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How do I choose a lawyer?
November 2, 2006 9:28 PM   Subscribe

What kind of lawyer do I need and how do I evaluate the ones I contact?

I'm a 1099 contractor with a client who has not paid his bill since 10/01/2006. In August we agreed to an arrangement like net-10, where I essentially gave him some flexibility when I expected payment. Since then, every payment has been later than the last. At the close of the last billing period, after the check from 09/15 cleared - I do learn - I wrote the client a polite letter explaining my concerns about the amount due and the lateness of the payments. In closing, I explained that I was uncomfortable continuing to acrue billable hours for the company until some resolution was reached.

My aim was not to fire the client, so the letter was softer than a demand for payment. However, the clients reaction was essentially to terminate the working arrangement and stop communicating altogether. During our brief interaction regarding the letter he did agree (in email) that he owed the money, but did not agree to pay it or even hint at when it might be received.

I don't know the first thing about finding a lawyer, even though I did speak to a lawyer I found in the phone book about the previously linked matter. Considering the amount due is in excess of $5,000, the limit for small claims court in my state, it appears that finding a lawyer is my next step. What kind of lawyer am I looking for? If you could point me in the right direction for resources on finding, evaluating, and estimating the potential cost of a lawyer, I'd be very appreciative. I have looked through FindLaw and NOLO, but could not determine what kind of lawyer I need. I also searched number of different search engines, but found a low signal to noise ratio.

Thanks for your help.
posted by sequential to Law & Government (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I have no clue. However you might try the SBA's SCORE program. They have retired folks who've run businesses and volunteer to offer free advice. It's like asking MeFi, but you just ask one person (or a handful of them) -- but you know that person has some expertise in a given area. You might end up talking to this person on the phone so you can get into the nitty-gritty.

If I remember correctly, you'd start at sba.gov or SCORE.org.

Good luck.
posted by powpow at 9:52 PM on November 2, 2006


I am not a lawyer, and I don't know where you live, so this is just very general advice based on my business knowledge, for what it's worth.

Your situation is a common one and easy to deal with. You've made some mistakes, like being soft on payment, but you've also done things right.

This is how I would go about doing things.
You want to write down your recollection of everything, get all your documentation together, everything that could be relevant. This probably means the agreement for you to be paid for doing the work, proof that the work was done, the correspondence where you ask for payment, and the email where he acknowledges the debt. You need to do this whether you get a lawyer or not, because it is much cheaper for you to prepare properly than for a lawyer to do it on your behalf.

You may need to get a lawyer for two reasons:
1) Lawyers are scary; and
2) They will be more efficient than you in chasing the debt through small claims court.

You probably want a cheap lawyer (because it's not a whole bunch of money) or a debt collection agency. Have you contacted one of them? You can find lawyers that specialise in debt collection - they usually mention the fact in their advertisements in phone books. Ask them how much they charge. You have a good chance of getting payment without a lawyer, which will save you money. On the other hand you might prefer to save time. It's up to you.

If you want to do it yourself then your first step is a letter that says something like

"Dear deadbeat,

[Context]
"This letter is in reference to my outstanding invoice #xxxx for $yyy.

[Preamble]
"On (some date) you agreed to pay me promptly / We agreed that I would be paid within zz days / I contacted you on (another date) and have had no response.

[Here's the important bit]
"I am writing to inform you that I require full payment within 14 days (a definite period that isn't so short as to be unreasonable. A vague period of time makes it legally ineffective, as does a ridiculously short period). If I am not paid by this time I will take you to court to recover the money you owe me.

"You can contact me on 000-000-0000 to arrange payment.

"Sincerely yours,
sequential."

This is probably what a lawyer will do in the first instance. If it fails he will go to the small claims court where you live and get an order for payment, or a summons for the debtor to come and explain why he hasn't paid, or however you do things where you live. The debtor will probably pay at this stage. If he doesn't turn up, or turns up and loses, you get an order for payment. If he doesn't pay then you can take it to a debt collector who will take a large percentage of whatever they get from him, but you're still better off then doing nothing.

Note that you can probably go to the small claims court yourself. If you do, make sure you have your documentation prepared so that everything is very clear - proof that you had a contract and you did the work, as well as his email acknowledging it. Bring the other documentation along too just in case, but keep it separate. The golden rule of courts is that YOU DO NOT WASTE THE JUDGE'S TIME. Make sure you know what you want the judge to do. You can look it up online, ask at the court registry, or find some guide from a business bureau.

Good luck!
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:13 PM on November 2, 2006


Thanks for the awesome advice, Joe and powpow. I wanted to follow up with you, Joe, on two points:

1) I can not go to small claims because the amount owed exceeds the maximum allowed by small claims significantly.

2) I work almost exclusively with start ups and have done so for the past 8 years. There are risks one takes when doing so, but the rewards generally make up for the risks in the long run. Being soft with start ups is part of the gamble, but I've learned over the years there is a limit to what's smart. Letting a client get behind a month on payments that has a history of being late is one of those limits. I've also learned that the hard nosed approach is *not* the best way to open negotiations with this client in particular.

That said, this client pushed my limits, I politely let him know, and he hasn't responded yet. I'm giving him breathing room to respond rationally at the moment, but a demand for payment will go out later today if he does not respond. I believe 72 hours is enough silence.
posted by sequential at 11:26 PM on November 2, 2006


Can you not call a collection agency? That seems like it would be cheaper than hiring a lawyer. Or do collection agencies not deal with this kind of thing?
posted by antifuse at 3:52 AM on November 3, 2006


The last time I needed a lawyer, I called the lawyer referral service of the local bar association.
posted by Robert Angelo at 5:32 AM on November 3, 2006


The last time I needed a lawyer, I called the lawyer referral service of the local bar association.

Precisely. ctbar.org, based on your profile. If you do end up calling for a referral rather than just poking around the site, describe your problem briefly and they'll have a list of the appropriate lawyers near your area.

I can not go to small claims because the amount owed exceeds the maximum allowed by small claims significantly.

You can, if you surrender the portion of your claim over the small-claims max. Of course, you may not want to do that, but if the total recovery net of lawyers' fees comes to somewhere in that neighborhood, it's always an option.
posted by rkent at 5:59 AM on November 3, 2006


1) Lawyers are scary

My Uncle's a bankruptcy lawyer and for a while, he gave out cards asking why people came to him. Turns out ~70% flipped opened the yellow pages and found his name "nice and friendly."
posted by jmd82 at 6:35 AM on November 3, 2006


I'm not sure what the law is in Connecticut, but I would continue sending nicely worded letters to the client employer. When it comes time to go to court, you can show that you were diligent in seeking payment, and didn't just abandon the matter for a while.
posted by reenum at 6:58 AM on November 3, 2006 [1 favorite]


Try looking into local collection lawyers. They are lawyers, and they collect your money for you. IANAL, but I work for a lawyer who has used collection lawyers in the past to collect from clients.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 7:09 AM on November 3, 2006


IAAL ... and you appear to be a credit facility. It sucks when idiots abuse this.

First get your paperwork together. You can do this less expensively than a lawyer. The contract between you and the non-payer, details of all letters, invoices, payments, etc. Lots of paperwork? give everything a sequential number and put it in excel with a note. Include meta information such as date that invoices were (partially?) paid.

Next - your work? paid by the hour or upon acceptance of deliverables? were your timesheets accepted and signed off? were deliverables accepted "in writing" or was acceptance assumed by no communication to the contrary upon the presentation of the invoice. Is any of the outstanding money in dispute (as to hours or acceptance of deliverables)?

Next write a strong letter of demand as per Joe above. Mention that the invoices are for accepted work and that you will also expect payment of legal costs if this demand is not met and you go to a solicitor. If payment is still not made you need to speak to your "local lawyer" or a local debt collection agency. This is rather easy stuff that any lawyer can help you with. Bring your well arranged documentation. You can go above small calims court yourself if you wish. Sometimes the filing clerks and judges will assist you more than you would expect. And generally the non-payer will pay as soon as they receive the summons.

Good luck ... J
posted by jannw at 8:22 AM on November 3, 2006


IAAL, but IANYL. You mention that the amount you're owed is [significantly] more than the small claims limit. However, you can probably still go to small claims and ask for up to the limit. (You'd likely be foregoing the rest). This may still be a net good deal for you, depending on how much you're giving up, when you consider what you'd have to pay a lawyer or debt collector to try to get the full amount. You might also consider negotiating with the debtor for the small-claims-limit amount. He gets a break, and you get the money without even the small-claims hassle.

As for finding a lawyer, know that one who will take your case on contingency will charge you a large percentage of the recovery. If no one will take it on contingency, it may be that you don't have a strong case for some reason, or that the lawyers don't think they'll be able to collect even if they win, or that the contingent amount isn't enough to make it worth their time.

If you decide to pay the lawyer out of pocket, you can try to get an estimate of costs up front, but it's unlikely that it'll be accurate, and quite likely that the estimate will be exceeded.

In the end, it's just a business decision. You're unlikely to get the full amount owed, so you have to try to figure out how much you're likely to get by negotiation, going to small claims, taking a lawyer on contingency, or taking a lawyer on retainer. Factor in the amount of hassle each of these will cause you and pick the one that gets you the most money fastest.

Deadbeats suck, but you shouldn't let them ruin your life any more than they already have.
posted by spacewrench at 10:27 AM on November 3, 2006


Sadly, this has dragged on, but I have made progress.

I sought local lawyers to handle my problem. It turned out to be too expensive and put at risk ever receiving anything from the client. I have not completely closed the door on legal options, but the client has paid a quarter of the amount due and agreed to pay the rest on a specific date without any conditions. At this point, I'm much closer to the limit for my local small claims court, so if he fails to pay on the specified date, I'll stomach the loss and go to small claims.

Thanks for all of your help and support.
posted by sequential at 11:33 PM on December 12, 2006


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