American Greed

The Greed Report: 'Go to Court, Not to the Cleaners: How to Hire an Attorney'

For Marlane Cochlin, it was just too much to bear. She had just lost her husband in a tragic industrial accident near Fort Wayne, Indiana. Now, representatives of her husband's employer were about to pay her a visit, presumably to discuss a settlement. She needed a lawyer.

"I had never had anything to do with an attorney. I knew nothing about it," she told CNBC's "American Greed."

So she turned to the resource most people use to find legal help: word of mouth. In this case, that word came from a neighbor.

"He came down the street right away and he told me that very night that Cory was killed, 'I will get in touch with my attorney.'"

That attorney recommended a second attorney, who suggested bringing in a truly big gun: Indianapolis "super lawyer" William Conour, who readily took the case.

Conour is now serving a 10-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to charges he scammed $6.5 million from clients, including Cochlin, using their settlement money to fund his lavish lifestyle.

Cochlin, who has medical issues of her own and today is barely making ends meet, says she believed she was being careful in choosing her legal representation.

"I thought I had it covered," she tells "American Greed." "I'm sure my attorney thought so when he brought Bill Conour onto the case. He said I know him. I've known him for years. He's a good guy. So if an attorney can fool an attorney and be doing this, we have no hope."

Like Finding a Date

Indeed, most of what Cochlin did was right. She chose a lawyer with a good professional reputation, with expertise on the subject at hand—in this case, industrial accidents. But hiring a lawyer is an inexact science at best, according to St. Louis attorney Michael Downey, who specializes in attorney-client disputes.

"Picking a lawyer is an awful lot like picking someone to date," Downey tells "American Greed." Chances are you don't want to go with the first person you talk to.

But where do you begin?

"Word of mouth is very good," he said, though obviously it is not the only tool.

Downey said it is crucial to find an attorney whose expertise matches your particular case.

"In some ways, a lawyer is like a tour guide," he said—that is, a professional who will help get you through uncharted territory. "You want someone who is going to know the area."

To assess your prospective attorney's expertise, start with his or her website. Sure, websites are self-serving by nature, but you'll be able to see if the lawyer is talking about handling cases like yours. But beware of lawyers who claim to have expertise in dozens of different areas.

"Most lawyers do a limited set of things well," Downey said.

Google search
Oleksiy Maksymenko | Getty Images

In addition, each state offers resources to help you find an attorney and understand your rights. The American Bar Association has all the links at its legal services website.

Another way to narrow your search is to use online lists like Super Lawyers, Avvo and Martindale-Hubbell. The lists aren't perfect, Downey cautions—"they can be gamed"—but they can help point you toward an attorney with the expertise you are looking for.

And finally, some state bar associations—but not all—offer "certified specialist" programs listing attorneys who have demonstrated their proficiency in certain areas. States with certified specialist programs include California, Minnesota, Ohio, Florida and Arizona, among others. They can help you find attorneys with expertise in real estate, tax law, workers' compensation and much more.

Sealing The Deal

Jason Alden | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Once you have found the attorney that suits your needs, your work is not done. Most states require all but the smallest cases to be governed by an "engagement agreement"—the contract between you and your attorney that covers the scope of the job and how he or she will be paid. Don't treat the engagement letter as an afterthought. There is no such thing as a standard document, Downey said.

There are three basic types of fee arrangements, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

An hourly fee, as the name implies, means your attorney is paid by the hour, or fractions of an hour. Be careful about the details of such an arrangement, Downey cautions, because the costs can add up. For example, some agreements specify that the minimum billing be for three-tenths of an hour. For a $200-an-hour attorney, that costs you $60 every time he or she lifts a finger for your case.

Also, a good attorney should be able to give you a ballpark estimate of what the case will ultimately cost.

Another common way to pay an attorney is on a contingency basis, where he or she collects a portion of the winnings in the case—often as high as 40 percent—but gets nothing if the case is lost. That kind of arrangement can be attractive for a client who doesn't have a lot of money to pay upfront, but beware. Ask if the attorney's expenses are included in the contingency fee, or assessed on top of it. You could win your case, but take home next to nothing.

And finally, some attorneys will take a case for a fixed fee. Again, make certain the engagement agreement spells out what is and is not included in the fee.

Shop Around

Downey said the engagement agreement is always negotiable, and if the attorney pressures you to sign it on the spot, be prepared to walk away.

"You really benefit from shopping around," he said.

And after you've put in all this effort and signed on the dotted line, don't let up. Stay in communication with your attorney as your case moves on, Downey said, and be prepared to make a change if necessary.

Cochlin said her experience with Conour taught her some difficult lessons about trust, and she offers her own advice for anyone who needs to hire an attorney.

"You have to take a leap of faith," she said. "And all I can say to those people out there who need attorneys is jump carefully. Very carefully."

Watch "American Greed," Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CNBC Prime.