Contrary to many stereotypes, not all attorneys spend their days arguing in court. But what do they really do? And when you need one, how do you pick the right one? We sat down with several lawyers in town to get the answers.
After attending three years of law school and passing the bar exam, lawyers tend to practice law in one of two categories: those who go to court (litigators) and those who do not (transactional attorneys). They typically work for the government, in a private law firm or business or for nonprofit organizations.
Unlike their glamorous television counterparts, most litigators spend the bulk of their time in offices and conference rooms gathering and preparing evidence and witnesses, doing legal research and counseling clients. Transactional attorneys also counsel clients, in addition to a myriad of tasks such as drafting contracts, wills, articles of incorporation and business plans, registering trademarks and patents and assisting families with various issues, including adoption.
A common misconception is that any lawyer can represent you in any kind of case. In actuality, most lawyers focus on specific areas of law rather than practicing everything from bankruptcy to workers’ compensation.
“General practitioners are more common in smaller towns. In larger towns like Rochester, it’s more common to have specified areas of law,” says Melissa Saunders, who does estate planning at Dunlap & Seeger in Rochester. “A lot of our practice focuses on small businesses. We do business law, commercial real estate, estate planning and litigation. We also handle family law, bankruptcy and personal injury.”
The Right Attorney
With nearly 200 lawyers in Rochester, searching for the right one can feel overwhelming. Start by matching your needs with the lawyer’s area of practice. If you need a will, search for firms who do estate planning. Findlaw.com lists Rochester attorneys by subject and includes links to firm websites so you can learn about the firm and read attorney profiles.
“Ask professional people you may know for recommendations—your banker, realtor, accountant, insurance agent,” advises Saunders. “We come in contact with these individuals on a regular basis; they tend to know what we do.”
No matter whom you choose, make sure she or he is someone with whom you can communicate, even if it means interviewing more than one attorney. “If you sit down with a lawyer and you are not comfortable—no matter how experienced the attorney is—it might not be the right person for you,” advises Jill Frieders, family law attorney at O’Brien & Wolf, L.L.P, law offices.
Initial Consultation and Representation
Once you’ve settled on an attorney, here are a few things to consider regarding the initial consultation and representation: Ask if the lawyer charges for an initial consultation. Some do and some don’t. Organize and bring relevant documents as well as written questions. This makes face-to-face time more efficient (and less expensive since most attorneys bill by the hour).
At the consult, confirm the fee structure and hourly rates for everyone working on your case, which can include newer attorneys and paralegals. Many firms use retainer agreements—a one- or two-page document that lists billing information, the nature of the representation and the duties of lawyer and client—to spell out these details, including required monetary deposits. “Nothing needs to be mysterious about a relationship with an attorney; making sure everything is clear is helpful to the attorney as well as the client,” says Kari Stonelake-Hopkins, estate planning attorney at Dunlap & Seeger.
Throughout the representation, expect your attorney to keep you informed about what’s going on and to return phone calls and emails in a timely (not instantaneous) manner, and if you go to trial or mediation, expect to be guided through it, advises Frieders.
A good attorney is not a miracle worker, but she or he can often help in ways you might not even anticipate, including saving you time, money and headaches.
Marlene Petersen is a Rochester-based writer who would like to thank Dunlap & Seeger and O’Brien & Wolf for their insights.