When you find yourself in trouble with the law or participating in a legal dispute, it’s time to consider hiring an attorney. It’s rarely the best idea to represent yourself. A lawyer knows the law, your rights, and what to do to increase your chance of obtaining the outcome you want. If you know the other party in a dispute has a lawyer, it’s even more important to ensure you are on even ground.

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If you have never encountered this type of situation or worked with an attorney before, consider the kind of lawyer you should hire.

Is this a criminal or civil matter?

If you are currently under investigation by a law enforcement agency, have been arrested, or have been charged with a crime, then you are involved with a criminal matter. During a criminal case, you are the defendant being brought to trial by a prosecutor on behalf of a state or the federal government. You are accused of breaking a state or federal law. A private citizen can’t file criminal charges against you. In this situation, you need a criminal defense lawyer.

When your matter is not related to breaking a federal or state criminal statute, then it is civil. These matters are between private individuals or businesses. You can file a civil matter or you can be sued by another person or businesses for a civil issue, such as for personal injuries or breach of contract. If you’re being sued or want to sue someone for a civil matter, then you need a civil law attorney who focuses on your specific type of case.

What type of criminal matter?

When you are charged with a crime, it is best to work with an attorney experienced in defending against that specific crime. You should learn your specific charges at your arraignment. If you are charged with a DUI, it’s not helpful to work with an attorney who has never handled a DUI before. That lawyer will be far less effective and more likely to make mistakes than hiring an attorney with numerous DUI cases under their belt.

“It really is important to hire a lawyer who has the background and understands the science of breath and blood testing as well as the law and can appropriately defend the case,” Patrick Barone, a DUI defense attorney and the author of two books on the subject, says of choosing your representation for a DUI charge. “A lawyer who has a great deal of specialized training and education and experience in the area of defending drinking drivers should have the ability to review the police report, any dash-cam videos that exist, as well as all of the documents and things that the police are required to keep relative to the breath and blood test to determine whether or not the police followed their own rules.”

Along with an understanding of the rules of your case and the evidence involved, an attorney with experience in your particular case would know whether to take his chances in front of a jury or hold out for a more favorable plea bargain.

This becomes more important the more serious the offense. If you are accused of a serious violent, sexual, or drug offense, make sure to work with an attorney who regularly handles these cases.

When you are charged with a crime, you also have the right to a public defender. If you cannot afford a private criminal defense attorney, inform the court at your arraignment, or as soon as possible, and a public defender will be assigned to your case.

Is it a federal or state criminal matter?

Not every lawyer can practice in every state or federal court. When it is a state-level crime, you need an attorney who practices in the state where you were charged with a crime. Typically, lawyers are able to practice in a state by passing its bar exam. However, after practicing for a number of years, lawyers may gain admission to a new state through reciprocity, explains legal recruitment firm BCG Attorney Search. If you are charged in federal court, you need an attorney licensed to practice in the federal district where your matter takes place.

When searching for a lawyer, they will be upfront about where they are licensed to practice. You can also verify an attorney’s license with the state licensing agency.

What type of civil matter?

Determining the type of lawyer to hire when you are part of a civil matter can be more difficult since there is an almost endless range of types of civil lawyers. Take a moment to do some research on your specific issue and then search for attorneys who handle that type of claim. If you have a land dispute with your neighbor, a residential real estate attorney can help. If you need a divorce or have a child custody dispute, you should look for a family law attorney. If you think you’re being wrongfully evicted, contact a landlord-tenant lawyer.

Scheduling one or two free consultations will help even more. If you speak with an attorney who is not right for your matter, they can probably recommend you to one who can.

How else can an attorney help?

You don’t need to wait for problems to come up before contacting an attorney. Whether you are starting a small business, filing a patent, or applying for a green card, an attorney specializing in that area can help you navigate the process and ensure your paperwork is in order. Often, when people undergo complicated application processes by themselves—when applying to become a foster parent or take out a loan for a new company—a loose end will unravel into a much larger legal problem.

“It’s a great idea to get some type of advice early,” says S. Benjamin Pleune, a patent litigation attorney with Alston & Bird, about when to start discussing your options with an attorney. “On the other side of the coin, I’ve definitely been in the situation many times where someone comes to me and I say, ‘I wish you would have given me a call 18 months ago, because at this stage, you don’t really have any options.’ Now let’s figure out what that means, but you’re much more limited in what you can do at this later stage.”

While plenty of resources exist online or through government agencies to allow you to navigate the legal system by yourself, your chances of avoiding lengthy future litigation are reduced by consulting with an attorney and taking precautions while they are still available to you.