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Lawyers -- Frequently Asked Questions

The Frequently Asked Questions piece that follows is reproduced, with permission, from the original written by Brian W. Peters of the Kintzinger Law Firm, Dubuque, Iowa. Copyright (c) 1998-2004 by Brian W. Peters. All rights reserved.

This document gives general answers to questions about lawyers that are frequently asked by clients. A great deal of the material is opinion and prejudice of the author; these views are not necessarily those of other members of his law firm.


Q. What do lawyers do?

A. Lawyers represent others, usually in resolving or avoiding disputes. Most lawyers are licensed to represent others before one or several courts; and typically, a court grants only to lawyers the right to represent others in matters decided by that court. This serves at least two useful purposes: 1) It allows the court to regulate those presenting materials to it, and 2) it motivates law students to cheerfully sacrifice the time and expense necessary to get a piece of that monopoly. Depending on the state, lawyers may also have exclusive or nearly exclusive rights to represent others in the drafting of documents likely to later come before a court, such as wills and real estate transfer documents.

Because the arcane and expensive form of dispute resolution provided by the courts is the final "big stick" that resolves unresolvable disputes, lawyers frequently are used to advise about avoiding or minimizing exposure to that process. This can be by drafting documents, holding meetings, writing letters, or by simply considering questions and giving advice. This is by far the greatest part of the work done by the profession as a whole.


Q. Lawyer, attorney, counselor, barrister, solicitor, what's the difference?

A. Ordinarily, these are synonyms. "Lawyer" is technically the broadest of these terms, simply meaning anyone whose profession is to give legal advice and represent clients in court. "Attorney" is used interchangeably, but its narrow meaning is a legal representative in a business transaction. "Counsel" or "Counselor" denotes persons giving legal advice and serving as trial lawyers. "Barrister" is used by the British to denote a lawyer exclusively representing clients before superior courts, and "solicitor" is used by the British to denote a lawyer not actually appearing in superior courts, but involved in all other phases of law practice. In the United States, solicitor is used to denote the chief law officer of a city, town or governmental department (for example "city solicitor" or "solicitor general"). Since they all mean "lawyer," the remaining terms are almost exclusively used in the United States to distinguish one lawyer from numerous look-alike competitors.


Q. How does an ordinary mortal become a lodge member?

A. All initial admission "to the bar" is governed by state courts, usually the highest appellate court in that state. The requirements vary somewhat, but most states now require graduation from an accredited law school, a background check, and a passing score on a multiple-day written examination. The degree program at nearly all accredited law schools is a three year (six semesters or nine quarters) course of study. Admission to that accredited program requires prior completion of a bachelor's degree, typically requiring four school years.

Admission to federal and specialty courts generally is conditioned upon being a member in good standing in one or more state courts. Admission to additional state courts may be by passing that state's written examination (bar exam), or by reciprocity (sometimes called "admission on motion") for lawyers who have actively practiced in another state for a required number of years.


Q. I have heard that, beyond the educational requirements, all lawyers must be hatched from leathery eggs, possess tough reptilian skin, crawl on their bellies, and have huge pointed teeth. Is this correct?

A. No (except for the teeth). Sharks are fish, not reptiles.


Q. Has extended formal education always been required of lawyers?

A. No. For example, prior to being elected president, Abraham Lincoln practiced law in the Illinois circuit court that included Springfield. By most accounts he was an unfailingly honest, cunningly effective, gracious lawyer with a ribald sense of humor. He is frequently cited with respect and envy as one of those who defines the ideal toward which the profession should aspire. He also had less than one year of formal education.


Q. Define "professional dignity" and use it in a sentence?

A. Professional dignity is the scowl of outrage and witty riposte of "that is not funny" sometimes substituted for a sense of humor in tense work situations. "Laughter might have cleared the air and put others at ease, but she knew professional dignity forbade it." The intensity of professional dignity often is inversely proportional to the ability to tell a joke.


Q. Suppose I need a lawyer, how can I pick the right one?

A. There is no two-word-Final-Jeopardy-answer to this one. The licensing court works to assure that every lawyer practicing before it meets the minimum qualifications for the job. Beyond that, you have to fall back on the same familiar, if inadequate, tricks that you use to find the right auto mechanic, plumber, electrician, or doctor: reputation, professional memberships, advertising, and random choice.


--Aunt Bea says . . . Reputation, while not perfect, may be the best indicator of a lawyer's abilities. The honest opinion of someone you trust is an excellent starting point for making a choice among people you don't know. A referral from another lawyer that you like (well, maybe respect anyway) and trust is ideal, and may give you a certain status with the lawyer you're considering. Next best is the opinion of someone you trust who has actually used the lawyer's services. Less valuable, but not totally meaningless, is the opinion of someone who knows the lawyer from social or community settings. On the other hand, the opinion of your shirttail relative who heard from her roommate who once knew a guy who heard of a person that actually talked to a lady in a bus station who knew a space alien that recommended Dewey, Cheatum & Howe for all legal ills is probably a random choice.

--It was just the neatest framed certificate . . . Professional memberships can indicate something of the kind of law the lawyer practices, and the lawyer's commitment to the profession. They may also indicate that she paid the dues to get the credential. If you know something about the organization (or can find out about it) these may be useful; otherwise, you should probably treat them as advertising.

--It had to be true, it was in the yellow pages . . . Advertising by lawyers is regulated to greater and lesser degrees among the various states. In some cases the restrictions are so severe that otherwise useful information is prohibited. As with any advertising, you should not expect that lawyers shelled out good money to place a shining beacon of truth before you, illuminating their every accomplishment and mortal failing. Still, if you sift through it carefully there is useful information to be found.

--I shot an arrow in the air . . . A random choice is, at least initially, sometimes the only option you have. Do everything that you can to minimize the randomness (even if it is just reading ads). If the legal problem is big enough, you might even consider talking to more than one lawyer to see where you feel comfortable. Still, if you have a problem that requires a legal solution, even a dart thrown at names on the wall is better than doing nothing.


Q. When does a lawyer get good enough that they can answer questions, rather than researching them?

A. Maybe never. The late Thomas H. Nelson [Iowa District Court Judge, Dubuque County] frequently quipped, "my young friend, that's the difference between a bartender and a lawyer: a bartender knows the law; lawyers look it up."



Congratulations to Arnie Van Etten, recently honored by the Iowa Bar Association for 50 years of membership as a practicing attorney in Iowa.
 







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The determination of the need for legal services and the choice of a lawyer are extremely important decisions and should not be based solely upon advertisements or self-proclaimed expertise.

A description or indication of limitation of practice does not mean that any agency or board has certified such lawyer as a specialist or expert in an indicated field of law practice, nor does it mean that such lawyer is necessarily any more expert or competent than any other lawyer. All potential clients are urged to make their own independent investigation and evaluation of any lawyer being considered.

Memberships and offices in legal fraternities and legal societies, technical and professional licenses, and memberships in scientific, technical and professional associations and societies of law of field of practice do not mean that a lawyer is a specialist or expert in a field of law, nor do they mean that such lawyer is necessarily any more expert or competent than any other lawyer.

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