When you need a lawyer, whether for court or legal advice, you can Google "attorney near me" and receive dozens of nearly identical names and firms within a few miles of your location. How can you tell which one is the right lawyer for you? What kind of attorney do you really need?
There are many ways to sort out law firms, depending on your legal issue, location, and which side of the matter you're sitting on. There's no single way to decide which attorney is right for you, but there are ways to sort through the many types of law firms and get the best lawyer for your needs.
One way to sort through law firms is by practice area. Many attorneys focus on one or two related practice areas in a single legal field. Each large area has many specializations, and a good lawyer does not try to be proficient in them all. Some general areas include:
- Family law, which encompasses marriage, divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, and related issues
- Business law, including contracts, patents, employment, labor law, and other matters
- Estate planning, including wills and trusts, probate, trusteeship, and guardianship
- Civil rights law, focusing on constitutional rights in all areas, including free speech, voting, privacy, and personal rights
- Civil law, including personal injury, real estate transactions, medical malpractice, and landlord-tenant disputes
When looking for an attorney, consider the type of case you have. Is someone suing you for back child support? Do you need to evict a tenant? That will help you find the right type of lawyer.
Types of Law Firms
Many types of law firms exist, from solo practitioners to partnership law practices to big national law firms. These firms can handle almost everything for individuals, small businesses, corporations, and multinational conglomerates. Just because your legal problem is small does not mean you need a small law firm. A big law firm does not guarantee big results either.
Solo Law Firms
Solo practitioners are a one-person show. They often handle whatever comes through the door but try to specialize in one or two subjects, such as family law or DUIs. Solo practitioners may be new lawyers fresh out of law school or older attorneys well into their legal careers.
The advantage of a solo firm is the one-person touch you will get from the attorney. Since there is only one lawyer, you know who will handle your case. Solo practitioners may be less expensive than bigger firms because they may have fewer office staff. On the other hand, if the attorney gets tied up in court, your case may wait until the attorney is through.
Being a solo practitioner does not mean the attorney is less experienced. You should consult the attorney's profile on the state bar association website.
Small Law Firms
Small law firms, sometimes called "boutique" law firms, are small, anywhere from two to a dozen attorneys. Boutique firms differ in that they usually specialize in one practice area, whereas a small firm may have several practice areas.
Small firms have the one-on-one feel of solo practitioners but have larger firms' wide range of practice areas and legal services — the best of both worlds. Small firms are often family partnerships or form around the nucleus of a senior partnership as more associates become partners.
Large Law Firms
Large law firms, sometimes known as "full-service" firms, may have dozens of attorneys and hundreds of employees. They may have offices in several states, like the famous personal injury lawyers who advertise class-action lawsuits on television.
Most large law firms have multiple legal departments and may have attorneys specializing in one particular law area. For instance, a corporate law firm may have departments for intellectual property, tax law, contracts, and mergers and acquisitions.
Unlike smaller firms, large law firms are corporate entities with support staff, paralegals, human resources departments, administrative staff, and even janitorial workers. Large firms may represent large corporate clients and also handle individual clients in small towns through satellite offices.
Criminal Law Firms
Big, small, or solo, criminal law firms are separate entities. Unlike civil or corporate lawyers, criminal lawyers focus on an area of law requiring specialized knowledge of an entirely different branch of law. Criminal law is a different beast than civil law. The stakes are higher, the outcome is more serious, and court procedure is more restrictive on the production of evidence and handling of witnesses.
Finding a good criminal defense lawyer for your legal work is different from finding one for your contract dispute. Whether you have your own defense attorney or public defender may be something outside your control. A referral is a better way to find a criminal law firm or solo practitioner than an online search.
Federal vs. State Attorneys
The legal profession has two parts, like its courts. Attorneys licensed by their state bar cannot practice in federal court without special training and certification. You will need an attorney with those credentials if your matter involves a federal issue. These include bankruptcy lawyers, immigration lawyers, and appellate attorneys.
Find the Right Lawyer
Now that you know how to look for your attorney, you must find them. Narrow down the practice area you need and your location, and then decide if a big or small law firm is what you want.