There are any number of legal issues that you may have questions about. These may relate to civil law or criminal law matters. The civil category covers a broad area and may include things like neighbor or family disputes and contractual breaches. The criminal category encompasses a wide set of crimes, ranging from theft and fraud to manslaughter and murder.

Whatever your legal concern, the first question to ask yourself is: "Do I really need to retain an attorney?"

Legal information and advice can be found on every subject of the law just by inputting keywords into your favorite search engine. There are many free "ask-an-expert" kind of websites. There, you can ask your legal questions anonymously and, if you're lucky, you may receive a public response from an attorney. Or, if you prefer, you can just browse through the answers given to previous questions that are similar to yours. You may decide that asking the expert worked well enough for you and that there is no need to seek formal legal advice after all.

Acting for Yourself

If you do need to go to court, you may decide to act pro se (on your own behalf). This can be accommodated in any court proceeding, whether you are the plaintiff or defendant in a civil case, or a defendant in a criminal case. A judge may afford you some latitude, but in general, the court will require you to follow all of the rules and procedures that an attorney has to follow. This can be overwhelming for some litigants, particularly when it comes to time limits and the proper completion of forms or pleadings. If you choose to represent yourself, make sure that you learn as much as possible about pro se litigation.

Choosing a Lawyer

If your legal issue really does require formal legal advice, then you need to make an informed choice. There is no shortage of lawyers in America. At last count, there were more than one million of them claiming expertise in one or more fields of the law.

Unless your legal matter is a delicate one that you prefer to keep secret, you could ask for referrals from friends or family. You can also search online for an attorney in your state. Make sure that the attorney belongs to professional legal organizations such as the local county and state bar associations. Your state bar association can also refer you to a local attorney who has experience with your type of legal matter. The American Bar Association also provides a Consumers' Guide to Legal Help to assist in your search for the right lawyer.

Check the attorney’s higher educational background, which should be easily accessible on the law firm’s website. What do previous clients think about their services? (Look for testimonials.) Is the attorney held in high standing in the legal community? Any lawyer that you select must be willing and able to dedicate sufficient time to work on your case and not pass it on to a junior lawyer.

Choose an attorney who can demonstrate considerable experience in the area of law that you need. For example, using a criminal lawyer to help you with a contractual dispute is unlikely to achieve the desired result. If you have an injury, you should try to find a personal injury lawyer. If you got that injury in hospital, then you should narrow down your search to medical negligence lawyers.

Meet with your attorney at the earliest time possible. Give the attorney as much information and facts about your legal issue as possible. If it is a criminal matter and you have been charged, make sure that you include any history of previous charges, convictions or sentences. The right attorney will be able to identify key pre-trial issues and issue motions that can improve your defense or even get the case against you dismissed. Your attorney will also explain the charges that have been laid against you, the defenses available to you, what the prosecution may accept by way of plea bargaining, and what to do in the event that you are actually convicted.

The size of your budget should not be the determining factor when deciding whether to seek legal advice from an attorney. Get an idea of fees from the outset and avoid any nasty surprises down the line. An attorney should be willing to devise suitable ways of charging for legal services, such as flat fees, hourly rates or fees for specific areas of the case. The more information that you can provide at your initial consultation, the more accurately your attorney can estimate the fees.

Free legal advice from a flesh-and-blood lawyer is not a myth. It is possible to obtain free legal advice other than through online questions and answers. These are the key places you'll find it:

  • Free Consultations
    Many law firms offer free consultations of around 15 to 30 minutes. Phone your prospective attorney’s office and ask to be scheduled for a free telephone consultation. Make sure that you have a clear list of questions ready for the lawyer to ensure that you don’t waste a minute of your free session.
  • Pro Bono Attorneys
    Look for a pro bono attorney. These are lawyers who will listen to the details of your case and may agree to work for free (or for a reduced fee) if they believe that yours is a worthy cause. Pro bono attorneys are particularly useful when you are on a low income, although you may be put through rigorous checks to prove your income level. The state bar association is a good source of information on pro bono legal services, as is the Department of Justice, which provides information on pro bono states.
  • Charitable Organizations
    There are charitable organizations, such as those that assist victims of domestic violence, that may offer to find you a free lawyer. There are also legal aid services and access to justice programs, which can introduce you to legal advisors offering free consultations.
  • Local Courts
    Check the websites of your county or state courts. Some of these offer free legal clinics or friend-of-the-court services to participants involved mainly in family law cases.