you to make a decision or give your approval. Every criminal case also involves a number of less significant events that your lawyer will handle without consulting you first, but they should keep you informed about the overall progress of your case. It’s especially important that your lawyer keeps you informed about your court dates so that you appear when 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.

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