Something unfortunate has happened, and your solution involves our legal system. However, you may not be sure where to begin or who you can trust to get the help you need. While you probably do need an attorney, searching for legal help may seem overwhelming.
In fact, there is good reason to feel overwhelmed. There are approximately 6,000 lawyers in Sacramento County alone, which is just one of 58 counties in California. There are also thousands of national firms that advertise in the region, various subscription legal help plans, and countless online legal resources.
Where to begin? Let’s look at some steps to finding the legal assistance you need:
DO YOU REALLY NEED AN ATTORNEY?
Most of us are tempted by a DIY project that might save us money. With so much information online, individuals may be able to reasonably handle certain, straightforward situations on their own, such as:
- Writing a letter to a company that provided substandard service may resolve your dispute.
- Limited damage amounts might be appropriate for small claims court, where attorneys are generally not allowed.
- Minor, non-injury car accidents can typically be managed between representing insurance companies.
- With employment situations, you may need to exhaust options available to you directly with your employer and/or file a formal labor board complaint before being formally represented by an attorney.
However, there are many important reasons to consider hiring an attorney, including:
- The other side has retained legal counsel, putting you at a disadvantage.
- You are facing criminal charges and could go to jail.
- You feel unprepared and uncomfortable with navigating the legal process, dealing with the court system, or understanding legal rules, terms, documents, and procedures.
- Your situation is complicated. This includes a contentious divorce, larger estates, adoption, and complex business matters.
- Bodily injury is involved.
- Some types of cases do not allow pro se (meaning “for yourself”) legal representation. For example, a pro se litigant is not allowed to act as a class representative in a class-action lawsuit.
The risks of legal self-representation can be also costly. Common challenges with taking legal action on your own without an attorney include:
- Case-Specific Rules – Despite the wealth of information on the internet, there are numerous procedures and rules that apply to any given legal case. For instance, if a statute of limitation (a time limit for pursuing a case) is not met, you may lose your right to file a complaint altogether.
- Lack of Expertise — A competent lawyer has invaluable training and experience about the law as it relates to you, the legal process, and interacting with the court system. Lack of expertise can be a serious downfall in a complex situation.
- Unknown Rights – Your rights can easily be infringed upon if you aren’t aware of them. If the other side has legal representation, they can and will take advantage of this.
- High Stakes – Having an expert on your side is critical when you have a lot on the line. Losing your case may have life-changing consequences.
- Focus – When you represent yourself, you are acting as both the client and the attorney, requiring all of the time commitment, availability, emotional control, communication abilities, and resources that might be involved.
- Negotiations – Simply having legal representation paves the way for stronger negotiations, and your lawyer will know what constitutes a good deal and will make informed recommendations.
If your legal situation seems overwhelming, consider speaking with a lawyer. Some law firms offer a free case evaluation or a low-cost initial consultation.
WHAT TYPE OF LAW APPLIES TO YOUR SITUATION?
If you think you need legal representation, the next step is determining the type of attorney to best help with your particular problem.
There are specialty areas of law, just like with medicine. For instance, you wouldn’t consult with a brain surgeon about a broken toe!
Similar to a physician, a skilled attorney focuses on a certain scope of the law. There are nearly 20 major areas of law practice, with numerous subspecialties within each area. Here a just a few examples:
- Family Law – issues involving domestic partners and family units, such as divorce, adoption, alimony, and child custody.
- Criminal Law – related to violation of laws and punishment or rehabilitation of the offender.
- Personal Injury – negligence that results in harm to an individual, such as a vehicle collision, unsafe environment, or dangerous product.
- Labor/Employment Law – relations between workers and their employers, including wage theft, harassment, and wrongful termination.
In many legal fields, lawyers specialize in the representation of one side: the plaintiff (the party who is filing a legal case against another) or the defendant (the party against whom the complaint is made).
If you were hurt in a car accident, you would be a plaintiff – filing a legal complaint about the driver who hit you. Your ideal attorney would have experience representing victims and pursuing cases against reckless drivers and their insurance companies. The negligent driver would be the defendant. Generally, defense attorneys for car accidents are hired by the insurance company, not the individual driver.
Online legal articles and resources are a great way to get a basic understanding of what type of law you are dealing with, so you know what type of law firm you should contact.
A lawyer that practices law in many different areas may know a little about a lot, but will not be well-equipped to handle a case with complex issues or aggressive opposition. A lawyer that specializes in a limited area will have a deeper understanding of your legal options, a broader range of relevant resources, and established connections within the applicable court system.
Here at the Arnold Law Firm, we have legal teams with expertise in handling personal injury, employment law, class action, and qui tam cases. We take pride in aggressively representing our clients who have been injured, have witnessed fraud, or were wrongfully terminated from their jobs — but we would not be the firm to pick for your divorce or bankruptcy!
The bigger your reason for legal help, the more important it is to select the right attorney with experience dealing with your specific need.
HOW DO YOU SELECT THE RIGHT ATTORNEY FOR YOU?
Now that you have a general idea of the type of law that applies to your situation, there are several factors to consider to help choose a law firm that is a good fit for you.
Naturally, you want to hire a law firm that has a history of success in handling cases similar to yours. You can verify their competency and expertise in several ways:
- Recommendations – Ask your friends and family members if they have used an attorney who specializes in the field of law you need. You can also read online reviews.
- Results – Most law firms publish examples of case results and/or testimonial statements on their website. Make sure the firm has successfully handled cases that sound like yours. If you think your case may need to go to trial, find out how much trial experience the firm has and the judgments or verdicts they have won.
- State Bar Profile – Every lawyer licensed to practice must be listed in their state’s bar association directory. For California, you can check the State Bar of California website to see whether an attorney is in good standing.
Some types of cases can take months or even years to resolve for various reasons, such as evidence gathering, delays with scheduling courtroom proceedings, negotiations, and trials. Your law firm must have the resources, staff, and experience to manage the demands of your case. An established law firm with a successful history will be better able to meet the needs of larger, more complex cases.
The way legal services are billed varies between areas of law. For instance, a family law practice typically charges an upfront retainer before beginning representation, while a personal injury law firm usually works on a contingency or a percentage of the money they obtain for you.
Research what rates are common for the type of legal services you need. Your law firm should explain its cost structure clearly and answer any questions you may have before you hire them.
Because legal proceedings take time, attorneys work on multiple cases over that span of time. It is important that your lawyer has an effective legal team to collaborate with for overall case management. Make sure there are multiple contacts that you can communicate with about your case. There may be times when you interact more regularly with a paralegal or case manager than your attorney.
Legal cases are often associated with life-altering events. Your law firm should be there to advise and support you through your case.
Look for a law firm that treats you with respect and is interested in understanding and addressing your individual needs. Having a situation that is significant enough to require legal representation is stressful by itself. Your law firm should be willing to explain the legal process and how it may impact you, so you feel informed when making decisions.