Some disputes can be resolved without the assistance of an attorney, but there are certain situations in which legal representation can be invaluable. For example, if you have been charged with a crime, a conviction can be devastating for many areas of your life. You may not want to risk going through the process on your own. Similarly, if you have been seriously injured in an accident, your family may be coping with heavy financial burdens. Hiring a lawyer may be critical to making sure that an insurer does not take advantage of you and that you get the money needed to deal with your injuries.
Lawyers in Civil Cases
When an individual or business sues another individual or business, this is a civil case. The party suing, known as the plaintiff, can seek damages or sometimes a court order (or both) against the party being sued, known as the defendant. Damages are money paid to compensate the plaintiff for harm caused by the defendant. A court order, often known as an injunction, requires the defendant to do or not do something that affects the plaintiff.
You may need a lawyer in a civil case if there is a large amount of money at stake or if the matter is emotionally significant to you. For example, if you were hit by a truck and suffered severe spinal cord damage, you might need millions of dollars in compensation. You may want to hire a lawyer who can retain experts and collect medical documentation, which may be hard to do on your own while you are recovering. For another example, if you are fighting with your ex-spouse over who gets custody of your kids, you may want a legal professional to protect your interests so that you can preserve your role in the lives of your children.
Another common reason to hire a lawyer in a civil case is because the matter is technically sophisticated. If you are litigating a patent dispute or a securities fraud claim, a lawyer who has the relevant expertise may be able to present your position in a more persuasive way, using the language of the industry.
Lawyers in Criminal Cases
Except for some cases involving minor traffic tickets, hiring a lawyer in a criminal case is almost always a wise decision. You have a right to counsel under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in cases in which you may face criminal penalties. (This may or may not include DUI, depending on the state.) The constitutional right to counsel means that you are entitled to representation by an attorney in a criminal proceeding, whether or not you can pay for the attorney. This means that if you cannot pay, a public defender will be provided for you, as stated in the Miranda warnings upon a suspect’s arrest.
Unless you are indigent, you should think twice before using a public defender instead of a private attorney. While public defenders may be dedicated to protecting the rights of their clients, their caseloads tend to be overwhelming, preventing them from communicating consistently with clients or paying careful attention to each case. By contrast, a private attorney can review the details of your arrest and the events leading up to it with an eye toward identifying and developing defenses that may not be obvious at first glance. Many private attorneys offer flexible fee arrangements to account for clients with limited means, and most at least offer free initial consultations to explain what they can do for you.
If you are involved in an investigation or are under suspicion, you may find it worthwhile to hire an attorney, even if you have not been formally charged. (However, you do not have a right to a public defender under the Constitution at this stage.) A criminal attorney can try to persuade prosecutors not to bring charges and make sure that they have your side of the story. This can end the process before it begins, reducing the stress on your family and you.
Lawyers in Other Proceedings
Some legal matters occur outside conventional courtrooms, such as administrative proceedings involving government benefits. While the rules are generally more relaxed in these settings, the issue of whether you get workers’ compensation, Social Security, or unemployment benefits can be critical to your financial stability. If your case is straightforward, you may be able to handle these proceedings on your own. If complexities arise, or if the outcome seems in doubt, an attorney may be instrumental in gathering and presenting evidence on your behalf.
Another distinctive area in which lawyers can offer vital assistance is immigration court. You may think that being deported from the United States is a criminal matter, yet it is technically not classified as criminal under U.S. law. Thus, you do not have a right to an attorney in immigration court, although there are many legal aid organizations that advocate for immigrants and offer free or low-cost assistance. Since being deported can have severe personal and family repercussions, you should strongly consider getting one of these attorneys on your side. Immigration law is very technical and complex, so you may have a stronger argument to stay in this country than you realize.
You may also wonder whether you even have a case, or whether someone has a legitimate case against you. The broad range of legal resources available online makes it easier for non-lawyers to research the laws that apply to a certain issue. Each situation is different, however, and you may be unsure about which law applies to your case or whether a certain standard is likely to be met. You can consult a lawyer for advice to help guide your decision-making, even if you are not involved in litigation and do not need representation in court. Your representation agreement should reflect the scope of this assistance.