When faced with a legal problem, many people don't know how to begin looking for a attorney. Attorneys—and the law—can seem unfamiliar and intimidating. But the process is easier if you first understand a few things about attorneys and the ways they can help you. Here are three steps that will help you find the attorney that's right for you and your situation.
Step 1: What's your problem or issue?
In the same way that many doctors are specialists, most attorneys focus their legal practice on one or a few broad areas of law. This is good for clients because it means you'll get an attorney who has the experience and knowledge to give you good advice and do your work efficiently. You can start your attorney search by figuring out which legal “practice area" your problem or issue falls into.
Some of the most common legal practice areas include:
- Estate planning, such as wills, trusts, and issues involving the elderly
- Business law, including business formation, contracts, and business disputes
- Intellectual property: trademarks, copyrights and patents
- Family law, which includes divorces and adoptions
- Labor and employment law, or anything related to the relationship between employers and employees
- Real estate law, including property sales, leases, and disputes
Next, jot down some more specific concerns. For example, if you decide you need an estate planning attorney, you might want someone with experience setting up estate plans involving family businesses. If you are hiring a business attorney, you might benefit from the insights of someone who works with other clients in your industry.
Step 2: Transactional attorney or litigator?
On TV, attorneys are always going to court. But many real attorneys never set foot inside a courtroom. These attorneys, known as “transactional" attorneys, prepare documents, negotiate deals, and help their clients avoid problems. A transactional attorney might draft a contract, prepare a will and trust, set up a business, or review a lease.
Litigators are the courtroom attorneys. They help their clients resolve disputes through settlement, arbitration, or a lawsuit. You might hire a litigator for a personal injury lawsuit, a business dispute, or an age discrimination claim.
Some law firms have both transactional attorneys and litigators, but most individual attorneys tend to do one or the other, depending on their skills and temperament. In looking for a attorney, be aware of whether you need a transactional attorney or a litigator.
Step 3: Searching for and screening attorneys
Once you understand the type of attorney you need, you can begin looking for someone. Most city and county bar associations have online directories and/or attorney referral services. You can also ask friends or business associates for recommendations, or do an internet search for the practice area you need in your locality, for example, “bankruptcy attorney in Kansas City."
If you have a transactional issue that doesn't require highly specialized advice—say you need a basic will or want to form a business or register a trademark—keep in mind that an online legal service provider such as LegalZoom may also be an easy and affordable option.
Review some attorney websites, find two or three attorneys who look like a good match, and schedule a consultation. Many attorneys do these for free, and it is an excellent way to get a better understanding of your legal issue and the kind of help you will need. At the consultation, see if the attorney seems knowledgeable about your problem and find out how they would approach it. Also get the attorney's fee, and try to get an estimate of the total cost to handle your case.
Step 4: Decide whether to hire an attorney, and which one
After your consultations, you may decide to hire one of the attorneys you spoke with, or you may discover that you are not ready to hire anyone yet. You may have gotten enough information to resolve a dispute on your own, or you may decide it would be more cost-effective to use an online legal service provider. The choice is yours—do your homework and you'll make the right one.