Legal services are all around us, as are a multitude of different kinds of legal advertising. Every day you see billboards, pop-ups, and commercials for attorneys. They promise huge payouts, easy divorces, or guarantee they'll take care of your DUI tickets. What is the difference between all these attorneys? How can you be sure which one you need for a legal matter? Who is the right lawyer for your job?
There are many areas of law, but legal issues break down into a few basic categories. Within the categories, attorneys have different specializations with different fee arrangements. This article will explain the legal categories and their specialties.
Criminal law involves the prosecution, defense, sentencing, and incarceration of individuals charged with violations of federal or state penal codes. Criminal prosecutors work for the state or federal government, while criminal defense attorneys are usually in private practice. An exception is the public defender's office, which defends indigent clients.
Most people are familiar with defense attorneys due to transgressions committed against the law. However, any legal problem involving the justice system may need the services of a criminal law attorney.
Civil law, or tort law, involves disputes between people and organizations. Almost everything which is not criminal law falls into the civil law category. When you need legal advice in one of the areas listed below, specify the nature of your dispute and your problem with the other party.
With so many legal practice areas, picking an attorney can be daunting. You should start with a lawyer referral service. The state bar associations have attorney profile links that let you check the status of prospective lawyers. They also sort attorneys by practice area and geographic region, making it easier to find one in your area.
Your First Meeting With Your Lawyer
The first time you meet your attorney, you should have a list of questions and facts about your legal matter in hand. During the initial consultation, the attorney will review your case and let you know if:
- they handle this type of case,
- if they can take your particular case, and
- what the possible outcomes might be.
Your discussion should focus on the specifics of your case.
Criminal Law Questions
If you are looking for legal representation in a criminal matter, your liberty and maybe your life could be on the line. Be willing to be inquisitive! As the legal matter you're involved with might have a major effect on both your life and the lives of those you love, take time to talk to the attorney about all your concerns.
- How many criminal cases has the attorney handled before? How many have gone to trial? What is their success rate of acquittal vs. conviction?
- Which judges have they appeared before? Do they have a good relationship with the judges, clerks, and paralegals?
- Do they plead out these types of cases? What is usually included with probation in these cases?
- Will they charge a flat fee or an hourly rate? Will they require a retainer to take the case?
- What is the probable outcome of the case? What is the maximum sentence?
Your criminal law attorney should have experience with your specific criminal charge. Many attorneys in private practice specialize in DUI/DWI or misdemeanors. If you're facing a felony, the attorney needs to know this right away. Not all lawyers can handle felony cases.
Capital Crimes: When a defendant is charged with a capital offense, which means the death penalty is a possible sentence, the American Bar Association (ABA) requires the attorney to meet certain standards for representation. Not all states still have the death penalty. Defendants should obtain legal aid to select their attorney in these matters.
Civil Law Questions
With the wide range of civil law specialties, you should narrow your search by your location, the type of case you have, and the issue within your case. For instance, not all family law attorneys handle every type of family law case. Some specialize in just one kind of case, such as adoption or divorce.
Lawyer referral services can help narrow your search to the specific attorney for your legal needs. When you find your attorney, bring all information relevant to your case. Be prepared to ask some or all of these questions:
- How long have you practiced this type of law?
- Will you do the legal work yourself, or will your office staff handle the paperwork? Your case may be handed off to an associate or paralegal in a large office, so be sure you know who is managing your case.
- Are you familiar with litigation? What percentage of your cases go to court? Even in business or corporate law, cases may go to trial. Ask if this attorney can manage a trial case, or if you might need another attorney if things break down.
- What is your standard fee agreement? Personal injury attorneys usually work on contingency fees. Other attorneys may have hourly rates and retainer fees. Always ask if they are negotiable, particularly if your case is likely to be shorter or longer than their usual case.
Do not hesitate to ask your attorney to explain legal jargon or confusing terms in a contract or agreement, including the one you sign with them. Legal professionals have the same responsibilities as everyone else to keep things simple.
Legal Advice on a Budget
Like other professionals, lawyers charge the going rate for their services in the area where they practice. The costs of law school and starting a legal career are quite substantial. However, attorneys realize that everyone needs legal assistance, and there are opportunities to get aid with legal help if necessary.
- Nonprofit legal aid services: Nonprofit legal aid services are often run by attorneys and funded by donations from local businesses. They may use means testing or other methods to ensure clients need help paying for an attorney.
- Low-cost/no-cost providers: Legal aid providers may offer assistance with completing and filing forms at courthouses or other community agencies. Attorneys may assist in offering legal advice at these clinics.
- Pro bono work. State bar associations require attorneys to devote a number of hours to free or "pro bono" work each year. They may perform these hours at one of the nonprofit or low-cost clinics mentioned.
Finding the Right Attorney for You
Dealing with legal concerns can be frustrating, confusing, and intimidating. In many cases, it may prove foolish to continue on without a qualified legal expert on your side to help bring about the most favorable outcome possible.
Whatever difficulty you might be facing, finding a skilled attorney in your area should make things easier. With a knowledgeable advocate on your side, you'll be better prepared for your legal battles.