The thought of having to go to court can be daunting and scary at times. There are many rules, procedures and legal jargon that can be confusing. Having an attorney can help alleviate some of that stress that can arise with a legal situation. Knowing what kind of case you have and what is needed for your case can be easily taken care of by speaking with an attorney. Just like going to see a doctor and finding the right specialist for the health issue you have, finding an attorney is similar.
What’s the difference between attorney vs. lawyer?
Yes, there is a difference between an attorney and a lawyer. In order to practice law a person must to go to law school and pass the state’s bar exam (big multi-day board examination to get a license to practice law after law school). A “lawyer” is a person who has gone to law school but has not passed and/or taken the bar exam. An “attorney” is someone who has gone to law school and has passed the bar exam in their state. An attorney can provide legal advice, officially represents their clients, and can practice law in a courtroom. An attorney is always a lawyer, but a lawyer is not always an attorney. Practically, most people don’t know the difference – including a lot of attorneys and lawyers. The two words are usually used in the context of describing an attorney.
How do I know what kind of an attorney to hire?
Attorneys, just like doctors, focus on different areas of expertise. You want to speak to an attorney who handles and focuses their practice on the kind of matter you are dealing with. For example, if you are dealing with an employment issue (like being fired or discriminated against), you would want to talk to an employment attorney. Here are some common types of attorneys:
They have knowledge and experience in criminal laws. They handle legal matters for people who have been accused of a crime. Criminal attorneys can be public defenders, private defense attorneys, and prosecutors.
They focus their practice on all issues that affect businesses. Some common examples would be business formations, dissolving a business, business transactions, business disputes, compliance with laws for specific industries. Typical clients would be business owners and corporations.
These attorneys advise both employees and employers on the legal aspects of their relationships with one another. Often employment attorneys will either focus their practice on the employee side or the employer side. Common issues they handle are employment discrimination, termination, severance negotiations, harassment, non-compete, wage claims, unfair labor laws.
Landlord/tenant attorneys advise on housing laws related to the rental of real property (commercial and residential). They understand the rights of landlords and tenants and advise proactively to follow laws. They also assist if there is a dispute. Typical services would be helping with an eviction, return of security deposit funds, damage to a rental, drafting of leases.
Personal Injury attorneys:
If you are claiming that you are injured by someone else, a company, a government, or other entity, either physically or psychologically, then a personal injury attorney is who you need to talk to. Some common examples would be car accidents, wrongful deaths, injuries caused by negligence, a defective product, workplace injuries.
Consumer law attorneys:
This attorney focuses their practice on enforcing rights between consumers and businesses/sellers. Common examples would be disputes about debt, unfair collections, being sold a lemon car, mechanic disputes, warranty disputes, financial schemes, and identity theft.
Estate Planning attorneys:
These attorneys help people plan for death, serious illness, and incapacity. They help with financial planning and safeguarding, medical assistance planning, and end of life planning.
Family Law attorneys:
If you are having any legal issues with your family members or other types of personal relationships, you want to talk to a family law attorney. They can go to court and help to mediate your disputes. Typical types of issues would be divorce, child support, parenting plans, modification of parenting plans and child support, restraining orders, domestic violence, and adoption.
What are an attorney’s basic duties?
An attorney’s ethical duties are very important as they can have ramifications in a legal capacity and a moral capacity. Attorneys are bound by the Rules of Professional Conduct within the states they are licensed. Attorneys are professional secret keepers. They must maintain the most secure confidentiality for their clients. Basic examples include but are not limited to:
- Cannot reveal information shared with a client to others.
- Cannot use information in a way that would be disadvantageous to a client.
- Cannot even have informal conversations about you with others outside their firm.
An attorney needs to ensure that their client trusts them to tell them everything for the best outcome of their case.
They must advocate strongly for the rights of their clients and protect their client’s interests within the bounds of the law. They are professional problem solvers.
How does one become an attorney?
Attorneys typically have their undergraduate degree, then go to law school. An undergraduate degree is usually 4 years, and law school is usually 3 years. There is no specific undergraduate degree required to attend law school, only that you must have one. After law school graduation, lawyers study for and take the bar examination in the state they want to practice in. When they pass the bar exam, they are licensed to practice law in that state.
What are the common legal fee models?
One of the most important things to understand when choosing an attorney are the fees you will incur and how you pay them. This will vary depending on the attorney and your specific situation. The attorney quotes their fee depending on a variety of factors including complexity and novelty of the issue, years of experience of the attorney, type of issue, etc. The scope of the representation and the rate should always be communicated, preferably in writing, before commencing the representation. Below are the most common legal fee models that you should become familiar with.
- Hourly: The hourly model is the most standard. The attorney and their staff will charge based on time. They will usually quote you a certain rate per hour that will be charged. The industry standard is to charge in increments of 1/10 of an hour, or every 6 minutes. Typically, there is a retainer/advance fee deposit that is requested and deposited into the attorney’s trust account before representation begins. This money held in trust is your money still, but it is help up front to bill from as work is performed and the fees become earned by the attorney. It is very common in a contested matter that additional funds will be requested to be deposited into the trust account as your case proceeds (i.e you will run out of the initial amount you placed in trust and more work will be required). It is often difficult for an attorney to predict the size and scope of their legal assistance with your matter, therefore they bill by the hour until you no longer need their assistance.
- Contingent: In a contingency fee agreement, the client does not pay any attorney’s fees up front, rather the attorney collects their fees if there is an award at the end. The attorney will typically agree to accept a fixed percentage, typically one third, of the recovery of fees from the outcome of the case if won. Criminal and family law attorneys do not practice the contingent model (they are not ethically permitted to do so).
- Project-based or Flat Fee: This form of payment is for certain types of matters where the attorney can accurately predict the scope of work required. Some examples of legal matters that are typically worked for a flat fee are adoptions, speeding tickets, non-contested divorce, criminal matters, and business formations.
Why should you hire an attorney for your legal issue?
There are many advantages to hiring an attorney for your matter. The law is complicated, and how the law is interpreted by law enforcement and the justice system is even more complicated. The law is written to be static. The judges get to interpret the law based on your unique circumstances. No two situations are ever the same. Attorneys advocate or advise on your behalf to persuade a judicial officer how the law should be interpreted.
You can read a book or an article on a certain area of the law, and you might be able comprehend what it says. However, it is very different to know how it is handled practically and how the strategy of your situation should be carried out.
- Attorneys are trained to know the laws, when laws change, and procedures, but more importantly they understand how those laws function and play out in society and in the justice system.
- They are familiar with the judges and commissioners and are much more capable of carrying out a winning strategy based on the practical knowledge of how a particular courtroom typically operates (in addition to the law itself).
- Attorneys have the experience to advise on how a law will practically be interpreted based on your unique facts.
It is always advisable that you at least do a consultation with an attorney to discuss your legal issue before you ever consider handling it on your own. During that consultation the attorney will be able to provide you with basic information regarding how to solve your legal issue, they will help you diagnose what may be required, and allow you to make an informed decision about whether your legal issue should be handled without the assistance of a legal professional.
Trevor J. Cartales
Colin F. McHugh
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Every legal issue is very unique. Accordingly, the information in this blog is intended as general education material and not as legal advice. If you think you may have a legal issue you should consult an attorney.