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Here are a few things to think about as you make a decision that can affect your life in major ways.
There are more than 1.3 million lawyers in the United States.
That's a lot of lawyers.
It seems like there's plenty of work to keep all of these people in business, but there are some instances when you might be able to handle a legal issue on your own.
If you're curious about law school enrollment, and specifically where women attend and where there are the most students of various races and ethnicities, check out these reports: Where Do Women Go to Law School? and Law School Enrollment by Race & Ethnicity.
Hiring an attorney is a big decision and it should largely be based on how much the outcome of your case is going to affect your life, either in the short- or long term.
Most people don't need to just "have a lawyer" on retainer. There are some people who might — like if you own a business, are a landlord, or have other ongoing legal matters that require attention.
For most, though, you'd look for a lawyer on an as-needed basis, and you might need a different lawyer at different times in your life based on the type of need. The best lawyer for any case is one who specializes in that area of law. Just like you wouldn't ask an eye doctor to deliver your baby, you wouldn't use a personal injury lawyer for a criminal defense, and vice-versa.
When To Hire a Lawyer Checklist
Can you handle your own claim, or should you hire an attorney? Use this worksheet to determine when you should consider hiring a personal injury or workers' comp lawyer.
Download in PDF format
Types of lawyers
Every situation is unique, but it helps to have a general idea of the types of lawyers who handle "every day" cases before you decide whether or not you need one and where to look.
Personal injury lawyer
If you were injured because of someone's negligence — whether in a car accident, truck accident, slip and fall injury, by a defective product, or any other accidental injury — you'd probably be best assisted by a personal injury lawyer. These types of attorneys also usually specialize in wrongful death cases.
Workers' compensation lawyer
Many personal injury lawyers also handle workers' compensation claims, but some are more experienced with workers' compensation claims than others. If you were injured in any way related to your job or while at work, you need to find a workers' compensation lawyer.
Medical malpractice lawyer
Medical malpractice is when a patient suffers an injury because of a mistake or negligence made by a health care provider. Each state has its own laws around medical malpractice, so it's important that a medical malpractice lawyer handling this type of case is familiar with the laws in your state.
An issue related to the IRS or your state or local tax agency including tax fraud, evasion, or failure to file would be handled by a tax lawyer.
A bankruptcy lawyer helps you get debt relief, either through repayment planning or discharging your debts in bankruptcy court.
Employment contracts and relationships can be complicated, and there are frequent issues related to wrongful termination, retaliation, and discrimination in the workplace that would be handled by a lawyer who specializes in employment concerns.
Business formation, compliance, contracts, mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, and other issues would be handled by a corporate lawyer.
Intellectual property lawyer
Intellectual property is something you own because you created it. These lawyers are able to assist clients on issues related to patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets.
Estate planning lawyer
You might seek an estate planning lawyer to prepare your will or set up a trust. You might also look for a lawyer who handles wills and estates if you're the executor of someone's will or need to probate an estate after someone's death.
An immigration lawyer works with immigrants who have issues related to their legal status in the United States. This might involve a visa, green card, asylum or refugee status, or other issues related to employment or housing.
You should seek the assistance of a family lawyer if your issue is related to divorce, child custody, alimony, or any other family matter.
A criminal lawyer defends a person who's been charged with a crime. There are private criminal lawyers (i.e. a lawyer you pay for) and public defenders (government lawyers who are assigned to criminal defendants who don't have money to pay for a private lawyer).
Both landlords and tenants can benefit from the assistance of a landlord/tenant attorney. Each state and local jurisdiction has a variety of rules related to property, what landlord responsibilities include, and tenants' rights.
You might NOT need a lawyer if...
The potential recovery amount is very small.
If you were in a car accident and the other driver is at fault but not cooperating, but the damage to your car will cost a few hundred dollars (or any amount that's not a huge financial burden to you), it might not be worth hiring a lawyer. Most personal injury lawyers work on a contingency fee basis. That means you don't pay them upfront; they take a percentage of the amount you recover in a settlement or at trial.
Many personal injury lawyers receive around 33% (one-third) of the recovery amount. So, for example, if you recover $1,000 from the accident, you'd pay your lawyer $333 and you would recover $667 in the end. Recovering $667 is better than nothing, for sure, but you'd want to weigh the time and effort associated with hiring a lawyer against whether the insurance company is able to come close to your desired settlement.
In other words, if the insurance company is offering a settlement of $500, if you know the most a lawyer can get would yield $667 (if the lawyer is successful in getting the full settlement), it might not be worth it for a difference of (at most) $167.
You can settle the matter in small claims court.
States have different thresholds for what's eligible as a small claims proceeding. The purpose of the small claims court system is to keep smaller cases out of the judicial system and allow claimants an opportunity to present their own case without needing a lawyer.
Insurance is covering the claim to your satisfaction.
Just because you were in an accident doesn't mean you need to rush out and get a lawyer to sue someone. Sometimes insurance can help get what you need, especially if the accident was minor, the damages are minimal, and there's no dispute about who was at fault.
You should consult with a lawyer if...
There's a liability dispute.
States vary on how a plaintiff can recover damages. There are 4 systems of fault, and the system in your state will determine whether you can recover damages if you had any part of the liability for an accident. Some states will allow a plaintiff who has partial liability to collect partial damages; in other states, that's not permitted.
Read more about shared fault rules to see how it's handled where you live.
If the accident involves multiple vehicles, if liability is unclear (or if it is clear to you but the other party doesn't agree), or if there's any question about ownership of property, then you should consult with a lawyer.
In other words, if there's any question about who's at fault or if there might be multiple defendants, a lawyer will be needed to sort things out.
The insurance company's offer seems too low.
You are the insurance company's customer, not its client. The insurance company makes a profit when the payout amounts are lower than what it makes in premiums. The insurance company's objective in dealing with any claim will be to pay out the least amount of money possible—whether it's paying its own insured or the other party.
Your insurance company has a legal responsibility to defend you after an accident where the other party claims you're liable. The other party will surely try to negotiate as high a settlement as possible. Likewise, if the insurance company is paying for your damages, it will offer the lowest amount that you're likely to accept. If that doesn't seem like enough to cover your expenses, you should consult a lawyer who can negotiate a settlement that's sufficient for your costs.
You (or the other person) suffered serious injuries.
A personal injury settlement isn't just about your costs right now. It should also include any future costs you might incur.
If your injuries are serious and will require ongoing care, therapies, future surgeries or treatments, you should work with a lawyer to determine how much those costs will be. Once you agree to a settlement, you can't then go back and ask for more — it's done. So before you make an agreement, you'll need to estimate how much money you will need in the future.
This also includes lost wages. If you haven't been able to return to work because of your injury, or if you're not working at the capacity and salary you did before the injury, you should consider how much you'll lose in future earnings as part of the settlement or damages.
A lawyer has access to financial and medical experts who have experience in determining your future expenses and what you'd be expected to earn over a period of time in order to figure out a fair amount of compensation for your injury.
On the flip side, if you were involved in an accident where you were uninjured but another person suffered serious injuries, you might wish to begin to think about hiring a lawyer in case they file a claim with a high amount of damages.
You want to claim emotional distress or other non-economic damages.
Insurance will typically cover your economic damages, like medical treatment and lost wages, but it won't cover emotional distress, pain and suffering, or other mental trauma like PTSD or anxiety. It also doesn't cover punitive damages, which are damages that a court might award in especially serious cases where it intends to punish a defendant for especially egregious or malicious behavior.
If your injury was severe enough that you feel you should be compensated for any of these types of damages, your only legal recourse is to file a lawsuit, and you will likely want a lawyer who's experienced in determining how much your emotional distress will be worth in court.
The damages are expensive.
Even if a defendant knows they're at fault for an injury, no one is going to want to fork over a large sum of money without a fight. The higher the amount of your claim, the more strenuously the defendant is going to argue that they were not liable, that your injuries aren't as severe as you think they are, or locate loopholes in the law that can help them avoid a large settlement or payout.
If the amount of money that you would either gain or could stand to lose in a settlement or lawsuit is a sum that would have a substantial impact on your life, you should consider hiring a lawyer.
Remember, it's never too late to hire a lawyer. Even if you've begun to negotiate or you've been made a settlement offer, you can always let the other party know you need to further consider your options, and then find a lawyer to help.
Find a lawyer who is a trained negotiator, is experienced with the area of law involved in your claim, and who knows the statutes in your state. If you don't feel comfortable at your first consultation, it's totally fine to look for someone who better meets and understands your needs.
Here are some resources for finding the lawyer who's right for you:
- Enjuris law firm directory
- How to Choose a Personal Injury Lawyer: Questions to Ask
- 3 Tips for Finding a Qualified Attorney for Your Personal Injury Case
- How to talk to a lawyer: Hiring an attorney after an accident
- Preparing to Meet with a Personal Injury Attorney
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See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.