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How To Determine if You Need a Lawyer

When something bad happens, the first question people ask is: “Do I need a lawyer?" Not all bad situations need a lawyer. Some good situations should have a lawyer, but people don't think of hiring one. Knowing when you need legal help and when you don't is important in our litigious society.

Most situations do not need an attorney. Online legal services exist with links to state forms and templates. Most of these services can walk you through the steps for finding and completing the documents. What they cannot do is give you legal advice. If you have a legal issue where you have questions about state or federal law, you need an attorney.

You can start researching about your case by reading FindLaw's Learn About the Law section.

When You Might Need a Lawyer

A legal aid service can provide legal information. That is, they can tell you what forms you need to fill out to file a case, what the filing fees are, and what court you should file in. The courthouse may have a legal aid or self-help office to give filers assistance in finding and filing their legal documents.

If you need someone to review your paperwork to be sure you've filled everything out right, you need an attorney. Legal aid workers will not do this. It is a violation of state bar association rules for anyone who is not a licensed attorney to practice law or act as if they are an attorney. That includes telling you if you've done anything wrong on your legal papers.

Situations Where You Might Need a Lawyer

If you've never had legal representation before, you might not have thought of reasons you might need one. Some types of cases that need an attorney include:

  • Personal injury, workers' compensation, and property damage after an accident
  • Being accused of a crime, arrested for DUI/DWI, or other misdemeanors or felonies
  • Family law issues, such as prenuptials, divorce, child custody, or domestic violence
  • Business legal matters, including incorporation, purchase, sale, or dissolution
  • Estate planning, wills, trusts, and codicils
  • Sales of real estate, property transfers, and title disputes

Even if you don't need to take a matter to court, you should have an attorney review the case and give you options. You should never sign anything in a personal injury case without having an attorney go over the settlement with you. In any criminal case, you can have an attorney—whether you can afford one or not.

Situations Where You Might Not Need a Lawyer

You may not need an attorney to take a case all the way to court. An attorney can review your legal documents, but you might be able to represent yourself in court. Self-representation can reduce your legal fees and save you time and money.

  • Small claims court: If you have a civil dispute below a statutory amount (amounts vary by state), you can represent yourself. Most small claims courts do not allow attorney representation.
  • Summary dissolution: When divorcing couples agree on property division and have no children, they can get a divorce without a hearing.
  • Community disputes and small business claims: Instead of court, neighborhood arguments can be resolved through alternative dispute resolution. This includes mediation, arbitration, or other out-of-court discussions.

A good lawyer will review your case and let you know if self-representation may be the best option. If you can resolve your legal issue without the expense of attorney fees and costs, you can still prevail in court.

When You Decide You Need a Lawyer

The first thing you must do is find the right lawyer for the job. Not every lawyer can handle every legal problem. There are many legal practice areas. One place to start is an online lawyer referral service or the local bar association. Every state has a bar referral service, but cities and counties have bar associations that can make local referrals as well.

Fees and Costs

People worry more about lawyer's fees than they should. You should not let fear of expensive attorney fees keep you from hiring a lawyer. There are many ways to negotiate legal fees with an attorney.

  • Flat fee: For some legal services, such as reviewing documents or writing a demand letter, an attorney may charge a flat fee. Some attorneys who specialize in volume cases like DUIs also charge flat fees per case.
  • Contingency fees: Personal injury attorneys work on a contingency basis. The client pays nothing upfront. The settlement includes attorney's fees, capped at 35% of the award by law.
  • Hourly rates: Long-term cases charge a retainer fee from which attorneys bill an hourly rate for the work they and their staff (such as paralegals) do on the case.

Clients arrange the fee agreement during the first meeting with the attorney. You should come prepared to discuss your case and review possible outcomes, including the possibility you will not prevail. A good attorney must discuss what may happen if you bring your case and lose. Failing to warn a client of all outcomes can be grounds for a malpractice suit.

Finding the Right Attorney

Finding an experienced lawyer takes time. Review the attorneys practicing in the areas of law you need and the ones near you. Have someone in mind before you need help.

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