Start by doing some homework and find out what kind of law the attorney practices. This can be as simple as referencing the firm’s website, checking the yellow pages and calling to ask for a firm brochure to be mailed to you. Consulting with friends can be helpful, but only if you have similar legal needs. Ask a few questions when you call. Don’t hesitate to inquire about the lawyer’s experience and what kinds of continue education classes they attended in the past few years.
Second, understand that the value you receive is not equal to the price charged. Attorneys often focus their practices or become certified specialists, which allows them to become more educated in certain areas, more competent, more experienced with particular kinds of legal issues and more efficient. This may translate into more cost up front for a consultation, but greater value to you. A consultation is not the same as signing a contract to go forward with any legal work on your behalf. Its okay to ask how much the documents or services will cost and to read a contract before you go forward. You might want a second opinion and to weigh your options.
Unlike the health profession few people have insurance that covers the cost of consulting with an attorney. There is no getting around it, lawyers are expensive, because behind that attorney are on-going education expenses, an entire staff and business, but the bottom line—since that’s what we’re talking about here—is that lawyers are a lot less expensive than nursing homes or bad information.
There is an old saying “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink.” I had two daughters come to me a few weeks back. They came with their elderly parents three years before, but rather than follow the advice I gave on Medicaid planning the parents went with their son to another attorney who prepared a revocable trust for them and an inferior financial power of attorney. Now the situation is in full crisis mode. The daughters are struggling to find adequate in-home and possible residential care for their parents, and find creative ways to come up with the money to cover the care. A bank was questioning the scope of authority in the one page power of attorney for a home equity loan they were considering. Sadly the funding in regards to the trust had to be completely undone to qualify the couple for community-long-term-care Medicaid and possible nursing home care. The money they spent was wasted and opportunities to retain thousands of dollars in family funds missed.
Each month folks come to me with legal problems that resulted from bad advice, often from non-legal sources – a neighbor, a bank employee, an insurance salesman, a nursing home employee just to name a few. No matter how well-intentioned the advice giver may be, often what would have cost a few hundred dollars now requires thousands to fix. Failure to probate a will in a timely manner can result in complex legal actions to determine heirs and divide property. Bad information also comes from legal sources – a paralegal friend, who should not be giving any legal advice, an employee in a government office who wasn’t given all the key information, and general practice attorneys without sufficient training in the area of law they are advising in. Nursing homes generally charge $6,225 or more a month. If the consultation with an elder law attorney saves even a month of nursing home fees, the legal costs will be more than justified. At stake can be a lifetime of hard work and retirement savings. The same can be true in other areas of the law where statutes of limitations bar legal actions after a specific period of time, or if a person could file a bankruptcy to save a home, etc.
To recap do your homework, ask questions about the lawyer’s experience and services to be performed on your behalf, talk money, and get that consultation.
Disclaimer: Information contained in this column is meant to be of general information on frequently asked questions regarding disability, elder law, estate planning and probate law, and is not specific legal advice to a client. No attorney-client relationship is created by reading this column.