Where do I start?
Here is our recommended 4-Step Guide to choosing the right attorney.
By following this process, and upon taking each step, you will get closer and closer to finding the right lawyer. After completing these steps, you will narrow down your options towards a discrete set of lawyers that are well-suited for your particular case. Finally, you will be left with the final and most important decision. This decision is one that only you can make – hiring or retaining the lawyer. Please consult our articles “What Makes a Good Lawyer” and “13 Reasons to Walk Out the Door” for further information on making this crucial decision and what else to consider at the initial consultation.
If you are in a situation where you stand to lose anything of significance, it is at least a good idea to contact an attorney and see if he or she can help. A lot of lawyers offer free consultations. If financially you are not sure how you can make this work, you can look into legal aid resources that might be able to help you.
If it’s a criminal charge you could consider a public defender, just realize they are overworked and may not be able to adequately dedicate the proper resources needed in your case. In addition, a lot of people may not qualify to have a public defender. Once you’ve decided you want a lawyer, the next step is figuring out what type of lawyer you need.
“You wouldn’t go to a knee surgeon for a heart problem.”
There are many different types of lawyers also known as attorneys. The type refers to what practice or practice(s) they focus on. Because there are so many different needs and types of cases out there, oftentimes lawyers will gain experience in multiple practice areas but mainly focus on a few. While some lawyers may handle more practice areas than others, no lawyer can effectively practice all areas as the law is way to vast and complex. While technically a lawyer can practice in most areas (some require special licensing) you need to find an attorney who specializes for your specific needs. Below is a list with descriptions of the most common practices followed by a condensed list of other practice areas.
20 Most Common Practice Areas
Bankruptcy – A legal process through which people or other entities who cannot repay debts to creditors may seek relief from some or all of their debts. In most jurisdictions, bankruptcy is imposed by a court order, often initiated by the debtor.
Business & Corporate – A very diverse domain of practice and covers areas including company formation / dissolution, general commercial advice and strategic guidance, compliance, disputes between corporations and/or individual members within them, reorganizations, securities, payment systems, and mergers and acquisitions.
Civil Litigation – Representation of clients before, during, and after trial for non-criminal disputes.
Criminal Defense – Protecting the constitutional rights of those charged with crimes.
Digital Media & Internet – Pertaining to online interactions, the people and entities that facilitate these and related actions, information, storage, replication, access, along with their concurrent considerations.
Employment & Labor – Job related planning, due diligence, loss mitigation, disputes, and human resource policy and procedure.
Entertainment & Sports – Music, film, and (primarily) professional athletic league, franchise, team and individual representation.
Estate Planning – Wills, trusts, estates, and generational financial and fiduciary structuring and enforcement.
Family & Divorce (Domestic Relations) – A broad legal category that encompasses divorce, property distribution, spousal and child support; along with the establishment of paternity, parental rights and responsibilities, child custody, visitation, adoption, and emancipation of minors.
Finance & Securities – Federally, comprised of a series of statutes, which in turn authorize a series of regulations promulgated by the government agency with general oversight responsibility for the securities industry. Otherwise, the law and regulation of the insurance, derivatives, commercial banking, capital markets and investment management sectors.
Intellectual Property (IP) – A category of property law comprised of intangible creations of the human intellect. The most well-known types of intellectual property are copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets. The law gives people and businesses property rights to the information and intellectual goods they create, usually for a limited period of time, giving them economic incentive for their creation.
Legal Malpractice or Professional Responsibility – The area of law covering negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, or breach of contract by a lawyer during the provision of legal services that causes harm to a client.
Medical Malpractice – Involves legal cause of action that occurs when a medical or health care professional deviates from standards in his or her profession, thereby causing injury to a patient.
Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A) – Related to transactions in which the ownership of companies, other business organizations, or their operating units are transferred or consolidated with other entities. As an aspect of strategic management, M&A can allow enterprises to grow or downsize, and change the nature of their business or competitive position.
Personal Injury (PI) – Legal services for those who have been injured, physically or psychologically, as a result of the negligence of another person, company, government agency or any entity. Personal injury lawyers primarily practice in the area of law known as tort law.
Real Estate – The representation of clients with interests in property consisting of land and the buildings on it, along with its natural resources such as crops, minerals or water; immovable property of this nature; and buildings or housing in general. And, the buying, selling, or renting of land, buildings, or housing.
Traffic – Covering the collection of local statutes, regulations, ordinances and rules that have been officially adopted in the United States to govern the orderly operation and interaction of motor vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians and others upon the public (and sometimes private) ways.
A public defender is a lawyer employed at public expense in a criminal trial to represent a defendant who is unable to afford legal assistance. You cannot use a public defender for legal representation in civil matters.
Paralegals are not lawyers. Among other things, they provide support and assistance to lawyers, law firms, companies and government agencies. The American Bar Association (ABA) defines a paralegal as ” person qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”
Since the purpose of the American Trial Academy is to bridge the gap between prospective clients and attorneys, it is our job to provide the best pool of candidates to you. You can see our searchable map as well as search by specific practices in our Find A Lawyer Section. We inquire thousands of past & current clients, judges, and fellow attorneys to create our “Top Tier Lawyers” list of highly qualified attorneys. So, after deciding which type of lawyer you need (which practice area your case or controversy falls under), simply use the search function to filter by location (state or city) and by practice area within the chosen location – the results will provide you with an actionable list of candidates. You can then decide which attorney(s) from these results to contact and meet with. The rest is up to you!
Some people use referrals from friends or family. However, non-legal professionals are typically not the best at rating legal professionals. Just because your friend’s neighbor Bob is a nice guy and a lawyer who did their taxes, this doesn’t qualify him as a skilled legal representative for your specific needs. The lawyer on TV with goofy cartoon characters or his children may or may not be qualified. While it could work out, we do not recommend following a single person’s referral.
While reviewing the profiles of lawyers, look for lots of positive and negative signs. Good questions to ask yourself as you review the results in the “Find a lawyer” section: How does their firm or business website look? Does it present a professional image? Do you get the impression that they are a “client-centered” provider of legal services? Am I seeing good feedback on this lawyer? How quickly were they responsive to my inquiries? Are they on time? Have they done similar cases like mine in the past? Hold onto alot of these questions!
Once you have found a lawyer or lawyers you want to speak with – it’s time to set up a consultation.
After choosing the right attorney(s) to call and then meet, it is important to have a good understanding of the type of information you should seek at the initial consultation. (Some attorneys offer free consultations, but be sure to confirm this is true so you are not welcomed with a surprise fee). Contact your prospective lawyer and set up a meeting with them at a convenient time for you both. Before the meeting you should write down a list of questions you want to ask. Some clients prefer to bring a pad and writing utensil so that they can write down and relevant information. Below is a list of questions you should review as you prepare for the meeting.
Should you decide to move forward and retain an attorney, they will likely expect a full or partial payment for their services (this payment, for non-contingency representation, is referred to as a “retainer”). In addition, you should take with you any relevant material, documents, or evidence you have in your possession or can access relatively easily that may help you accurately present your situation to them.
When you meet them, after the initial greeting you will explain your situation to them. Generally they will give you some commentary either during or afterwards so listen carefully to what they are saying to you. While we can’t give you some specific questions you should ask for your particular situation, here are some general or generic questions you may want to ask.
1. How long have you been practicing law?
Your situation may be handled very well by someone fresh out of law school but either way it is good to know to get an idea of how much expertise they may have.
2. What type of cases do you generally handle?
What percentage of your time is spent on the practice area of your concern? Be specific too, if your dealing with an adoption case make sure the family lawyer has some experience with these.
3. Who are your typical clients?
Do they mainly focus on corporations, college kids, high net-worth individuals? You wouldn’t want a lawyer who generally represents corporations represent you as an individual.
4. How many cases have you done similar to mine?
5. Do you practice in the courthouse where my case is?
It’s important to know if the lawyer if familiar with the judges and in a criminal case prosecutors. It allows them to better understand how things may play out in your case.
6. Do you have any special training outside a law degree that would apply to my situation?
Some cases like DUI, or Patent may require specialized training for the most effective representation.
7. What are your attorney fees and costs, and how are they billed?
Will a portion or all of my case be handled by paralegals or legal assistants? If they will be using paralegals and/or assistants ask about reduced cost. This is the time to get a clear understanding if you can afford the attorney and understand exactly when you will be billed what.
8. Do you have any conflicts of interest?
While they have an ethical obligation to inform you of this is never hurts to bring it up.
9. What is your style or approach to winning cases?
Kill em with kindness? Go for the jugular? Depending on your circumstance you may not want one of these types. At the very least it’s important you are on the same page.
10. Have you ever been sanctioned for, or accused of, attorney misconduct?
You have a right to know this and to understand what happened.
11. Does there need to be a trial?
Are there other ways for handling my legal needs? An attorney may not love this question but should tell you if there are less expensive ways and time consuming ways to solve your problem.
12. When will I hear from you?
It’s a good idea to know what to expect next rather than anxiously awaiting for a phone call.
13. What do you think the likely outcome of my case will be?
“Give it to me straight Doc” This is important to let you properly prepare what to do going forward.
14. What strategy do you propose?
They should be able to present to you the pros and cons of handling a case in different ways and why they think their strategy would be best.
15. What can I proactively do to help my situation?
They may or may not recommend doing some things but it never hurts to ask.
If a lawyer seems distracted or disinterested in things you are saying or rushes you or makes you feel that your questions are naive, he/she may not be the right person for you. Getting a clear understanding of who they are and how the process works increases the chance of having a solid and successful attorney-client relationship.