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Lawyer FAQ

Thanks to the media, everyone knows what a lawyer is. A lawyer is someone in a sharp suit who stands before a judge in a criminal case. Or a lawyer sits in an office writing regulations nobody but another lawyer can understand.

There are many areas of law. Lawyers do many things besides litigate and write legal documents. The following are some frequently asked questions about attorneys, their responsibilities, and how to find the right one.

What Is a Lawyer?

A lawyer or attorney is a member of the legal profession. The profession includes judges, magistrates, public notaries, paralegals, and others who provide legal services to the public.

A lawyer has completed three years of law school, passed the state licensing exam (the bar exam), and been given a certification to practice law by the state bar association. The attorney is the only person who may give legal advice to a client.

Who Regulates Lawyers?

The American Bar Association (ABA) oversees standards and practices for attorneys nationwide. It provides guidance and model rules for state bar associations to copy for their own uses. The ABA's "Model Rules of Professional Conduct" set professional standards for attorneys in all 50 states. Attorneys who fail to abide by their state codes of conduct and ethics may be liable in a malpractice suit.

What Are a Lawyer's Duties?

A lawyer has several enumerated duties under the Rules of Professional Conduct. A client has the right to expect their attorney to exercise these duties during the course of legal representation. These duties include:

  • Competent representation, meaning the attorney must represent the client to the best of their ability with the legal knowledge, skill, and preparation necessary for the representation.
  • The attorney must abide by the client's wishes regarding the nature and scope of the representation. The attorney must give clear advice about all consequences and potential outcomes of the client's course of action. If the client wishes to proceed, the attorney must accept their decision. The only exception is when the client wishes to carry out a criminal or fraudulent act.
  • The attorney must act with promptness and due diligence in all matters.
  • The attorney must promptly inform the client on all matters about the case, respond to all inquiries about the matter, and explain all issues to the extent necessary for the client to make an informed decision about the case.
  • The attorney must not charge excessive fees, make unreasonable fee agreements, or charge legal fees above the standard in the area. The scope of the fees charged must be equal to the legal work done and the area in which the attorney practices.

What Is Attorney-Client Privilege?

Attorney-client privilege is a cornerstone of the attorney-client relationship. It prevents a lawyer from revealing any information the client tells the attorney in confidence unless the client gives permission. Clients must be able to tell their attorney everything about the case and their representation without fear of the attorney testifying against them. There are a few exceptions to attorney-client privilege. The attorney may reveal information if they believe:

  • There is an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm
  • There is a substantial likelihood the client will commit a crime or fraud and is using the attorney's services in furtherance of the crime
  • The attorney must defend themselves against charges by the client in a malpractice or defamation case

Attorney-client privilege only attaches in private situations where the information is confidential. If the client is talking to the attorney in public, where others can hear them, there is no privilege.

What Are Some Types of Law?

There are a surprising number of practice areas of law. Most people are familiar with criminal law and perhaps business law. You should carefully research the areas of law when searching for an attorney to find the right lawyer for your legal needs. Among these areas:

  • Estate planning involves wills and trusts; amending and revoking wills; and creating powers of attorney, end-of-life orders, and related financial and medical orders.
  • Family law covers divorce and separation, child custody and support, property division, alimony, domestic violence, protective orders, and adoption.
  • Business law can include small-business formation, corporate restructuring, bankruptcy, landlord-tenant law, contracts, shipping, product liability, and workers' compensation.
  • Real estate law includes titles, deeds, sales, transfers, and land rentals. It may include title disputes, easements, and adverse possession claims.

No matter what type of case you have, you can find a good lawyer to take the matter and give you legal advice.

What Questions Should I Ask a Lawyer?

Depending on your legal matter, you will have many questions for your lawyer, but there are some things you should ask any attorney when you first visit a law office. Don't let the setting intimidate you. The attorney is working for you, and you need these answers before hiring someone to take your case.

  • "How long have you practiced law?" A new lawyer may be just as competent as a seasoned attorney, but some things, like litigation, take a lot of practice.
  • "Who will be handling my case?" In a big office, it is common for an associate or paralegal to handle the routine paperwork and filing of a case. As long as the attorney oversees their work, it is fine, but you should know you won't speak with the attorney every time you call.
  • "How large is your caseload?" Ask the attorney how many cases their office handles and how many cases typically settle versus how many go to court.
  • "Will you update me on my case?" Some attorneys will call their clients; others want the clients to contact them. Ask whether your attorney will call you and how often.
  • "What do you need me to do?" Clients have responsibilities too. For instance, in a personal injury case, your attorney will tell you to stay off your social media accounts about the case. In a contentious divorce, your attorney may tell you not to answer any calls from your soon-to-be ex. Your attorney might need documentation by a certain date, and you need to get that to their office on time.

How Do Lawyers Bill?

When you hire or "retain" an attorney, the first thing you'll do is sign a fee agreement. This agreement spells out the billing and payment plan. In most cases, attorneys charge by the hour. In large firms, the hourly rate depends on who does the work: Senior attorneys receive the most, then associates, then paralegals.

Attorneys may charge a flat fee for some cases. A simple traffic ticket or a demand letter might have a flat rate since the paperwork is simple and will take only an hour or two of the attorney's time.

Personal injury cases usually work on a contingency fee basis. You will not pay anything, and the attorney fees and costs are taken from the award at the end of the case. State laws cap contingency fees at one-third or 35% of the award, except in some class-action and mass tort cases.

Attorneys can bill for other costs and expenses related to your case. Your fee agreement should explain these costs. They can include filing fees, other court costs, postage, copy fees, expert fees, court reporters, and other expenses. Your attorney should give you a detailed invoice on request.

What if I Can't Afford a Lawyer?

Thanks to two famous Supreme Court cases, Miranda v. Arizona and Gideon v. Wainwright, the legal system must give you an attorney if you cannot afford one and are facing criminal charges that could deprive you of your life or liberty. The Constitution guarantees your legal rights.

If you are facing a civil trial, you may receive legal assistance if a judge believes it would be prejudicial for you to proceed without an attorney. Some court rules allow indigent representation for those below a certain income level. Legal aid is available in most courts for completing and filing documents, although workers cannot give legal advice.

What if I Have a Legal Problem With My Attorney?

If you're having trouble with your lawyer, you have twice the legal problems you had when you entered their office. The practice of law is not suitable for everyone. There are a few bad actors out in the legal world.

To check on your attorney before you hire them, visit the state bar association's disciplinary branch. It can tell you if there are any past or current actions against your attorney and the nature of the actions.

If your lawyer's conduct while they were representing you was a problem, but you weren't sure what to do, you can still file a complaint with the state bar association. If you believe your attorney has violated any ethical rules, has broken the law, or isn't a good attorney, you should inform the state bar.

Where Can I Find a Lawyer?

Lawyer referral services list attorneys by name, practice area, and geographic location. Attorneys also advertise online and in print media. If you're looking for an attorney near you, stop by FindLaw's extensive lawyer directory to see who can help with your legal issues nearby.

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