Not all legal matters need a lawyer. Going to small claims court or challenging a traffic ticket isn't worth the cost of an attorney. Other times, you may only need an attorney to review documents or write a letter. Some kinds of divorce, such as a summary dissolution, require legal advice to double-check your paperwork.
Other legal issues require an experienced lawyer. If property or liberty is at stake, or if you're facing another attorney in a civil case, you should have an attorney at your side. Legal representation won't always solve your problems, but it can keep them from getting worse.
Take a look at your legal problem, and decide if legal representation is essential in your case or if you can handle things alone. Here are 10 reasons why having an attorney is a good idea in legal situations.
1. The Case Involves a Specific Area of Law
There are many legal practice areas. Some are well known to the layperson, like estate planning or family law. Some are less familiar, such as patent law or antitrust law. In general, the less you know about a legal topic, the more likely you need an attorney.
2. You're Facing an Attorney
In any case in which the other side has an attorney, you should have your own lawyer. This is especially true in criminal cases, since you may face prison time or other loss of freedom.
However, you may need legal counsel in other types of cases. In a personal injury case, the insurance company will have its own legal department defending its corporate interests against your claim. In a divorce case, if your spouse has a lawyer, you should have one to protect your interests.
An attorney can protect your rights whenever you are entering any legal agreement. Even if you and the other party are in complete agreement, it's best to have your attorney talk to their attorney.
3. You're Going to Trial
Some legal matters, such as contracts and wills, never see the inside of a courtroom. You may be able to take care of these yourself, perhaps with some online forms and a review by a legal professional.
If your case is going to court, and you'll face a judge or jury, you need a lawyer. Self-representation — "pro se," in legal language — works sometimes, but it is never advised. Even attorneys hire other attorneys if they need to appear in court. Appearing before a judge, knowing the rules of the court, and dealing with the other stresses of trial take practice, and you should leave it to the professionals.
4. Your Case Involves a Lot of Paperwork
Cases that don't go to trial often involve lots of legal documents. Filling out and filing these documents is essential for your case. During the case, you will need to meet deadlines set by the court for other filings and hearings. Missing deadlines or failing to send documents to the right place can destroy your case.
Self-help legal services can assist you with filing paperwork, sure. But they cannot give you legal advice and won't be able to tell you about future deadlines. If you can't keep track of these things yourself, you're better off having an attorney and their paralegals handle your case. That way, you know you'll get your documents to court on time.
5. Your Case Depends on Evidence
Whether it's a car accident or a workers' compensation claim, most cases depend on evidence. As a layperson, you don't know what critical evidence is or how to present it to a judge. In a criminal matter, evidence must be obtained in certain ways, or it is inadmissible. In a civil case, judges dislike wading through pages of repetitive documents. Your attorney knows which documents the judge wants to see.
6. You Need Expert Testimony
Some cases — such as personal injury, child custody, and criminal defense — need expert witnesses. A good lawyer knows when your case needs expert testimony and where to find it. Just as important, your attorney knows how to question an expert witness and how to counter expert testimony from the opposing party. If the other side has experts, you must have the right lawyer to counter their testimony.
7. You Want a Plea Bargain
Sometimes a plea deal or settlement is your best bet. Maybe you don't want to go through a lengthy trial. Perhaps you are guilty. A good attorney will tell you if a trial is in your best interest. They'll let you know if a settlement is your best option.
You should not try to negotiate any type of plea agreement or settlement by yourself. Plea bargains can leave you worse off than rolling the dice for a jury trial unless the agreement is carefully written. In a civil case, you want your settlement to cover all your expenses, including legal fees and costs. Your lawyer will be sure to protect your best interests when reviewing a plea bargain or settlement offer with you.
Never sign a plea bargain, settlement offer, or other final document without an attorney reviewing it first. That is always your right.
8. Your Case Has Some Flaws
Prosecutors always want defendants to plead out. Insurance companies always want a quick settlement. Most of the time, this is because the defendant is guilty, or the plaintiff was partially at fault. That doesn't mean you need to take the blame.
A good attorney will review your case and explain the legal dispute in terms you can understand. If there are other alternatives, they will go over them with you and explain all possible outcomes to the case. For instance, suppose you are partially at fault for a car accident but have serious medical bills. Your attorney can look for options to reduce the medical costs so that the insurer will pay the costs.
9. You Could Have Problems in the Future
Don't wait until you go to trial to ask for legal help. You should contact an attorney if you are starting a business, are buying real estate, or have just been handed a prenuptial agreement. An attorney can review your contracts and agreements, often for a flat fee. They can let you know the potential hazards of signing.
Meeting a lawyer is never bad, even if you don't plan on having a long-term attorney-client relationship. If something does come up later, you already know someone who can give you advice or refer you to someone who can.
10. It Can't Hurt
Many attorneys charge nothing or a reduced hourly rate for the first meeting. Some will apply any cost to your initial fee. During a consultation, you can discuss your case, review fee agreements, and talk about potential outcomes. You can get a sense of your attorney and see if you can work with them.
And if they aren't the one you want, or you don't need an attorney at the moment, you've learned a little more about your case. That means you can proceed with a better understanding of your legal issue.
Since many attorneys will meet with you for free or at a reduced hourly rate during a face-to-face consultation, there is no harm in talking with one. Not only will a consultation give you an idea of the type of case you have and its likely outcome, but it will also help you decide whether you actually need to hire a lawyer.
Ready to Hire an Attorney? Find One Near You
A number of lawyer referral services can help you find the attorney you need. The state bar association where you live can provide a listing of attorneys, searchable by name, practice area, location, and law school. You can also see whether the attorney has any malpractice discipline against them. No matter your legal issue, contact an attorney, and see if you need the help they provide.