While tenants often can handle issues involving their units or landlords without resorting to an attorney, there are also situations that may become complicated and benefit from professional legal assistance. A lawyer can help research the law for you and possibly find laws or cases that might not be obvious but could make a difference to the outcome of your dispute. In a high-stakes case, such as an eviction, it may be worth investing in a lawyer to put your best possible foot forward. If a long-term lease looks complicated or has unusual provisions, a lawyer can explain its nuances so that you understand what you are agreeing to do. Or sometimes just retaining counsel to write a letter to the landlord can motivate the landlord to act, since they know that you are taking the situation seriously.
What makes a good landlord-tenant lawyer? You should make sure to find someone who has handled many of these cases before, including cases involving issues similar to yours. Your lawyer should already know the law, understand how the industry works, and be ready to propose non-obvious strategies and solutions. While it may be useful to retain a lawyer who has represented both landlords and tenants, you probably will not want to retain a lawyer who almost always represents landlords. You should choose a lawyer who listens well, communicates regularly, and makes you feel comfortable talking to them. Sometimes you can get a referral from a tenant organization, a special interest group, a legal aid office, your state’s bar association, or a local lawyer in a different practice area whom you trust from their handling another matter for you.
Attorney fees can be daunting, but you should be aware that some attorneys will take cases that involve a potentially substantial payout on a contingency fee basis. This is the usual way of handling personal injury and discrimination cases, although it is not common in eviction cases. A contingency fee means that the lawyer gets paid only if they get money for you. (You still need to pay the costs of filing suit.)
Eviction cases are often handled for a flat fee, which means that you pay the same amount no matter how much time the lawyer actually spends. This can be a cost-efficient fee arrangement if the lawyer is conscientious and professional.
Otherwise, you likely will need to pay your lawyer according to the time that they spend. These fees are usually billed in increments of 10 or 15 minutes. This arrangement is likely if a lawyer is providing you with general advice rather than handling a certain matter in court. If paralegals are handling part of the work rather than the attorney, you should arrange for a lower fee for the paralegal work. You should carefully review the bills from your lawyer to make sure that you are not being overcharged, either intentionally or because of a clerical error.
When the Landlord Pays
Your lease may have a provision that awards attorney fees if you win in a dispute over the lease. These provisions usually work both ways, meaning that whoever loses pays both sides’ attorney fees. However, they do not apply if the dispute arises from something other than the terms of the agreement, such as discrimination or an accident on the property.
Disputes with Your Lawyer
If you are concerned about your lawyer’s fees, accessibility, or competence, you should address the situation head-on as soon as possible. If it is not cleared up to your satisfaction, you should not hesitate to change lawyers. However, you should fire the current lawyer before hiring the new lawyer so that you are not paying two sets of legal fees at once. You also should ask the current lawyer to return any documents that you may have given them so that you can share them with the new lawyer.
Major problems with a lawyer, such as egregiously incompetent actions, may give rise to a legal malpractice lawsuit. You may be able to get compensation through the lawyer’s malpractice insurance. An ethical problem with the lawyer’s representation, such as a conflict of interest, may warrant contacting the state bar so that they can discipline the lawyer. You can also get the state bar involved if you have a fee dispute, although some bar associations are not as responsive as others.