Lawyer FAQs

What is a Lawyer?

A lawyer is someone who provides legal advice and counsel on behalf of someone involved in a legal dispute or legal issue. Also called attorneys or counselors, lawyers typically represent people before a governing body (such as a court) by conducting legal research, gathering relevant documents and witnesses, drafting written briefs, presenting oral arguments, and negotiating legal rights and responsibilities of their clients. To become a lawyer, a person must complete at least three years of intensive legal education and training, take and pass a rigorous state licensing exam (known as the "bar exam"), and pass a personal and moral fitness test.

I'm new to the United States and need an attorney. Can I hire a notary public instead?

While some other countries use the terms "notary public" and "lawyer" interchangeably, that is not the case in the United States. Here, notary publics are commissioned by their state of residence to witness and authenticate signatures on legally binding documents. They do not advise on legal matters or otherwise practice law, although some lawyers also are notary publics.

What are a lawyer's primary responsibilities?

Lawyers, by virtue of a state's bar admission, are expected to both uphold the law and protect the rights of their clients. In addition to actually knowing the law, particularly within his or her practice area, an attorney must be able to communicate clearly with their clients, work competently to resolve their clients needs, and be ethical in the performance of their overall handling of a case.

What do lawyers do? Do they spend most of their time arguing cases in court?

The practice of law is more than just appearing in court on behalf of a client. While there are many lawyers who argue cases before a judge, there are just as many lawyers who never step foot in a courtroom. But whether in or out of court, lawyers spend a great deal of time in an office handling a variety of tasks pertaining to their clients case - such as researching new developments in the law, preparing legal documents, and giving legal advice.

What are the requirements for becoming a lawyer?

To become a lawyer, one must first complete special training and meet other professional requirements. Although each state has its own standards for licensing attorneys, most states require hopeful lawyers to obtain an undergraduate degree, and then graduate from an accredited law school. Once the formal education is complete, they must also take and pass the state's Bar Examination (a rigid test of knowledge in all fields of law), submit to investigation into their moral character and fitness to practice law, and be sworn in by the state or federal Supreme Court.

May a lawyer who is licensed in one state practice law in another state?

No. Lawyers must comply with a state's bar admission requirements in order to practice law in that state. However, some states allow out-of-state attorneys to practice law if they have a certain amount of legal experience and receive approval from the state's highest court. Sometimes attorneys may participate in specific cases in states where they lack a license to do so, referred to as a "pro hac vice" (or "for this one particular occasion") appearance.

May I hire a non-lawyer for a legal problem?

It depends on the situation and the breadth of service, since only lawyers may practice law. Paralegals, for example, may represent you in certain situations involving complaints against a government agency (such as a dispute over Social Security benefits). You may also represent yourself in court, hire a notary public, or work with law students (under the supervision of a lawyer) under certain circumstances.

Read Help From NonLawyers.

How much do lawyer's cost?

It depends. Attorneys typically charge by the hour, based on their level of experience and other factors, but sometimes they charge a flat fee for certain transactions. While a one- or two-hour visit might cost a few hundred dollars (sometimes the first consultation is free), an ongoing legal dispute or issue can cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. On the other hand, some personal injury attorneys don't collect a dime unless you win your case.

More on Attorney Fees and Costs

In addition to billable hours, what other costs can lawyer's charge for?

Lawyers bill for a wide variety of expenses and costs in addition to their hourly or flat fee. These costs include (but are not limited to) filing fees, court costs, paralegal and staff time, postage, court reporter costs, expert fees, investigators and travel expenses.

More on Types of Legal Costs

Where can I find a lawyer?

Lawyers often advertise their services and can be found in phone books and online directories. Visit FindLaw's extensive lawyer directory to search for a lawyer by name, location, law firm, or legal issue.

What questions should I ask a lawyer before hiring one?

The types of questions you ask may vary, depending on your situation, but here are a few suggestions:

  • What is your legal specialty?
  • How long have you practiced law?
  • How and how often do you bill?
  • Can you tell me whether I have a strong case without having to spend a lot of money?
  • How often will you update me on the status of my case?
  • What are my responsibilities as a client?

Read Ten Questions to Ask Your Potential Lawyer.

Where can I go to research an attorney?

You can check to see if a lawyer has been disciplined by checking with the state disciplinary organization, often through a state's bar association website.

Read Researching Attorney Discipline.

I can't afford a lawyer. Where can I go for free legal help?

You may qualify for free legal help if you meet certain income requirements, especially if you are charged with a crime for which the sentence would deprive you of liberty (such as jail or prison time). For non-criminal matters, community legal clinics and lawyers working "pro bono" offer free legal services for those who qualify.

More on Getting Free or Low-Cost Legal Help

Next Steps

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