There are over 1.33 million lawyers in the United States. For a person who suddenly finds themselves needing a lawyer, whether to plan their estate, or to represent them in a labor dispute, or perhaps even to aid them in a criminal defense, getting legal help can seem daunting. So here’s how you can simplify your search for legal help.
Figure Out What Kind of Lawyer You Need
The first thing you need to do is figure out the kind of lawyer you need. That narrows down your search. So your first question is, “What’s my legal problem?”, and let’s say that problem is, “I need to plan my estate”, then you need an estate lawyer. If, however, your answer is, “I need to sue for an injury sustained at a hotel”, then you need a personal injury lawyer. Once you define your problem, you can narrow down the kind of lawyer you need.
Once you know the kind of expertise you are looking for, you can look for lawyers who have that expertise. Most states have special certifications for certain kinds of law. Some specialities even have their own certification programs, like the National Elder Law Foundation, or the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils. Check to see if your lawyer is certified in that field, either with the state or with the field’s association.
You should also check to see how often your lawyer or the law firm you are working with, deals with cases such as yours. If you can get a breakdown of their caseload, say, 50% personal injury, 35% estate planning, and 15% divorce, then that will tell you how often they get to deal with cases like yours. Often, lawyers aren’t certified, so this shouldn’t disqualify a lawyer. A lawyer may be an expert without getting certification, so seeing how their cases break down is a good indicator of their expertise.
Friends and family are a good start, but often this is not enough. Each case is different and just because one lawyer got your cousin Marty out of a jam doesn’t mean that that lawyer is the lawyer you need.
Typically, your community should have some kind of “Lawyer Referral Service” that can help you find a lawyer. These services will refer you to a lawyer, who will be able to assess your situation and give guidance. Other services offer help to specific groups, such as immigrants, people with disabilities, victims of domestic violence, and the elderly.
You should also speak to the state, community, or county bar association. They will be able to guide you based on the kind of legal problem you have. So, for instance, if you have a personal injury case, they may direct you to californialawfirm.net. Referral services generally have criteria which lawyers must meet for them to be referred. So when you are referred to them, you will have some guarantee of competence in the area you are having trouble with. The American Bar Association maintains a directory of lawyers for every state.
You should check for yourself that any lawyer you are referred to has the kind of expertise and experience you are looking for.
Check for Reputation
Google and Facebook reviews are excellent resources. They will show you how highly rated a particular lawyer is by their clients. Bar associations will also maintain a record of every lawyer’s disciplinary record. You can also check with the Clerk of the Court to see if the lawyer you are considering hiring has any disciplinary issues.
Set Your Budget
The cost of legal representation is high and rising. Even for people facing charges of first-degree misdemeanors or worse, face budget constraints. According to the 2021 Legal Trends Report, the average hourly fee for lawyers ranges from $206 per hour in Alaska to $373 per hour in the District of Columbia. In addition, rates depend on the practice area of the lawyer you want. For instance, a criminal defense law firm typically costs $176 per hour, whereas a personal injury law firm will charge $218 per hour. Figuring out what kind of costs you are likely to face will help you pick the right lawyer. The more experienced the lawyer, obviously the higher their fees.
Check to See if You Have Legal Insurance
Some people have legal insurance as part of their employment contracts. If you have legal insurance, then you will be able to bear some or all of the costs of legal representation. You may even have legal insurance as part of some other insurance package. For instance, homewoner’s insurance comes with other protections such as defamation insurance. Your insurer may even be able to refer you to lawyers. Your employer or union are also places you should go to get referrals. Often, they will have funds to help with legal fees. Many retailers and credit card companies also offer legal insurance to customers.
If You’re Facing Criminal Prosecution, But Can’t Afford an Attorney
At this point, you may decide that your budget simply cannot meet the costs of legal representation. That’s OK. The Constitution guarantees your right to legal representation if you are facing the prospect of six months of incarceration or more. Some state constitutions extend that right to lesser charges. So, if you can’t afford a lawyer, you should inform the judge, who will appoint a government public defender, or a private lawyer working to represent you. In either case, you will not have to pay a fee. Studies show that court-appointed criminal defense attorneys are just as likely as privately retained criminal defense attorneys to get a favorable adjudication and sentencing outcome for their clients.
Other Free Resources
Federal and state government departments and agencies typically have lawyers who are there to help members of the public for free but in limited situations. So, you should consider approaching a federal agency for specific problems, such as employment or housing discrimination, or environmental protection problems.
The state Attorney General will also be able to help advise you on relevant laws, again at no cost. If you have a customer protection issue, many states have a department related to that in the Attorney General’s office. You can also find government lawyers in the law departments of cities, counties and townships.