A traffic ticket is a legal matter. So is armed robbery. Obviously, the “accused” in both of these instances have very different situations and only one will need a lawyer to hand their defense. In between these two extremes, however, are a myriad of legal matters which may or may not require legal representation. It’s a good idea to know in which instances you should get a lawyer — and the ones where you don’t need one.
Two Legal Categories – A Short Explanation
- Civil Law: This area of law covers all legal issues that do not involve criminal activity or breaking the law. Generally, one party sues another because they have been “wronged” in some way and want some type of compensation for that “wrong.” Civil law also covers legal agreements, real estate transactions, divorces, child custody, and other matters where legal paperwork is necessary to protect all parties involved.
- Criminal Law: This area of law relates to offenses that break the laws of a local, state, or federal governments. The prosecution is handled by lawyers employed by the governmental entity, and the defense is handled by either a publicly appointed defender or a private defense attorney whom the defendant pays. In criminal law, there are misdemeanors (small offenses) and felonies (more serious crimes).
If you find yourself facing the legal system for any reason, you should probably understand that the best policy is usually to at least consult with an attorney – an honest one will provide a free consultation. They will tell you whether you will need an attorney and will either take your case or point in the direction of a lawyer who can best represent you. If the attorney takes your case, the fee will be approximated up front. In general, however, the following guidelines apply:
When You Should Get Legal Advice
1. A Complex or Nasty Divorce
When couples mutually agree on all of the details of a split, there is no real need for a lawyer. When, however, there are issues of property, investments, savings, support, debt, and child custody arrangements, only a fool neglects getting legal representation. The terms of a finalized divorce are very binding, and they can only be changed by going back to court. All of this can be avoided with a good lawyer up front.
2. A Wrongful Termination or Discrimination in the Workplace
There are both state and federal laws at play here, and the average person does not understand them. Only an attorney who specializes in this type of law is really qualified to carry your suit into court. You can be certain that the other side will have very solid legal representation. You should too.
3. Law Suits
If you are being sued and the consequences of a loss may result in the loss of a good deal of money or property, you need a lawyer. Again, the other side has a lawyer, so you need to get one too. Most of these things are settled out of court, but you want an experienced negotiator on your side.
4. A DUI
Driving under the influence (DUI) has become a serious charge. Consequences can include fines, jail time, loss of license, or any combination of these three. A good lawyer can meet with the prosecutor and get the charges reduced, especially if this is your first offense. Never go to court on a DUI charge without a lawyer — unless you are willing to accept the maximum penalty.
5. Drug Charges
Defendants who have personally hired attorneys always fare better than those who do not or those who take a public defender. Remember, a public defender is on case overload, and will usually recommend a plea bargain that will be worse than what a private attorney could get you. If you qualify financially for a public defender, still try to find a friend or relative willing to pony up the money for a lawyer.
6. A Car Accident with Injury
If you have been injured in an accident that was not your fault, the other guy’s insurance company will be all over you to settle your claim as quickly as possible. Don’t do it. In fact, never talk to an insurance company representative until you have first consulted a personal injury attorney. You may not be familiar with the laws or the normal compensation rates, but seasoned attorneys are. If you are injured in car accident, don’t talk to anyone except to answer cursory questions from the police on the scene.
7. Criminal Charges
Facing any criminal charge is scary, and you may not even know your rights as an accused person. Get a lawyer immediately for protection of your rights and so that you are defended as well as possible — guilty or not.
8. Wills and Trusts
Save your family from disputes and legal issues after you die. Set up your will or trust with a reputable attorney well in advance. Your first will should be set up as soon as you have a child and should be changed periodically throughout your life as circumstances change.
9. Business Startups
Whether you are going it alone, have a partner, or are setting up a corporation, never try to navigate all of the legal requirements alone. You need to be lawful and you need to be protected. Only a lawyer who specializes in business law can ensure these things.
10. Denial of Workmen’s Comp or Disability Claim
It is often the policy of such institutions to deny a claim the first time around. This is because they know a certain percentage of people will simply accept that ruling and give up. Don’t be one of those people. Get a lawyer up front – they will take the fee out of the settlement, so there are no up-front costs.
You can’t get one without a lawyer, and they will want payment up front.
When You Don’t Need a Lawyer
There are really very few legal situations in which you will not need a lawyer, but here are a few:
1. Small Claims Court
This court is reserved for civil disputes that do not involve large sums of money, the cap being determined by individual states. Normally, this is an informal procedure – both sides tell their stories and the judge decides.
2. Traffic Tickets
Pay the fine and get over it. The only exception to this general rule is if the ticket will put enough points on your license to cause a suspension or if the offense is serious enough that your insurance rates will skyrocket. In these situations, a lawyer can get the ticket reduced to a non-moving offense and the only consequence will be a fine. Yes, our legal system does respond to one’s ability to pay.
3. Lawsuits That You Do Not Want to Contest
If someone is suing you and you know in advance what they are asking for and are willing to pay the amount, you can simply plead no contest, appear in court without an attorney, or not appear at all. If you don’t appear, a summary judgment will be issued against you.