What Is a Lawyer?
A lawyer provides legal advice and counsel on behalf of someone involved in a legal dispute or legal issue. Also called attorneys or counselors, lawyers typically represent people before a governing body (such as a court) by conducting legal research, gathering relevant documents and witnesses, drafting written briefs, and presenting oral arguments.
To become a lawyer, a person must complete at least three years of intensive legal education and training, take and pass a rigorous state licensing exam (known as the "bar exam"), and pass a personal and moral fitness test.
I'm New to the United States and Need an Attorney. Can I Hire a Notary Public Instead?
While some other countries use the terms "notary public" and "lawyer" interchangeably, that is not the case in the United States. Here, notary publics are commissioned by their state of residence to witness and authenticate signatures on legally binding documents. They do not advise on legal matters or otherwise practice law, although some lawyers also are notary publics.
What Are a Lawyer's Primary Responsibilities?
Under a state's bar admission, lawyers must uphold the law and protect the rights of their clients. In addition to actually knowing the law, particularly within their practice area, an attorney must communicate clearly with their clients, work competently to resolve their clients' needs, and be ethical in performing their duties.
What Do Lawyers Do? Do They Spend Most of Their Time Arguing Cases in Court?
The practice of law is more than just appearing in court on behalf of a client. While many lawyers argue cases before judges, there are just as many lawyers who never step foot in a courtroom. But whether in or out of court, lawyers spend a great deal of time in an office handling a variety of tasks related to their clients' cases, such as researching new developments in the law, preparing legal documents, and giving legal advice.
What Are the Requirements for Becoming a Lawyer?
People who hope to become lawyers must first complete special training and meet other professional requirements. Although each state has its own standards for licensing attorneys, most states require hopeful lawyers to obtain an undergraduate degree and then graduate from an accredited law school. Once the formal education is complete, they must also take and pass the state's bar examination (a rigid test of knowledge in all fields of law), submit to an investigation into their moral character and fitness to practice law, and be sworn in by their state's supreme court.
May a Lawyer Who Is Licensed in One State Practice Law in Another State?
No. Lawyers must comply with a state's bar admission requirements to practice law in that state. However, some states allow out-of-state attorneys to practice law if they have a certain amount of legal experience and receive approval from the state's highest court. Sometimes attorneys may participate in specific cases in states where they lack a license to do so, referred to as a "pro hac vice" (or "for this one particular occasion") appearance.
It depends on the situation and the breadth of service, since only lawyers may practice law. Paralegals, for example, can represent you in certain situations involving complaints against a government agency (such as a dispute over Social Security benefits). You may also represent yourself in court, hire a notary public, or work with law students (under the supervision of a lawyer) under certain circumstances.
How Much Do Lawyers Cost?
It depends. Attorneys typically charge by the hour, based on their level of experience and other factors, but sometimes they charge a flat fee for certain transactions. While a one- or two-hour visit might cost a few hundred dollars (sometimes the first consultation is free), an ongoing legal dispute or issue can cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. On the other hand, some personal injury attorneys don't collect a dime unless you win your case.
In Addition to Billable Hours, What Other Costs Can Lawyers Charge For?
Lawyers bill for a wide variety of expenses and costs in addition to their hourly or flat fee. These costs include (but are not limited to) filing fees, court costs, paralegal and staff time, postage, court reporter costs, expert fees, investigators, and travel expenses.
Where Can I Find a Lawyer?
Lawyers often advertise their services, and you can typically find one in phone books and online directories. Visit FindLaw's extensive lawyer directory to search for a lawyer by name, location, law firm, or legal issue.
What Questions Should I Ask a Lawyer Before Hiring Them?
The types of questions you ask may vary, depending on your situation, but here are a few suggestions:
- What is your legal specialty?
- How long have you practiced law?
- How and how often do you bill?
- Can you tell me whether I have a strong case without having to spend a lot of money?
- How often will you update me on the status of my case?
- What are my responsibilities as a client?
Where Can I Go To Research an Attorney?
You can check if a lawyer has been disciplined by checking with the state disciplinary organization, often through a state's bar association website.
I Can't Afford a Lawyer. Where Can I Go for Free Legal Help?
You may qualify for free legal help if you meet certain income requirements, especially if you are charged with a crime and face a sentence that could deprive you of your liberty (such as jail or prison time). For non-criminal matters, community legal clinics and lawyers working "pro bono" offer free legal services for those who qualify.