Most people will go through life without ever hiring a lawyer. Or, if they do, their problem will tell them exactly what type of lawyer they need.
But occasionally, you may run into a difficult legal problem and not know what type of lawyer you need. You might not even know if you have a legal remedy to solve your problem.
Here is some information about what different types of lawyers are there for you.
The most common issue handled by family lawyers is divorce. A divorce attorney represents a spouse in dissolving a marriage. After the dissolution, the couple is returned to the legal status of unmarried and single. This allows them to remarry if they choose.
Before finalizing a divorce, the couple must resolve four primary issues:
- Child custody: Child custody includes physical custody — where the child will live and how much visitation the other parent has — and legal custody — how decisions that affect the child’s life will be made. In most states, judges prefer to have both parents involved in raising their child. But this does not mean that they receive equal time or that abusive parents receive full, unsupervised access to the child. Each parent’s fitness will be accounted for in a test called the ‘best interests of the child’ test.
- Child support: Parents are responsible for providing for their child’s material needs. Child support determinations are made based on the child’s needs and the parent’s resources. Typically, the parents both contribute to supporting the child financially, although a custodial parent usually gets an offset according to the amount of time the parent spends with the child.
- Property division: The couple must divide their property. Some states use community property which divides property acquired during the marriage equally. Most states use equitable division which allows a judge to deviate from an equal division to account for fairness and different financial resources of each spouse.
- Spousal support: Also known as alimony, spousal support is intended to help the ex-spouses live at the same standard of living established during the marriage. It is also awarded based on evening out the burdens during marriage. For example, if one spouse puts aside a career to support the other’s career, the supporter will probably receive alimony from the supported.
But family law attorneys handle more than just divorces. Some of the more obscure roles a family attorney might handle include:
- Surrogacy: If a couple cannot have a biological child, many states allow them to hire a surrogate. Surrogacy agreements are very complicated and highly regulated by law. A couple hiring a surrogate will probably need a family lawyer to write the agreement.
- Adoption: Family lawyers can help a couple adopt a child. This usually includes looking over the adoption agency’s paperwork to make sure the biological parents have property surrendered their parental rights. It also includes guiding the couple through any background checks or home checks. Finally, the family lawyer appears at an adoption hearing with a family court judge to finalize the adoption.
- Guardianship: When adults are not able to care for themselves, a friend or family member can petition for guardianship. The guardian acts as the agent for the ward. In most cases, they can enter into legal agreements, conduct financial transactions, and make healthcare decisions on behalf of the ward. This process is often used by children of parents with dementia and parents of adult children with disabilities.
Some might assume that traffic law and criminal defense law are the same. But in many states, traffic infractions are not criminal offenses. Instead, they are considered ‘infractions’ that can earn you a fine and points on your driving record but cannot land you in jail.
As a result, many firms focus strictly on resolving traffic tickets for clients. A traffic offense lawyer usually spends most of the day in court representing client after client in getting traffic tickets reduced or dismissed. For those tickets that cannot be reduced or dismissed, the traffic lawyer will try to negotiate a payment plan with the court for fines assessed.
But the reason you might need a traffic lawyer to handle your ticket might have nothing to do with the fine or the points on your driving record. If you caused a car accident and received a traffic ticket, the traffic ticket creates a presumption that you are liable for the accident in most states. By battling the traffic ticket and getting it dismissed, you can force the insurers to look at the facts rather than just assuming you caused the accident because you got the ticket.
Criminal law involves the use of state resources to punish you for a criminal violation. If someone breaks a criminal statute, the state is responsible for prosecuting the case against them. It can be very intimidating to know that the resources of the entire state can be used against you in a criminal case.
A criminal defense law firm evens the scales. A criminal defense lawyer is there to protect your rights against overreach by the government. For example, some issues a criminal lawyer might watch for include:
- Constitutional violations: The U.S. and state constitutions guarantee due process and protect against unreasonable searches and arrests. This means a police officer must have probable cause to search your car or home. The police must also have probable cause to arrest you. If they fail to meet these standards, the case could be dismissed.
- Burden of persuasion: The prosecution bears the burden of persuasion in a criminal case. This is where the phrase ‘innocent until proven guilty’ comes from. The prosecution must prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt for a conviction. Your lawyer’s role is to test the evidence so that the jury has a full understanding of what it shows and does not show when deciding whether the prosecution has met the burden.
- Plea bargaining: Sometimes, the prosecution charges you for something you did not do in the hopes that you will plead guilty to a lesser charge. The lawyer’s role is to advise you about your criminal exposure and whether you can work out a deal to avoid consequences you do not deserve.
But a criminal law firm might not stop at criminal prosecutions. Some criminal defense lawyers also handle quasi-criminal actions like licensing hearings and civil punishments. Some examples of non-criminal matters handled by some criminal lawyers include:
- Actions by state licensing boards to suspend the license of a lawyer, doctor, contractor, or other licensed professional.
- Actions by a prosecutor to seize property under civil forfeiture laws. For example, many states allow prosecutors to seize automobiles used in drug trafficking or property bought with drug money.
- Actions by a city to evict a property owner for code violations like a messy yard or vermin on the property.
A bankruptcy attorney has a well-defined set of issues to deal with. U.S. Bankruptcy Courts have limited jurisdiction to deal with issues in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. They cannot hear any issues that are unrelated to a bankruptcy. As a result, most of the matters handled by a bankruptcy lawyer flow directly from U.S. bankruptcy laws.
In a typical bankruptcy case, the petitioner files for bankruptcy protection under one of two chapters:
- Chapter 7: A bankruptcy filed under chapter 7 triggers a liquidation. This means that the debtor’s assets are sold off and the proceeds of the sale are used to pay the creditors. After all the assets are used up, the remaining debts are discharged and the debtor has no legal obligation to pay them. Some debts are not dischargeable. For example, student loans, taxes, child support, and alimony are not dischargeable in bankruptcy. But aside from those debts, the debtor emerges from a liquidation debt-free but loses most of their property.
- Chapter 13: A bankruptcy filed under chapter 13 triggers a reorganization. This means the debtor creates a plan to repay the debts, but on different terms than they were incurred. For example, the repayment plan might ask the creditors to reduce the debt or extend the time for repayment. Based on this plan, the debtor is usually allowed to keep all their property.
Bankruptcy lawyers do not just help you through a bankruptcy. They can also help you avoid a bankruptcy. Some legal problems besides bankruptcy that can be handled by most bankruptcy lawyers include:
- Debt settlement: A bankruptcy lawyer might be able to renegotiate a debt for you. For example, if you are burdened by high monthly payments, a bankruptcy lawyer might renegotiate the debt to a longer term, but lower monthly payments. Likewise, if you have a large debt coming due, a bankruptcy lawyer might be able to negotiate payments so you do not have to pay all at once.
- Collection activities: A bankruptcy lawyer might be able to end collection activities like endless phone calls and mountains of collection letters. A bankruptcy lawyer can help you negotiate payment of the debt, ending the debt collection agency’s actions.
- Execution activities: When a creditor gets a court judgment against you, the judgment creditor can use the full force of the court system to get their money. For example, the judgment creditor can get a writ of garnishment to take part of your wages, a court order to force your bank to turn over funds from your bank account, or even direct the sheriff’s department to seize your property and sell it at auction. A bankruptcy lawyer can defend you against a judgment creditor’s execution activities.
Injury lawyers help people recover compensation for injuries resulting from the intentional or negligent actions of a person or business. The most visible role a personal injury lawyer plays is auto injury lawyer.
In a typical car accident case, an injury lawyer follows a set process:
- File an insurance claim: In a no-fault state, each driver files a claim with their own insurer, regardless of fault. In an at-fault state, the drivers file a claim with the the insurer for the driver who caused the accident. In either case, a claim adjuster will review the claim and either accept or deny it.
- Negotiate a settlement: If the insurer denies the claim, the injury lawyer battles with the insurer to try to settle the claim without filing a lawsuit.
- File a lawsuit: When no settlement can be reached, the injury lawyer files a lawsuit against the at-fault driver and names the insurance company as an additional party through a procedure called impleader. The filing of a lawsuit can sometimes push an insurer into settling a case. But if it does not settle, the lawyer takes the case to trial and presents evidence of the at-fault driver’s negligence to a jury.
But a personal injury lawyer is more than an auto accident injury attorney. An injury lawyer can help with all kinds of injury cases including:
- Dog bites: When you are injured in a dog attack, you may be able to pursue compensation from the dog’s owner. Some states impose strict liability on dog owners for dog bites. Other states require dog bite victims to prove negligence.
- Slip-and-falls: People and businesses are responsible for keeping their premises free from unreasonable hazards. If they negligently fail to uphold this duty, they are liable for damages. For example, a shop that fails to clean up a spill after being told about it by a customer could be liable when someone slips in the puddle.
- Product liability: A person injured by a defective product can sue the manufacturer of the product for damages. This includes injuries that occur over time, like chemicals in a pesticide that cause cancer after years of exposure.
Figuring out what types of lawyers are there for me can be complicated. Many lawyers do more than the name of their practice area might suggest. But understanding who you should call is critical to protecting your legal rights.