When You Need a Lawyer
Whether buying a home, drawing up a will, or doing any one of the many things that require professional legal assistance, almost everyone - sooner or later - needs the help of a lawyer. This brochure is designed to give some basic information about lawyers so you can take better advantage of the services they can provide.
What is a lawyer? A lawyer is a member of your community who has been licensed to practice law. That right to practice, which is granted by the Montana Supreme Court, is your assurance that he or she has been found qualified to represent you properly. To practice law in Montana, all attorneys must be members of the State Bar of Montana. To be admitted to the Bar they must complete college and graduate from an accredited law school, pass a comprehensive examination given by the Board of Bar Examiners, be of good character, and pledge to uphold the Constitutions of the United States and the state of Montana and to discharge their duties as attorneys to the best of their ability. As members of the Bar, attorneys must regularly attend "continuing legal education" seminars on various areas of the law. This helps them stay up-to-date on the law, so that they may better serve their clients. A lawyer is first and foremost an officer of the court, authorized to explain and interpret the law for you and to represent your interests both in and out of court.
When should I see a lawyer? A person who is accused of a crime or is sued for damages in a civil suit, usually becomes acutely aware of the need for professional legal help. But legal assistance is highly desirable and often indispensable in many other situations in life which may have nothing to do with crime or a court action. In many instances, the best time to see a lawyer is not when you are in legal trouble but before that trouble occurs. Never think of a lawyer as a "last resort." Preventive law is one of the most valuable services a lawyer can perform for you. Like preventive medicine, it seeks to eliminate potential problems. Preventive law can also help you save money. Costly legal problems can often be avoided by ironing out the legal wrinkles in advance. Having an attorney draw up important papers can spare you from unwelcome problems later on.
Some of the situations in which you should consult a lawyer are:
When your status changes. Coming of age, marriage, the birth or adoption of children, and moving to a different state may result in new or different legal and personal responsibilities. Such may also require changes in the way you conduct your business or financial affairs. Your lawyer can help you plan for and meet such obligations, including the preparation of various legal documents which may be required.
When you make or revise a will. The planning and drafting of your will is an important legal matter. In drafting your will, your lawyer can plan your estate in a way that will be most beneficial to you and to those for whom you wish to provide. Your lawyer can suggest proper methods whereby substantial savings in taxes and other estate costs may be realized.
When you buy or sell real estate. Whenever you buy or sell real estate, you should have legal counsel. A real estate broker may be most helpful in putting the transaction together. But a broker may not prepare certain documents necessary to the transaction nor give legal advice as is often needed. There are potential legal pitfalls in the buying or selling of any real estate which can be avoided only by one with knowledge of the laws relating to real estate, taxes, insurance, contracts, and other related subjects. Your lawyer can protect you against such pitfalls.
When you enter into any contract. Any agreement, oral or written, which involves a consideration - that is, the exchange of something of value in return for some goods or services - may be binding and enforceable. As a general rule, oral agreements should be avoided and written agreements should be either prepared or examined by a lawyer on your behalf before you sign them, particularly an agreement representing a major financial obligation.
When you are involved in an accident. If you are involved in an accident of any kind resulting in personal injury or property damage you should consult with your lawyer. He or she can help you protect your rights and should be contacted immediately in order that such action may be taken quickly. In addition, you should notify your casualty insurance company immediately.
The law exists to protect your rights, but often you must take definite action to make those laws work for you. Your lawyer is prepared to protect and enforce your rights under the law in all your personal or business affairs.
How do I choose a lawyer? Selecting a lawyer is a personal matter. You may want to ask a friend, relative, or employer to recommend someone that they know and trust or you can contact the State Bar's Lawyer Referral & Information Service at (406) 449-6577. If you cannot afford a lawyer, you may call the Montana Legal Services Association. Legal Services offices serve many Montana counties and can be reached by contacting (800) 666-6899. If you are involved in a criminal matter and cannot afford a private attorney, the court will appoint someone to represent you.
Is what I tell my lawyer confidential? A lawyer's professional relationship with a client is similar to that of a doctor or clergyman. Your attorney - without your consent - may not reveal anything you have said in confidence in the course of that relationship. No court or other authority can force a lawyer to do so.
What should I tell my lawyer? It is absolutely essential that you provide all of the facts relating to your case, both favorable and unfavorable. Unless you are completely candid, your attorney will be unable to advise and represent you properly. At the same time, your lawyer must be loyal to the administration of justice, of which he or she is a sworn supporter, and to society. Thus, while he or she may use on your behalf all legitimate means, your lawyer must not resort to illegal or unethical tactics or untruths. A lawyer is at all times an officer of the court as well as your advocate.
How do lawyers charge for their services? Lawyers generally charge for their service by an hourly billing rate, a contingent fee or a flat rate. Which of these methods is used depends on the type of matter involved. If you would like more information on how lawyers set their fees, there is available from the State Bar of Montana a separate brochure entitled "How Lawyers Set Their Fees". You should discuss any additional questions about fees with the lawyer you select to represent you.
Because of the nature of the law, there will nearly always be a "winner" and a "loser" in a lawsuit. No lawyer can guarantee results in a contested matter. The fact that your case was "lost" is probably not sufficient grounds for a complaint.
Can I handle my own legal matters? A number of do-it-yourself "kits" are offered for sale from time to time for such actions as getting a divorce, making a will, declaring bankruptcy, forming a corporation, or writing a contract. It is not illegal for you to use these for your own affairs; however, you must be prepared to accept the consequences of such action should difficulties arise. Do-it-yourself law kits may appear on the surface to save money. But even a minor detail in your case - a detail that your attorney would have been trained to notice - could result in a loss far greater than what you "save" by trying to be your own lawyer.
Can I hire a paralegal or a friend to help me? It is illegal for any person who is not a member of the State Bar of Montana to give you legal advice or to act on your behalf in a legal matter in Montana. Be cautious about having a friend help you or hiring a non attorney to assist you with legal matters. This is considered the unauthorized practice of law and only attorneys licensed to practice law in the State of Montana can give legal advice, draft legal documents or represent you. Check here if you have questions or for more information about the Unauthorized Practice of Law.
If your case is not too complicated, you can start understanding the legal issues involved by consulting Montana's web site for free legal information at www.MontanaLawHelp.org.
Last updated June 2009
This information is intended to inform you about Montana law generally. It is not intended as advice. You are encouraged to speak to an attorney regarding the specifics of your situation.
Lawyer Referral & Information Service. If you need legal assistance and do not know an attorney, call the Montana Lawyer Referral & Information Service. You will be referred to a lawyer appropriate to your location and problem. Call 406-449-6577.