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Ask Author Law

Finding the Right Lawyer

Ask Author Law is a Q&A blog about legal issues for authors. I am a practicing attorney, freelance writer, and publishing consultant. I focus my law practice on the representation of authors, often consulting with or serving as co-counsel to other attorneys on publishing cases. This information is for general purposes only and is not legal advice. Asking a question or reading an answer does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Q: You answered a question for me and suggested that I might need a lawyer to handle my problem. The trouble is that you don’t make courtroom appearances in my state and I need someone to file a lawsuit on my behalf. Do you have any suggestions about how to find a good lawyer? Do I really need someone who understands copyright law? My neighbor is a corporate lawyer and I have a cousin who does divorce law.

A: You wouldn't go to an ear, nose, and throat doctor for a skin disorder, or to a heart specialist for heartburn. Yet many writers don't realize that attorneys aren't one-size-fits-all legal problem-solvers, either. For contract and other general matters involving publishing law, look for a lawyer who focuses on intellectual property or publishing matters. Litigation is its own field, however, so if your matter will involve arbitration or courtroom proceedings, a litigator familiar with publishing disputes is probably your best bet. You may want to ask a publishing attorney if he or she ever teams up with litigators.

How can you find a good attorney? You could ask your family lawyer for help in finding someone. A good lawyer understands his or her own limitations and is often willing to help find a well-qualified colleague. Word of mouth is a tried-and-true (and often best) source. Begin by asking friends in the writing or publishing business, or contact writers' or other professional organizations to which you may belong. Local and state bar associations can usually give you a lead to a good lawyer, often with an initial consultation at a reasonable rate. There are also some excellent publishing law bloggers you could contact.

When you retain an attorney, you may need a written agreement outlining the matters he or she will be handling for you along with the firm's fees and billing policy. Attorneys have various ways of charging. For some it is a straight hourly rate and others charge a flat fee. I prefer a hybrid arrangement in which I charge a fee based on my hourly rate, but capped at a certain number of hours even if the matter takes longer. It's reasonable to ask questions up front such as how quickly you can expect phone calls to be returned; how often you'll receive written or verbal updates; and the overall time frame within which you can expect the legal work to be performed or the case to proceed.

What if you and your attorney aren't getting along? Lay your cards on the table as soon as possible. Simple communication problems can often be resolved just by talking about them. If you decide it's necessary to terminate the relationship with your attorney entirely, you have an absolute right to do so. Just be sure to convey your decision in writing and ask for a copy of your complete case file.

Are you unnhappy with what you think is an unfair fee? Local bar associations often provide mediation assistance in resolving fee and other attorney-related disputes. Remember, though, that just as you, a professional writer, expect to be fairly compensated for your work, a lawyer is entitled to a reasonable fee. You should also keep in mind that no lawyer can guarantee the outcome of a legal matter, so don’t expect the fee you pay to be related to the outcome unless you and your lawyer have reached a different arrangement. My dentist and I commiserate with each other that we both work in professions where people sometimes have to pay us to suffer. And, just as my dentist urges his patients to practice good oral hygiene, I urge authors to consult with a lawyer before problems arise rather than have to pay later when things go wrong.

One last point: many writers think they can handle publishing law issues on their own or by consulting with their professional colleagues. Sometimes that’s true, but many times it’s a mistake. There are times when you need some objective professionalism. There’s an old saying that the lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. That applies to authors, too.  Read More 
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