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Information about all aspects of health care from choosing a doctor and treatment, staying safe in a hospital, to end of life care. Includes how to obtain, choose and maximize health insurance policies.
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There are occasions when it would be foolhardy to act on your own without a lawyer, and many more times when it may not be as clear cut, but still be in your best interest to at least speak with a lawyer.

There are knowledgeable people with less education and experience than lawyers who may be able to help in specialized situations.

Choose a lawyer who has experience in the general field, as well as experience in situations such as yours. Check a lawyer's background. There are many sources available to help locate a lawyer. Generally people find lawyers through referrals.

You can save time and money if you prepare for a meeting ahead of time. Preparation includes creating a list of questions to ask. You can use Survivorship A to Z's Prioritizer to help create the list, and to prioritize the list with a touch of a button.

Lawyers get paid either on a contingency basis, a fee basis or a flat fee. If you cannot afford a lawyer, you may be able to get a lawyer's services at low cost or for free (pro bono). In many situations, you can research the law yourself although it is not generally recommended to rely solely on your own research. It is preferable to at least have a lawyer review your research and resulting document or course of action. If you write a will, it is preferable to also have a lawyer oversee the execution of the will to be sure it follows every step required by your state's law. 

For more information, see:

How To Afford A Lawyer (Or Get One For Free)

Lawyers tend to be expensive because, like doctors, when you hire a lawyer you pay for his or her education and expertise.

However, you may be able to get a discount, negotiate for a lower price than the lawyer's standard price, or even get a laywer's services for free. In any event, as a general matter, the more you prepare for a meeting with a lawyer, the less expensive the legal costs. (To learn how to prepare for a meeting with a lawyer, see the document in "To Learn More"). 


Lawyers tend to give discounts for members of a group. Check to see if there is a group to which you belong that qualifies for such a discount. For example, through work, or a fraternal or a religious organization.

If you are a senior, discounts are available through AARP's Legal Services Network, offsite link. In general, experienced lawyers in the network provide:

  • A free initial consultation. 
  • A discount of 20% off that lawyer's usual rate
  • Low fixed rates for simple wills and for powers of attorney.


It cannot hurt to ask a lawyer for a discount by either charging a lower hourly fee or a smaller flat fee. If you are not a good negotiator, ask a family member or friend to do it for you).

If your situaiton involves getting money for you, such as from Social Security, ask if the lawyer will work on a contingency basis so he or she only gets paid if you get paid.

For information about hourly charges, flat fees and contingency fees, click here.

Keep in mind that the more prepared you are for a meeting, and the more work you do yourself, the less work the lawyer has to do - which means a cost savings to you. For example, if you want to write a will with a lawyer, it helps to collect the information the lawyer will ask about before the meeting. See Survivorship A to Z's form: Information for Your Will.

Free Legal Services

Free legal services may be available in your local area. Most lawyers do at least some work for free. This is known as working "pro bono". There may also be free legal clinics. To learn more, contact:

Free legal information is also available. See Free Legal Information.

How To Determine What Kind Of Lawyer You Need, Find Candidates And Choose Among Them

Many lawyers specialize. A list of different specialties can help you determine which kind you need. If not, consult an attorney in general practice. He or she will direct you to the necessary specialty if needed.

Most people find a lawyer through referrals from other lawyers or satisfied clients. There are also other sources available. As an informed consumer, it is helpful to also check a lawyer's background.

Once you've identified several people who have the expertise you're looking for, interview them to determine which one works best for you and the situation. Prepare a list of questions ahead of time. Our Prioritizer will help you reorder the questions in priority before the meeting.

For more information on each of these subjects, see the documents in "To Learn More."

What Kind Of Lawyer Do I Need?

Like doctors, many lawyers specialize. However, specialization among lawyers is not as neatly done nor as orderly as the medical profession. Doctors have formal training, receive designated titles, and are certified as knowledgeable by "specialty boards." Lawyers generally focus their practice but, except in limited situations, there is no national organization which sets standards of experience, education and/or ethics.

It's relatively easy to find attorneys who handle more lucrative issues. Look in any Yellow Pages, and you will see big ads for personal injury, auto accidents and workers' compensation. What you won't find are a lot of full page ads touting expertise in Wills, Guardianships, Advance Directives or Social Security. Yet, if that is your need, you certainly want someone who regularly does that kind of work and knows it thoroughly.

The referral sources listed in How Do I Find A Lawyer? can help narrow your search. Before you contact a referral source, try to have in mind the type of lawyer or field of law in which you need expertise. Some types of lawyers to consider are:

  • Testamentary lawyer: A lawyer who drafts Wills, Guardianships, Trusts, and similar types of documents.
  • Insurance lawyer: A lawyer who has have experience battling insurance companies on behalf of claimants who have been wronged by the actions of an insurance company. Insurance lawyers generally have trial experience.
  • Social Security lawyer: This is a whole separate field that requires specialized knowledge and experience. Fortunately, there are some good resources for finding them.
  • Bankruptcy lawyer: Credit and financial problems are handled by bankruptcy lawyers.
  • Civil rights lawyer: Advocates on behalf of people whose rights have been violated under various state and federal laws. Some civil rights lawyers specialize even more narrowly such as handling only claims under the Americans With Disabilities Act, or state nondiscrimination laws.
  • Medical malpractice lawyer: Can assist you if you have been harmed through negligent or wrong medical care.

How Do I Find A Lawyer?

Generally, people find a lawyer through a referral by someone who has dealt with a similar matter and found legal assistance good enough to recommend. The referral can come from anyone in your network. For instance, members of a support group, staff at a disease specific not-for-profit organization, counselors and therapists, medical providers, social workers and other people you come into contact with related to your medical condition.

Other sources to consider are the following:

Referral Services

Most state and local bar associations establish referral services that operate under very strict rules in an attempt to refer people in a fair manner. Referral services will refer you to lawyers who practice in the field of law in which you have a need. Many of these services are operated by local bar associations or nonprofit groups. Some provide free referrals. Others make a minimal charge that may include the initial consultation. (For contact information for your local bar association, see: offsite link)

Most Yellow Pages list lawyer referral services right in front of the listing either attorneys or lawyers.

Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directory

Martindale-Hubbell is a free service that lists lawyers, their specialties and backgrounds. on line. See: offsite link.

Yellow Pages and other telephone directories

Many directories separate the lists of lawyers by field of law. Unfortunately, any lawyer can be listed under any topic provided he or she pays the fee. There is no way to measure quality or experience.

Online referral services

Online referral services are very similar to local referral services, but are much broader. If you enter "lawyers" "attorneys" or "finding a lawyer" into almost any browser, it will bring-up a multitude of services that separate attorneys by geographical location and area of law practice.

Specialized referral services

Certain areas of the law have organizations that maintain referral sites within that field of law. For example:

  • Social Security: NOSSCR (National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives): offsite link, Tel.: 800.431.2804.
  • Health Law: American Health Lawyers Association, 1120 Connecticut Avenue N.W., Suite 950, Washington, DC 20036, Tel.: 202.833.1100, offsite link.
  • offsite link matches clients to lawyers by asking you to post information about your situation. The listing is then sent to lawyers who indicated they have expertise in those areas. Interested lawyers contact you. You make the decision which lawyer to use. The site states that your identity is kept confidential until you choose a lawyer with whom to work.

How Lawyers Get Paid - And Questions To Ask About A Lawyer's Fee

The three primary methods of paying a lawyer, and questions to consider asking about each,  are: contingency fee, hourly fee (with or without a retainer)  and flat fee.

Contingency Fee

  • Because a contingency fee is a percentage of the damage award, contingency fees usually only occur in areas where there is the potential for the award of large damages, such as liability suits, medical malpractice, personal injury, workers compensation, harassment, and product liability. Lawyers generally only accept a case on a contingency basis when they think there is a very good chance that they will win -- the only question being how much.
  • There may be cases where a lawyer will agree to work on an hourly basis plus a contingency fee.
  • Lawyers who work on a contingency fee basis take their fee as a percentage of any monetary amount you receive. The percentage generally ranges from 30% to 40%. For example, if the lawyer wins $100,000 for you, and there is a 30% contingency fee, the lawyer gets 30% of $100,000 or $30,000. You receive the remaining 70%, or $70,000.
  • There will generally be an additional charge upon winning for any expenses incurred with respect to obtaining the money. For instance, there may be a charge for transportation, printing and copying, investigators, court reporter fees, and expert witness fees. Depending on the arrangement, these charges can come "off the top" before there is a division between the lawyer and the client, or they can come solely from the client's share.
  • While the essential feature of a contingency fee arrangement is pay only if you win, the details differ from lawyer to lawyer. Read any contingency agreement carefully before signing. In particular, look for:
    • Out-of-pocket expenses:
      • Will there be out-of-pocket expenses?
      • If so, which of them will you be responsible for in addition to the contingency fee?
      • Are those expenses payable if the lawyer loses the case?
      • If you have to pay, when will that be?
      • Do the expenses come out of the total or just your portion?
    • What happens if you become dissatisfied and wish to shift to another attorney?
    • What other possible events could affect what you may owe the attorney?
  • It is unlikely you will find a lawyer who agrees to work on a contingency basis:
    • In situations where the potential upside is limited. The upside may come from punitive damages in those limited areas where they are authorized. Punitive damages are meant to punish the defendant in addition to paying what is owed.
    • In cases where the governing law in question is the federal law ERISA. ERISA includes many benefit plans offered by employers and unions. Because ERISA limits awards strictly, contingency attorneys cannot make enough money to profit with ERISA cases. (On the other hand, cases involving individually purchased insurance usually come under the state's insurance laws. If the facts and law warrant, lawyers may be able to sue for damages based on bad faith, emotional distress, and other causes of action which can yield substantial settlements for both you and the lawyer).
  • Social Security cases before the case comes before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Social Security strictly limits what lawyers can charge. Social Security must be notified of the fee arrangement when you hire a lawyer to appeal a Social Security denial. Social Security lawyers generally work on a contingency basis. Because their fee comes out of the retrospective payments, Social Security lawyers often won't take a case until you are owed at least a year in back payments.

Hourly basis (with or without a retainer)

  • Lawyers who work on an hourly basis get paid no matter the result.  You will be charged for the amount of time the lawyer works on your situation, and for any expenses the lawyer has to pay with respect to your situation. You may also be charged for the amount of time the lawyer's staff works on your situation.
  • Lawyer's hourly rates vary according to where they practice and the level of expertise (and reputation) they possess.
  • Lawyers who work on an hourly basis often require what is known as a "retainer." A retaomer is a deposit against the lawyer's charges. With a retainer, the lawyer will track his or her time and expenses and ask for more money as the retainer is used up. The initial retainer is rarely the entire legal fee, especially if the situation has unexpected turns and complications.
  • Questions To Ask About An Hourly Basis Fee  
    • How much is the charge per hour?
    • How much is the charge for other lawyers in his or her office that may work on your situation?
    • Will there be a charge for non-legal time? If so, for what services, and how much are the charges?
    • How much does the lawyer estimate extra expenses will be? For instance, copying costs, messenger costs, court costs, travel costs.
    • If the lawyer will travel, does s/he he fly coach, business or first class?

Flat fee 

For some legal services such as preparing Wills and other documents, attorneys may charge a flat fee. The fee is likely to vary depending on the complexities involved. For example, guardianship papers for a non-biological child in case you become incapacitated may be more expensive that preparing similar papers for your biological child because the issues with respect to a non-biological child are more complex.

Questions To Ask About A Flat Fee Arrangement

  • How much is the fee?
  • What does the fee cover? For instance, if the lawyer will use other lawyers or paralegals, is their time included?
  • When is it payable? Can it be payable over time? For example, a part at the start, and the remainder on completion?
  • Are there expenses you will be liable for in addition to the flat fee? If so, what expenses? How much does the lawyer estimate those charges will be?
  • Can the lawyer reduce the fee?

How To Prepare For A Meeting With A Lawyer

Think about your goal or goals for the meeting. For instance, you want to be free of your debts.

If the lawyer sends you a questionnaire before the meeting, complete it and take it with you.

If you are hiring the lawyer for a factual situation, put the facts together. If dates are important, be as accurate as possible. Put the facts in chronological order.

Pull together all documentation that could relate to the situation at hand and take it to the meeting. Don't make your own decision that something is irrelevant. Let the lawyer decide that.

Prepare a list of questions. Prioritize the list in case you don't get to ask all your questions. Feel free to use our Prioritizer to write down your questions. Save the list to your Individual Home Page so you can add to it as questions come to you. After you've listed all your questions, give each question a chronological priority. You can then reorder the questions according to your priority by clicking on a button. Print the list to take it to your meeting.

Include such questions as:

  • The lawyer's opinion about your chances for success, perhaps on a scale of 1 to 10. Then ask the lawyer the degree of certainty he or she has about the opinion.
  • Your options.
  • What problems does the lawyer see?
  • How long does the lawyer think it will be until your case is resolved?
  • If you don't win, what are your options?

To Learn More

More Information

Lawyers 101

Related Charts

Information For Your Will

How To Find Federal And State Laws And Free Legal Information

Free legal information is available from a variety of sources.

You can find a federal or state law at:

If the law is local to your state, check your state government's web site. If you don't know the URL address for the state government:

  • In your favorite search engine, type: www. (state postal abbreviation).gov -- or type the state's name followed by "government web site." For example, type offsite linkor type: Maryland government web site.
  • Type in your state's name and "laws" or "attorney general" into a search engine.

Type in the name of your state plus key words related to the specific topic in which you're interested.

Free Legal Information And Legal Services

Free legal information is available in libraries and on the internet. For instance, on the internet:

  • At offsite link you can post legal questions on the site's message board. Questions will be answered by practicing lawyers. When you go to the site, click on "Research Legal Information"). The site is from the publishers of Martindale-Hubbell law directory. You can also search for a lawyer in your area.
  • offsite link provides information about legal issues facing seniors. The information is provided by a nationwide network of elder law attorneys
  • For people with cancer:
    • Patient Advocate Foundation provides education, legal counseling, and referrals to cancer survivors concerning managed care, insurance, financial issues, job discrimination and debt crisis matters. See offsite link.
    • The Cancer Legal Resource Center, Tel.: 213. 736.1455 provides seminars and educational outreach programs to cancer patients and their families. The center also provides assistance to callers through informative and educational material, as well as access to a volunteer panel of lawyers and other professionals. The Center is a community based joint program of the Western Law Center for Disability Rights and Loyola Law School. Barbara Ullman Schwerin, Esq. is Director. Cancer Legal Resource Center, 919 S. Albany St., Los Angeles, CA 90015.
  • Non-Profit Legal Assistance Agencies -- There are many nonprofit agencies that provide legal services in different areas of the law. Most are local. Use your network and local listings to see if there is one in your area.
    • Legal Aid Foundations is one of many that provides low cost or free legal services in many areas of the law.
    • There may be a nonprofit organization that works with your particular issue. For example, a person with HIV may be able to find assistance through the Lesbian and Gay Community Center or Gay Men's Health Crisis, offsite link. In Minnesota, people with cancer can get information through Cancer Legal Line offsite link  Tel. 651.472.5599
  •  offsite link provides legal information on a wide range of subjects.
  •,  offsite linkthe website of the publisher, offers free online legal information.

To Learn More