Different lawyers have different knowledge and experience within the law. Although all lawyers take the same core courses in law school, they are shaped by the work they do after passing the bar examination and becoming an attorney at law.
It works this way because three years of law school is both too long and too short. For most students, law school is longer than necessary to pick up the basics. First year is entirely taken up learning the core skills including:
- Constitutional law
- Criminal law
- Civil procedure
After covering the basics, the second year is usually spent learning the additional topics covered on the bar exam. Some of the optional topics that most lawyers learn because of the bar exam include criminal procedure, commercial transactions, and family law.
Third year is spent on electives and clerkships. Most third year students spend some time clerking for a judge or law firm along with a few courses each semester. But neither is long enough for a law student to leave law school with a deep understanding of a field of law.
As a result, law school graduates are raw and spend the first couple years of their practice learning a field of law.
Here are some of the different types of law that lawyers practice and the cases they handle.
Criminal law is an interesting field of practice because the skills to be a prosecutor are different from the skills to be a defense lawyer. This does not mean that experience as one or the other is better. Just that some clients might want to look for someone who has seen both sides of criminal prosecution because that experience could help a criminal defense lawyer round out their experience.
Criminal defense attorneys help clients defend themselves against the power of the state. The first time the lawyer receives a call is usually after the police contact a suspect. Advising a suspect during an interrogation can end the case right there. If the police have no probable cause that the suspect committed the crime, they cannot proceed with an arrest until they get more evidence.
If the police make an arrest, the next step for the defense lawyer is to get the defendant released from jail. Jails are clogged with people who have been arrested but have not been convicted of anything. These people are awaiting trial in jail because they could not arrange their bail with a local bonding agent.
Bail is the court’s way of guaranteeing that someone accused of a crime will appear in court after their release. If someone cannot make bail, they will wait for trial in jail. This usually takes months. During this time, the defendant could lose their job, family, and home because they cannot work while they are in jail.
As a result, a defense lawyer will fight hard to get bail for the defendant. The lawyer may even connect the defendant with a bail bondsman to help arrange bail.
After the bail hearing and, hopefully, the release from jail, the criminal defense lawyer begins preparing the case. The lawyer does a few things to prepare for a case:
- Prepare a defense on the merits: This usually requires the lawyer to find evidence that shows the defendant did not violate a criminal statute or poke holes in the prosecution’s evidence.
- Protect the defendant’s rights: The defense lawyer will examine everything the police and prosecutors did to make sure they afforded the defendant all the defendant’s rights under the law. These include the right to be free from an unconstitutional search or arrest, the right to be free from coercive interrogations, and the right to confront the evidence and witnesses used by the prosecution.
- Negotiate a deal: The majority of cases do not reach trial. Most result in a plea agreement. This provides the defendant with certainty and allows the state to avoid the cost of a trial.
The defense lawyer will wrap up all the loose ends in the case after it ends. If the defendant is sentenced, the defense lawyer might create a record of all the errors committed by the judge in case the defendant files an appeal. If the defendant made all the required court appearances, the lawyer will get the bail exonerated so the bail agent gets released from the bond issued in the case.
Family law covers a lot of issues. But the benefit of family law is that every family lawyer gets the same experience because they all represent husbands and wives. So, when you choose a family lawyer, you will probably look at whether they have handled similar issues to yours, rather than who they have represented.
For example, some of the particular issues that can come up in a divorce proceeding include:
- Special needs children
- High net worth divorce
- Disabled or ill spouses
- Senior couples
The role of divorce lawyers is to help their clients get a fair outcome. Unfortunately, the resolution of most of the issues is a zero-sum game. Both ex-spouses cannot get the house. And both spouses cannot get alimony from the other. This, along with some of the animosity that comes from the breakdown of a marriage can make divorces contentious.
As a result, many divorce lawyers believe their role includes cooling the temperature of the divorce so the spouses can focus on the legal issues. This helps the couple resolve their issues so they can complete their divorce. It also helps the couple move forward amicably if they have children.
But family lawyers are more than divorce attorneys. They can also help with more positive issues like adoptions and surrogacy agreements. This allows family lawyers to bring a bit of happiness to cases as well.
Personal Injury Law
Personal injury lawyers help resolve disputes over legal wrongs. The technical term for a civil wrong is ‘tort.’ In law school, all students must study tort law. Torts fall into three categories:
- Intentional torts: Intentional torts require the victim to prove that the tortfeasor performed a harmful or offensive action intentionally. Some examples of intentional torts include assault, battery, defamation, and false imprisonment. The remedy for intentional torts is a damage award to compensate the victim. Bear in mind that a lawsuit for an intentional tort can happen on top of any criminal case that the state may prosecute.
- Negligence: Negligence happens when someone has a duty to exercise reasonable care and fails to uphold that duty. Negligence is the theory used to get compensation after car accidents. Other situations where negligence can justify compensation include slip-and-fall accidents and medical malpractice.
- Strict liability: Strict liability applies to a few situations where the mindset of the tortfeasor is not relevant. Some examples of strict liability include dog bites (in some states), workers’ compensation, and product liability. Since the victim does not need to prove the mindset of the person or business responsible, they only need to prove that the accident happened and that they were injured.
A personal injury lawyer does a few things for a case including:
- Evaluation: Not every accident entitles the victim to compensation. For example, suppose a car slides into you during a snowstorm. No one is at fault when everyone exercised reasonable care. A personal injury lawyer can determine whether you have a case.
- Insurance claim: In most cases, a personal injury case begins with an insurance claim. The injury lawyer prepares the claim by documenting what happened and how you were damaged as a result.
- Negotiation: Insurance companies usually deny liability or try to reduce the amount owed. A personal injury lawyer negotiates with the insurer to try to get a fair settlement.
- Litigation: If the lawyer cannot get a fair settlement, the lawyer can file a lawsuit and present the case to a jury.
In addition to the legal work, many personal injury lawyers also help accident victims get medical treatment and therapy. Some medical providers will accept a medical lien in lieu of payment. This allows the accident victim to get treatment without paying the medical provider. Instead, the injury lawyer and accident victim promise to pay the medical provider from the settlement or damage award in the case.
Disability law is a bit amorphous. Some disability lawyers focus on helping clients obtain disability benefits. But some disability lawyers go further. Under both federal law and state law, people with disabilities are entitled to access and accommodation. Some disability lawyers also include these cases within their practices.
Disability benefits can arise under many public and private programs including:
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA): The VA provides disability benefits for veterans who suffer from service-connected disabilities. To be service-connected, a disability must have happened during service or due to conditions experienced during service. It does not need to be caused by the service. For example, a service member who injures their back in a car accident during their military service has a service-connected disability.
- U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA): The SSA provides disability benefits to people who are totally disabled. The disability must prevent the person from working. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits are intended to replace the disabled person’s income. If the person’s condition improves so they can return to work, their SSDI benefits end.
- Disability insurance: Disability insurance policies pay people who cannot work. Short term disability insurance pays workers immediately upon becoming disabled, but the benefits end after a short period of time. These benefits are intended to pay people who cannot work because of serious injury or illness that they will recover from. Long term disability insurance usually has a waiting period before payments are made. But they usually have a longer duration. These benefits are intended to pay people who suffer career-ending illnesses or injuries or have a chronic condition like rheumatoid arthritis. Disability insurance can be purchased directly or may be provided by an employer or union as a benefit.
- State programs: Five states — California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island — have state disability insurance programs. Disabled workers in these states who paid into the program can claim benefits when they become unable to work.
Just as important as disability benefits are the laws that now protect those with disabilities from discrimination. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), public businesses must accommodate people with disabilities through elevators, ramps, and Braille guides. The ADA also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities. For example, if someone is unable to sit for long periods, the employer is supposed to find a way for the worker to take more breaks or move around in their workspace.
What a disability attorney brings to your case is dignity. Although many people view recipients of disability benefits as malingerers, most have paid into the system and are now receiving benefits they earned. If their health improves enough to return to work, most prefer to return to work than sit at home doing nothing.
Similarly, people with disabilities are discriminated against in many ways. The ADA made it a little bit easier for people with disabilities to enjoy the same treatment as everyone else.
Finding the right attorneys for your case can be challenging. But if you understand what you need and what a lawyer can bring to your case, you should be able to find a lawyer to provide the representation you need and expect. Also, understanding the various fields of law can help you narrow down the lawyers you can hire for your case. By picking a lawyer who has knowledge of the area of law that applies to your case, you can avoid paying someone to learn a new field of law. And by hiring a lawyer with experience in the field of law that your case falls in, you give yourself a better chance of winning your case or obtaining a fair outcome.