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So, I have a speeding ticket. My third cousin twice removed just graduated from law school. Can’t he do this for me?

Just Because You Have a License To Do Something Doesn’t Mean You Are Competent To Do it

I remember when I got out of law school (1994). There was no shortage of relatives and friends to ask me if I could handle their cases. And as appreciative as I was for their business and referrals (we’ll not mention the “family and friends billing plan”, BTW), the fact is that the vast majority of what they wanted a lawyer for I simply couldn’t do. And it’s not that I didn’t want to help, it’s just that in this profession, as it is with so many others in this age of specialization, just because you have a license (like a law license) to do a certain thing, it doesn’t mean that you are competent to do it in all fields where that profession plies its trade. For instance, if you have a license to do HVAC work (air conditioning and heating requires special training and an exam in most states) you may be ok to handle a central air unit for the 2,000 sf house next door, but should probably NOT try to service the units on the top of the tallest buildings in downtown Charlotte. Or pilots, say. Just because you have a license to fly a single-engine land-based aircraft, it surely doesn’t mean that you can jump from a Cessna 152 (a trainer) to an Extra-Flaugzbau 300L (a hot aerobatic bird). Or MD’s. Just because you are a great general practitioner, and have a thriving Family Practice, you’d be way out of your depth to do open-heart surgery. Not to say of course that in all these cases you can’t be trained to do the other thing. Our HVAC guy and private pilot and doctor have at least the “legal permission” to go on and engage in the more complicated activity, but they will need special training and experience before they can do so competently.

All Flavors (and Types) of Lawyers, Each with It’s Own Expertise

Following the examples above, in the very same way, there are “types” of lawyers, if you will, a point that my wonderful relatives and friends never seemed to understand until I took the time to explain. Let’s take a moment to look at some of the various types of lawyers there are, and what they do. Remember, just because a guy goes to law school and passes a bar exam it doesn’t mean he can do just anything. Here goes:

District Attorney (also known as “solicitor” or “state’s attorney” or “prosecutor” in some jurisdictions): These are the ones who are responsible for prosecuting criminal cases (even traffic cases like speeding tickets). He works in the criminal court room with the judge and the police and the jury. It is easiest to understand his job as being the “voice of the people” when it comes to handling criminal matters. It is his decision to dismiss cases or try them or offer plea bargains.

Attorney General: This office can be thought of as the state’s “civil” law office. It is the job of these attorneys to represent the state in cases where the state or any of its agencies is sued in civil court. It is also the job of the AG’s office to sue civilly on behalf of the state where the state is the claimant. In some limited circumstances, attorneys form the AG’s office are selected to prosecute criminal cases where it would not otherwise be possible to prosecute the case due to reasons of conflict (for example). When a disgtrict attorney himself is charged with a crime, the AG’s office might appoint a special prosecutor to handle the matter.

Criminal Defense Attorney: Lots of different kinds here from traffic ticket and speeding ticket lawyers all the way to lawyers who do very serious death penalty or drug cases. The basic idea is that this attorney’s job is to present a defense for his client charged with a criminal offense. You may think of him as the “opposite” of the District Attorney, above. Where the DA’s job is to see that the person charged is convicted and/or punished “appropriately”, the defense attorney’s job is to ensure that his rights are protected and that he is treated fairly under the law.

Personal Injury Attorney: These folks represent claimants who’ve been injured by the acts of another in a civil setting. Their job is to assess a person’s injury claim and see who they can make pay the damages. Frequently they negotiate with insurance companies whose responsibility it is to pay for medical costs and other “damages” when there has been an accident (like in a car accident case). Their job is to make sure their client is compensated fairly.

Insurance Defense Attorney: Insurance defense attorneys’ job is to ensure that the insurance companies who retain them do not pay more for any insurance claim than the law allows. If a case is brought to court, the insurance defense attorney would present a defense for the insurance company that hires him. Often the insurance defense lawyer does not defend the company outright but defends instead the client who has been sued and thereby defends the insurance company that might be on the hook for damages arising from his actions.

Tax Attorney: Tax attorneys advise their clients, be they individuals or companies, where tax liability is concerned. For example, if you have given a large sum of money to charity, it would be the job of a tax attorney to represent you if the IRS claims that the charity is not real and that any tax deduction you claim from that is void. Of course, there needn’t be such a controversy. Tax attorneys also can advise you as to the consequences of certain actions beforehand so that ill consequence can be avoided. Tax attorneys are often CPA’s or have advanced law degrees in taxation (LLM).

Corporate Lawyer: This term is way to broad to be treated in detail because there is simply no consensus as to what it means. Punting, many folks think of corporate lawyers as those lawyers who represent corporations, maybe large ones, and advise them as to how they can go about their business (see how broad that is?). For example, if corporation “A” wants to buy corporation “B” a corporate law firm would advise how to go about this. Easy enough to say but consider how complicated it can be when the two corporations are publicly-traded and own billions in assets. Often, because the need for lawyers is so great, large companies have attorneys as special “in house counsel” which means they are actually employees of the company.

Estates Lawyer: Estates lawyers are the ones we go to to have wills and trusts drafted. It is their job to ensure that their client’s money and property is distributed according to his wishes on the occurrence of some special event (like death) or to protect assets from waste (like where a trust is used to hold property for a person who is incapable of managing his own affairs). Often, estates lawyers have advanced degrees in taxation and frequently are CPA’s also.

Civil Rights Lawyer: Civil rights lawyers are those who defend their clients against any action of the government or attributable to the government which may tend to encroach illegally on rights protected by the US Constitution. They are often employees of organizations which take on meritorious cases for free where such rights are at stake (like the ACLU or American Civil Liberties Union). The ACLU for example, may represent a person in a suit against a school district or municipality where a school policy prohibits free speech in some way. Free speech is a right protected under the first amendment of the US Constitution.

Immigration Lawyer: Immigration lawyers
represent folks concerning their eligibility to stay in the United States or whose deportation from the US is being sought by the government.  An immigration lawyer’s job often consists in representing their clients to obtain and keep Visas (so that they can come initially or remain and work in the country) or earn citizenship or defending them against removal, but may also involve advising large companies who wish to “import” a work force from other countries. Much of what immigration lawyers do involves a body of law that is administered by a government agency and which has its own special courts.

Family Lawyer: These attorneys’ practices concern separation, divorce, alimony, child support and child custody and all the attendant and ancillary matters that occur along with these controversies.

Real Estate Lawyer: These attorneys’ field of practice involves transactions in real estate, such as the purchase and sale of homes and land.

Regulatory Agency Lawyer: This is a broad-scale term which is sort of a catch-all and refers to any attorney who works as an employee in an agency or department of the state (government) whose job it is to oversee the administration of agency-regulation in any area. Examples might be (at the NC State Level): NC Department of Transportation (DOT), NC Department of Motor Vehicles (NCDMV) NC Administrative Office of the Courts (NCAOC); NC Board of Law Examiners; NC Board of Medical Examiners etc etc. At the national level some examples might be: Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC); Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC); US Department of Transportation (USDOT); Homeland Security; etc etc.

Litigation Lawyer: This term is also a broad-scale name and refers to any attorney whose primary job it is, within his usual field of practice, to represent his client in court or other judicial tribunal.


Now then, this list is certainly less than exhaustive, but I believe it at least conveys the basic point: there are many different types of attorneys. And just as our HVAC repairman would not be the best man to fix the AC on top of the Sears tower, or our private pilot in a Piper Cub would not be ready to fly the space shuttle, a wills and estates lawyer would probably not be the best choice to do a merger and acquisitions deal between Comcast  and Time Warner.

Which brings us to my family again: Sorry Uncle Henry, I love you, I really do, but I can’t sue the country club for prohibiting your obscene T-Shirt.  For that you may want to see a civil rights lawyer. And I won’t be able to do your will either since I don’t do wills and estates. I can’t even do your divorce since I don’t do family law (let alone the fact that auntie would kill me). But I can represent you on the criminal case where the cop stopped you on the way to the country club and charged you with speeding. I’m a criminal defense and traffic and speeding ticket lawyer, that’s what I do.

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