Most people never expect to hire a lawyer. However, when you need one, the importance of lawyers cannot be overstated. Lawyers are in a unique position to interpret city ordinances, state statutes, and court opinions to tell you what the law does, or does not, cover. Lawyers are also trained to give legal advice and develop a legal strategy based on your goals.
Law school is three years long and an undergraduate degree is required for admission. Law students come from varied backgrounds and this is one reason that lawyers develop interests in different fields of law. An economist might have a natural affinity for antitrust law while an artist might prefer copyright law.
Lawyers are regulated by the state bar association where they practice. All lawyers have to pass at least one bar examination, although some states waive the bar exam requirement for lawyers who have already passed the bar exam in a different state. The bar exam usually covers basic topics like contracts, real property law, criminal law, Constitutional law, and professional ethics. Thus, even when a lawyer focuses the lawyer’s practice on family law, the lawyer will still have some knowledge of criminal law.
Most lawyers practice within a particular field of interest to the lawyer. Very few states certify specialists in specified fields of law or allow lawyers to advertise that they “specialize” in any particular field. This is because the words “specialize” and “specialist” might mislead clients into believing that the lawyer has additional training in the legal field. However, most states allow lawyers to state that they “focus” on a particular field of law and that they have “experience” in that field.
Here are ten legal practice areas that you may seek out during your life:
This one is not listed first because it is the most likely. About 29.5% of American adults have been arrested for a felony during their lives. While this number is high, it is far more likely that you will be in a car accident or go through a divorce than be arrested.
However, you will definitely come to appreciate the importance of lawyers if you are ever involved in a criminal case. Most states define misdemeanors as crimes that are punishable by up to one year in jail while felonies can land you in jail or prison for substantially longer than one year. You could also face financial ruin due to fines and restitution orders. Trying to beat a criminal case without a criminal defense attorney might be the worst decision an accused defendant can face.
A criminal defense attorney is a critical part of the American judicial system. Criminal laws are complex and the state is held to the highest standard of proof when it tries to imprison you. Moreover, the state must adhere rigorously to the U.S. Constitution’s rules when collecting evidence against you and conducting your trial.
Criminal defense attorneys safeguard your Constitutional rights and ensure that the state meets all its burdens. If the state takes shortcuts or abuses its immense power in arresting you, searching for evidence, interviewing you, or trying you, the criminal defense attorney’s job is to bring those abuses to the attention of the judge to ensure the process is fair.
For example, in the U.S., the most common charges for people under the age of 23 are drug charges and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Many of these cases are conducted properly with the police observing unsafe or illegal behavior, questioning the accused, and arresting them. However, police dragnets that search people without cause or target people based on something other than unsafe or illegal behavior, such as race, might not hold up in court. In these cases, a criminal defense attorney can spot defects in the arrest and use them to help the accused.
Personal Injury Law
Personal injury law is the common name for tort law. Torts are economic, physical, or emotional injuries inflicted on another person due to intentional or negligent actions. Thus, any of the following could be handled by a personal injury lawyer:
- Battery: Someone throws a rock off a bridge and hits you.
- Medical malpractice: A doctor leaves a surgical instrument in you after surgery.
- Defamation: An ex-boyfriend publishes lies about you on a public website.
- Products liability: A company sells you tires that were incorrectly manufactured and are prone to tread separation.
- Premises liability: You slip on a spill in a grocery store that was known to the store manager but was not cleaned up.
However, most personal injury cases stem from auto accidents. Auto accident attorneys represent drivers, passengers, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians against a driver who caused an accident and the driver’s insurance company. The fault for an auto accident is usually established using the legal doctrine of negligence.
Negligence occurs when someone owes a duty of care, breaches that duty, and causes damages attributable to the breach. A driver who runs a stop sign and crashes into your car is negligent and would be responsible for any injuries and property damaged caused by the crash. If the driver is insured, the insurance company would have to pay out any claims, up to the policy limits, resulting from the crash.
Unfortunately, insurance companies are usually reluctant to pay claims, even when their insured was clearly liable. These kinds of cases emphasize the importance of lawyers. Surveys show that personal injury plaintiffs are more likely to get an insurance settlement and receive a larger settlement when they have a lawyer.
Family lawyers handle a variety of cases relating to the family. The most common reason to hire a family lawyer is for a divorce. Over 825,000 divorces are filed every year and most of these cases involve two attorneys (one for each spouse).
During a divorce, the importance of lawyers to the process becomes clear. Each spouse is fighting over limited assets. Without a lawyer to push back, a very unfair result could occur.
However, other cases often handled by family lawyers include:
- Child custody
- Name changes
- Juvenile delinquency
- Emancipation of minors
- Guardianship of disabled or elderly adults
Unlike a criminal lawyer, a family lawyer in most states appears in family court before a judge who only handles family law cases. This allows the judge to develop a familiarity with the specialized procedures and laws used in family law cases. For example, when a party is unable to represent themselves, like an elderly person with dementia, a disabled adult, or a minor child, family law judges can appoint someone to represent their interests in the proceeding.
When you sue someone you need a litigator. Often a case will not fall squarely into a particular area of law, so you will often hire a civil litigator who specializes in the procedures and rules used in lawsuits.
Contrary to popular belief, not all attorneys spend their time in court. Many attorneys practice before regulatory agencies like the Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Patent Office, or Securities and Exchange Commission. Still others focus on transactions, like negotiating and drafting sales contracts, loan agreements, and other legal documents.
However, when you file a lawsuit, you realize the importance of lawyers who specialize in litigation. Litigation takes a long time — some cases take years to be resolved. Moreover, litigation is complex and document-intensive.
For example, suppose you are litigating over the boundary of your property and whether your neighbor has encroached on your land. Even in this simple case, your litigator could have dozens of witnesses and hundreds of pages of documents in evidence. Even more than the importance of lawyers, you will realize the importance of legal staff. Their job is to keep track of all those documents, witness depositions, and court filings.
There are a few circumstances in which you would need an employment lawyer, but they are so serious that the importance of lawyers cannot be dismissed.
- Breach of contract: You have an employment contract and your employer breaches it. For example, your employer agrees to pay your moving expenses but fails to do so.
- Employment discrimination: Your employer deprives you of a job opportunity (like raises, time off, or training) based on your race, color, national origin, gender, religion, or age.
- Hostile work environment: Your employer creates, or fails to stop other employees from creating, a hostile work environment targeting your race, color, national origin, gender, religion, or age.
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claim: You have a disability but our employer refuses to accommodate it. In this case, your employment lawyer may need to work with your disability attorney to establish how easy it would be to accommodate you.
- Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) claim: Your employer offers a qualified requirement plan, but fails to meets its legal obligations to fund the plan or provide required information about the plan.
Bankruptcy lawyers practice in bankruptcy courts and help clients whose assets and income are insufficient to pay off all their debts.
When you have bill collectors calling and mailing you all the time to collect past due accounts, you will appreciate the importance of lawyers. When filing for bankruptcy protection, you can choose between chapter 7 and chapter 13 bankruptcies.
- Chapter 7: Also called liquidation, your eligible assets are sold off to partially repay creditors before the debts are discharged.
- Chapter 13: Also called reorganization, you develop a plan to repay creditors, typically less than they are owed, and in exchange, the debts are discharged.
Disability Benefits Law
Veterans who have been disabled due to their service are eligible for disability benefits from the U.S. Veterans Administration (VA). VA disability claims are notoriously slow and after a few denials, you will definitely understand the importance of lawyers when preparing a VA disability claim.
Even more strict is the Social Security Administration. Employees who contributed to the social security system are eligible for Social Security benefits after retirement. However, these benefits are paid as a matter of routine. Social Security disability benefits are granted only after an adjudication of the extent of your disability’s effect on your ability to work.
Because the rejection rate is so high — around 70% most years — you may need to consult social security attorneys before you file your claim.
Business lawyers handle many transactions to help your business. In fact, a firm of business lawyers may have many specialists to assist businesses.
- Tax lawyer: Help with tax compliance and tax planning to meet your tax liabilities without overpaying.
- Product liability lawyer: Advise businesses on the legal requirements for designing and manufacturing safe products and providing adequate product warnings.
- Corporate lawyer: Form the business entity and advise the business on compliance with corporate and securities laws.
The consequences of violating corporate regulations and liability laws can be serious. Large fines and damages awards can cripple a business. Lawsuits and enforcement actions can exhaust a business’s time and energy. As a result, the importance of lawyers in business law is often in compliance and planning so that the business can avoid problems in the first instance.
Trusts and Estates Law
Estate planning can be the most important step a person can take to secure his or her family’s future. The purpose of an estate plan is to devise legal mechanisms to ensure that a person’s assets are transferred to the right heirs in the right amounts while minimizing taxes and other transactional costs.
An estate planning lawyer has a number of tools available:
- Wills: A will is a legally binding document that identifies how a judge should distribute property in a probate proceeding. It is typically used for personal property of limited value because estate taxes can reduce the value of an estate passed through a will.
- Trust: A trust is an entity analogous to a corporation. It has an existence separate from you and holds your assets for your benefit. When you die, the assets remain in the trust and name a different beneficiary. By passing assets this way, you can reduce or eliminate estate taxes.
- Durable power of attorney: A power of attorney allows someone to act on your behalf if you are physically or mentally incapacitated. It is often used in combination with a health care directive that outlines your wishes for health care if you ever require life support.
Some professions develop a deep understanding of insurance law despite not being insurance lawyers. For example, doctors carry malpractice insurance in the event that medical malpractice lawyers file lawsuits against them on behalf of patients.
However, insurance law has many specialized regulations and practices that might seem unusual or downright illogical. The importance of lawyers becomes apparent when you get caught in a lawsuit alongside your insurance company.
Law has many additional fields besides the ones outlined. Many of these fields are very specialized, such as patent law or international trade law, but understanding them is critical when you have a problem that falls within their purview. The importance of lawyers, particularly in these narrow areas, is analogous to the importance of medical specialists. General practitioners are often unfamiliar with more specialized areas, whereas lawyers with narrow focuses spend all day, every day immersed in their practice. This gives them deep knowledge in these focused areas that can help their clients.