Hiring a Lawyer: Do You Need a Specialist or a Generalist?
If you’ve ever searched for an attorney on Lawyers.com, you probably know that you can search based on a few criteria, including name, location and practice area.
When we talk about practice area, we’re referring to the area of the law in which the attorney does the most work. Just as you have doctors who are internists and doctors who are specialists, so too do you have lawyers who are generalists and specialists.
But unlike the medical profession, when you’re facing a legal issue, you can make a decision at the outset: Should you hire a generalist or go directly to a specialist? In this article, we’ll take a look at how you should make that decision.
(A note about the word "specialization" as it’s used in the legal profession. In many states, a lawyer must meet certain criteria before being "certified" as a "specialist" in a particular area of the law. But the rules vary from state to state. Not every state certifies specialists, and lawyers can’t be certified specialists in every practice area under the sun. For purposes of this article, when I talk about a "specialist," I’m really referring to lawyers who limit their practice to one or a few specific areas of the law, but not necessarily lawyers who are certified as specialists.)
Finding a Specialist vs. a Generalist
There are a few factors you should consider when deciding whether to hire a generalist or a specialist to handle your legal issue. Among them:
How serious is your legal issue? If you’re dealing with a simple legal matter – for example, you have uncomplicated estate planning needs and want to revise your will – a generalist who has estate planning experience can easily assist you. If, on the other hand, you have a multimillion dollar estate and want to set up complicated trusts, you probably want an attorney who has a lot of experience working with high net-worth individuals.
How much can you afford to spend? As a general rule of thumb, a specialist often (but not always) charges more than a generalist. Similarly, there are times when you don’t need to buy a Rolls Royce if a Ford will do the job. To use our prior example, if you have simple estate planning needs, you probably don’t need to hire an estate planning lawyer who focuses on working with the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets of the world.
There are cases where a specialist won’t necessarily charge more. If you’ve been injured in an accident that was someone else’s fault, you’ll probably hire a personal injury lawyer who will be paid a percentage of any money you receive. Some personal injury lawyers specialize in certain types of personal injury cases, such as railroad or trucking accidents. A railroad accident personal injury lawyer, for example, charges about the same percentage as a personal injury lawyer who mainly handles slip-and-fall cases, but you may get significantly better results from the lawyer with relevant experience if you’ve been injured in a train accident.
Do you live in a big city, the suburbs or a more rural area? The further you live from a big city, the fewer choices you’ll have when you need to hire an attorney. This is simply a function of supply and demand. A more rural area probably can’t support the legal practice of someone who only does intellectual property work or specializes in representing airline crash victims.
If you live in or near a big city, it may make more sense – and cost no more money – to go straight to a specialist. If you live in an area where your choices are more limited, you need to think back to the other factors. Is your legal issue so serious that it makes sense to travel some distance to hire a specialist? Or can your legal matter be handled easily by a generalist?
Before hiring any attorney – generalist or specialist – you should schedule an initial consultation with the lawyer. This preliminary meeting allows you to get to know the lawyer, explain the specifics of your legal issue and learn more about the attorney’s experience.
If you’re interviewing a generalist, you should ask pointed questions to help decide whether the lawyer knows enough about your legal issue to represent you. Good attorneys will be honest if they have insufficient experience to handle your issue. If that’s the case, ask if the lawyer can refer you to another attorney who is more qualified.
You should also talk about legal fees. A specialist may charge a higher hourly rate than a generalist, but the specialist may work more efficiently. If a specialist can handle your legal issue in half the time of a generalist, then a specialist may cost less in the long run.
Finally, you want to get the lawyer’s honest assessment of your situation. What’s the best-case and the worst-possible outcome? And what’s the likelihood of each scenario? The more serious your legal issue, the more you should consider hiring a specialist.
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