Are you looking to hire a lawyer? Did you know that not all attorneys are the same? In the medical profession, practice specialties are recognized, and a physician who wishes to focus his practice, can undergo further training and an examination to be certified as a medical specialist. For example, if you break a bone, you know you need help from an orthopedic doctor or surgeon. Not so in the legal profession. With few exceptions, and particularly in Missouri and Kansas, there is no recognition of legal specialties. While an attorney may restrict his or her practice to a certain legal discipline, there is no central authority that certifies that an attorney has any particular expertise or experience in his chosen field of practice. Some attorneys, particularly those practicing in small communities, pursue a general practice, as to confine one’s practice to a specific discipline may make it difficult to even earn a living.
How Do I Know If A Lawyer is Qualified To Handle My Case?
There are organizations connected to the legal field, usually with some marketing angle, that recognize lawyers for their general expertise and accomplishments. Some of these are what might be considered “paid for” honors. There is little the recognized attorney may have done to achieve this particular recognition aside from paying a fee to be so-recognized. Other organizations do conduct research on the attorneys. They conduct peer reviews and require nominations before any type of recognition is considered. See, e.g. Martindale-Hubbell, Super Lawyers and Best Lawyers in America. While recognition from such organizations is coveted and bespeaks at least some level of validation of an attorney’s skills, there is nothing that compares to the certification process in the medical profession. Hence, with few exceptions (e.g. Texas), once an attorney graduates from law school and passes the bar examination, a lawyer, is a lawyer, is a lawyer. He or she can choose to practice any legal specialty, irrespective of any certification.
In a profession that makes no legal distinction between practitioners, how is the general public to discern whether a given lawyer possesses the skills and experience to tackle a given legal issue? The following are general inquiries that can be made to distinguish between self-declared legal practitioners:
- What do you consider your primary area of practice? What types of matters does that practice area include?
- Have you received any recognition from outside organizations for your work in your declared field of practice?
- How long have you been practicing, and how long have you limited your practice to the field you have declared?
- Can you give me the names of representative clients who I may call as references?
- Do you refer certain matters to other attorneys? What types of matters do you refer? Have you ever referred a matter similar to mine to another attorney? Why?
- Do you accept legal representation in other practice areas? How many? What are they?
- Do you work and bill by the hour? Do you offer any alternative modes of billing? Contingent fee (allowed only in civil cases)? Fixed fee billing? How is your fee determined? Are there any other charges I can expect beyond your legal fee?
- If so, what else might I be billed for? Copying? Telephone charges? Paralegal or secretarial time? Mileage? Postage and mailing?
How Do I Pay My Lawyer?
Only personal injury attorneys who handle cases on behalf of injured parties charge contingent fees or percentage fees. Some commercial attorneys do so for business litigation. Most other attorneys charge by the hour, or charge a fixed fee based on the typical time that would be committed to that activity. Some attorneys provide ongoing representation to an organization or an individual and typically receive a retainer (essentially a deposit against which future fees will be secured or billed). Purely “transactional” attorneys are those who perform one or a narrow series of tasks. Once those tasks are completed, the representation is concluded.
Examples of Attorney Practice Areas
- Civil Litigation. These attorneys handle lawsuits, when one party sues another. There are attorneys who typically only represent the injured or offended party (Plaintiff’s attorneys), and others who represent the party being sued (Defense attorneys). Plaintiff’s attorneys typically bill by a percentage or contingent fee, which varies depending on the risk the attorney is undertaking. Defense attorneys, by contrast, work by the hour, though on occasion when a law firm does a large book of business for a given client (e.g. General Motors), they may quote and receive an annual fee based on projections of the amount of work to be done, thereby dispensing with hourly billing.
- Criminal Litigation. Prosecutors work on a salary that is paid by the state, city or county. Defense attorneys typically work either by the hour or one some negotiated fixed amount (e.g. an attorney might handle your D.U.I. for a fixed sum). Criminal attorneys are not allowed to engage in a contingent fee. Attorneys in this field defend or prosecute cases when the government files charges against an individual for a specific state or federal statute. Crimes are generally classified as misdemeanors (lesser infractions generally punishable by no more than 1-year in jail) or felonies (serious offenses that result in heavy fines and/or incarceration for longer than 1-year).
- Domestic or Family Law. Separation agreements. Adoption. Name changes. Pre-nuptial agreements. All of these fall under the general heading of domestic law. Domestic attorneys typically bill by the hour and take a retainer for the expected work that will be done. A retainer can be handled one of two ways: Either the retainer will be billed against, and if the amount of the retainer is reduced to $0, the attorney will ask that the retainer be replenished, or the attorney will bill periodically, keeping the retainer as security in the event bills are not paid.
- Taxation. There are more taxing authorities than the I.R.S. States tax. Cities tax. Businesses are taxed for sales and use. A taxation attorney may confine his/her practice to a specific area of taxation. Essentially, any issue that arises with respect to the imposition, collection or reporting of taxes, falls within the general practice of a taxation attorney. Tax attorneys typically bill by the hour, but for certain routine functions (e.g. filing your personal I.R.S. return), a fixed charge may be imposed. When tax disputes result in litigation initiated by the I.R.S. or a state department of revenue, some tax attorneys specialize in the litigation of tax matters.
- Probate, wills, trusts and estate planning. Here, there may be some cross-over with tax attorneys. Most estates are small enough that inheritance or estate taxes are inconsequential, rarely calling for estate planning to handle such taxes. By contrast, many people can benefit from a will, or at least would benefit by consulting with a wills attorney to see if their wishes at death or incapacity will be met by an instrument (will or trust) or by operation of certain state statutes that dictate how estates will be distributed at death in the absence of a will (called “intestate succession”). When there are disputes about enforcement of a will or interpretation of a will, such conflicts can result in “probate” litigation. While some attorneys in this general field confine their practice to the wills, trusts and planning side, others engage in probate litigation. In disputed will litigation, some attorneys seeking to collect money, may use contingent fees. By contrast, nearly every other practitioner in this field either works on an hourly basis or charges a fixed fee (e.g. $500 for a “simple” will).
- Business or corporate attorneys. These attorneys handle a host of legal issues that arise from incorporation. Such attorneys may do work for the full array of different business forms, including partnerships, sole proprietorships, and limited liability companies. Business attorneys generally charge by the hour, and in many instances, there hourly rates are among the highest in the legal profession. A law firm, will many times, represent a corporation in any and all of its legal issues. Business attorneys handle establishing corporations, partnerships or limited liability companies. They negotiate contracts and mergers or acquisitions of other companies.
- Property damage and insurance disputes. Attorneys who undertake personal injury matters frequently handle these matters as well. However, many restrict their practice to first party insurance claims. Specifically, those related to fires, storm damage and other casualty losses when an individual is suing his/her own insurance company to cover a casualty loss.
- Municipal court, tickets and minor infractions. A criminal attorney many times undertakes minor infractions as well. However, it is not uncommon for an attorney to practice solely in municipal courts. Such attorneys handle traffic tickets, D.U.I.’s, and other infractions that typically would result in fines, rather than incarceration. Municipal attorneys usually handle a ticket or infraction for a fixed fee and require payment “up front.” The best attorneys have established relationships with municipal prosecutors and with municipal judges to negotiate the best results for their clients.
- Immigration. Some attorneys specialize in matters for either illegal or resident aliens. They can assist with deportation, naturalization, visas and other special services or needs of non-citizens. Such attorneys frequently are multi-lingual or have access to services that can interpret for non-English speaking clients. They can frequently assist U.S. citizens traveling abroad with visas for education, work or other uses.
- Workers Compensation. If you have been injured on the job, your only recourse for compensation may be through workers compensation. Employers who have the minimum number of employees (e.g. in Missouri an employer who has 5 or more employees, except the construction industry), is required to carry workers compensation insurance to cover employees injured on the job. The damages that may be covered are limited, but generally easier to prove than a typical personal injury lawsuit. An injured worker is required to go through workers compensation for needed medical care and can make a claim for any permanent injury. Many personal injury attorneys restrict their practice to workers compensation, while many other personal injury attorneys do not accept workers compensation cases at all. At times, when the on-the-job injury is caused by a third party who is otherwise not an employee of the same employer, there may be a separate lawsuit undertaken by a personal injury lawyer. A good workers compensation attorney will be vigilant for third-party claims and may be prepared to refer you to an attorney for such a claim. Claimant’s attorneys also typically work on a contingent fee, and in most states, the maximum fee is set by legislation.
- Employment discrimination and harassment. While many personal injury attorneys also venture into this sub-specialty, it is a unique and challenging field. Most such attorneys also work for a contingent fee, but if a case is tried and won by the employee, frequently the attorneys fees can be recovered in addition to any judgment. Employees who have been discriminated against or harassed due to race, gender, national origin, age, disability or religion, have recourse. Others who have been fired from employment in retaliation for undertaking protected activity, such as those making workers compensation claims or complaints to certain government agencies, may need the assistance of an attorney in this field.
The preceding examples are not an exhaustive list of the full range of legal specialties. Many attorneys work “in house” for businesses or hold attorney positions in government. If you need an attorney, you may have to do more work to find an attorney that fits your needs. There are many good attorneys in all such fields. Make sure you find the right one.