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Document last updated 1/9/2012.

What is an attorney?

An attorney is a person educated to assist people professionally with legal problems and to represent them before courts and government agencies, and to provide legal advice and services.

Are attorneys necessary?
The law is an extremely complex network of statutes, regulations, and court decisions. Without law, our society would be chaotic, and it would be difficult for an individual to engage in most of the activities that we ordinarily take for granted.

It is impossible for anyone to know the meaning of all the law and to keep up with the frequent changes without devoting full attention to studying and working with the law. Therefore, it is essential to have attorneys who are skilled in interpreting the law to advise others about legal matters.

Laws come from many sources, and the laws arising from each source may have a different scope and effect. A lawyer must be familiar with all of the laws within his or her field(s) of practice. In Ohio, the law which governs its citizens can be classified into four groups.

Constitutional law. The United States Constitution is the basic law of the nation, and the Ohio Constitution is the basic law of the State of Ohio. The two are similar in many respects, but where a conflict arises, the federal Constitution usually takes precedence.

Statutory law. Statutes are written laws adopted through legislation, and may come from several sources. For example, statutes affecting the entire state are enacted by the Ohio General Assembly. Federal statutes, enacted by Congress, also affect all of Ohio. Local laws, called ordinances, are enacted by city or village councils. County commissioners, township trustees and other local governing bodies also enact laws.

Administrative law. Many activities subject to statutes or ordinances are so technical or change so often or so fast that they cannot be regulated effectively by statutes or ordinances alone. In such cases, the government agency administering these activities may be authorized to adopt written rules to supplement the statutes. These written rules are called administrative law.

Common law. Common law is a large body of principles, rules, and forms of proceedings that are not founded upon statutory or legislative law, but have become interwoven with the written law through custom, use, and the reported decisions of judges in specific cases. Common law fills in the gaps and helps unify and clarify constitutional, statutory, and administrative law. It is, therefore, indispensable to an effective system of justice. Since common law is based on generations of experience, it gives the law continuity and consistency. At the same time, it is responsive to changing needs.

What are an attorney's qualifications?
To become an attorney in Ohio, a person must earn a bachelor's degree and then graduate from an accredited law school. Law school courses cover contracts, real property, taxation, business organization, criminal law, domestic relations, and many other legal topics.

After graduation from law school, the candidate for admission to the Bar must produce evidence of his or her good moral character and must successfully complete the bar examination, a comprehensive test administered by the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Every active attorney admitted to practice in Ohio must complete 24 hours of accredited continuing legal education coursework every two years to retain his or her license, and there are special educational requirements for new lawyers.

What is legal advice?
When an attorney gives you "advice," it is a conclusion drawn from years of training and study, and perhaps many hours of research to ensure that the advice considers all of the laws affecting your problem.

When should I go to an attorney?
The best time to go to an attorney is before you are in legal difficulty. It is best to consult your attorney before you sign papers or take other action that might seriously alter your legal position.

You should consult your lawyer when:

  • you are planning to enter into a verbal or written contract that has major financial consequences;
  • you are involved in an accident involving injury to persons or damage to property;
  • you are seeking to collect a debt from another person, or someone is taking action to collect a debt from you;
  • you need an opinion about the title to real estate;
  • you want to plan your estate, make a will or create a trust;
  • you are organizing or dissolving a business;
  • you are settling an estate;
  • you are involved in a family situation such as adoption, divorce, etc.;
  • you believe your rights as a consumer or employee have been abused;
  • you believe your civil rights may have been violated.

    How should I go about choosing an attorney?
    Follow the same steps as you would in choosing a doctor or dentist. If you do not know an attorney, ask for a recommendation from your friends, neighbors, employer, or anyone in whom you have confidence. In Ohio, there is also a lawyer referral service in each metropolitan area, operated by the local bar association. (For a web listing of lawyer referral services in Ohio, go to the “public” area of the OSBA website: Also, you may refer to the Yellow Pages of your local telephone directory.

    Remember that when you have a legal problem, you should go to a lawyer. Be wary of advice and opinions from persons who are not lawyers. To consult someone who is not an attorney about a legal problem is always risky and often costly. Generally, no two legal problems are exactly alike.

    What is my attorney's duty to me?
    All attorneys take an oath, upon admission to practice, to uphold the constitutions and the law and to be faithful to their clients.

    Just as your communications with your minister and physician are confidential, so are your private communications with your lawyer. Legal ethics rules prohibit your attorney from disclosing without your permission any information you give him or her during the attorney-client relationship. However, your attorney may disclose your intention to commit a crime and the information necessary to prevent the crime. Your attorney generally cannot be compelled to disclose your private communications with him or her unless you seek advice in committing a crime or fraud, or in other, very limited, circumstances.

    Your attorney's principal duty is to see that you receive the benefit of all your legal rights. An attorney is sworn to conduct cases in an orderly way that will ensure that they may be decided upon their merits. Your attorney may not make any agreement or incur any obligations that might substantially prejudice your interests, without your prior approval.

    What is my duty to my attorney?
    You should be cooperative with and responsive to your attorney. Be truthful, giving your attorney all the facts concerning your case and make a full and fair disclosure of the entire situation. To serve you well, your lawyer must know not only the favorable facts but also those that may be unfavorable. Also, you should be available to your attorney and attend all legal proceedings, as requested. Finally, you should pay your legal bills in a timely manner.

    How is an attorney fee set?
    In determining the fee, an attorney must take into account the difficulties involved in the problem you bring, the amount of time it requires and the value of the results obtained for you. You should keep in mind that, to serve clients efficiently, an attorney must bear certain necessary expenses. From the fees, the attorney must pay for office help, rent, technological equipment and furnishings. Also, an office library must be maintained and regularly updated.

    You should discuss your lawyer's fee at your first consultation. Your attorney may not be able to tell you the exact fee in advance, but usually there can at least be an estimate of the charge or an explanation of the basis on which it will be computed. Sometimes a lawyer's fee is controlled by a statute or fixed by court rules. In some cases involving the recovery of money, the charge may be a percentage of the amount recovered. You should ask the lawyer to put into writing fee and billing agreements to avoid any misunderstanding.

    Why does an attorney defend a person accused of a crime?
    American law is designed to insure that a person who has been accused of committing a crime is given due process. Our constitutions require that an accused person receive a fair trial so that no one will be convicted of a crime that he or she did not commit.

    No matter how unpopular the cause or how unsavory the character, every person has a right to be represented by counsel. If a person is indicted for committing a crime and cannot afford to hire a lawyer, the court will appoint a lawyer to defend that person.

    It is the defendant's awyer's duty to present, by all fair and honorable means, every defense permitted by law to ensure that accused persons are not denied their constitutional rights. It is the prosecutor' duty to present arguments and evidence on behalf of the state. In representing the accused, even someone most people believe is guilty, the lawyer is fulfilling one of the duties of the legal profession.

    What happens when a lawyer's practice closes?
    If a lawyer leaves a law firm, other firm members are generally authorized to review client files, determine what needs to be done, and, if the clients agree, may continue to represent the departing lawyer's clients. A lawyer who leaves a solo practice will notify clients and return all files and property, or get permission to provide files and property to another lawyer approved by the client. If a lawyer dies or leaves a practice abruptly without notifying the clients, and there are ongoing legal matters needing immediate attention, a client should quickly find another lawyer, who can get the necessary information and take appropriate action.

    What is a bar association?
    A bar association is a professional organization of attorneys and judges. Its purpose is to promote a high standard of ethics for its members and to help improve administration of justice. In Ohio, most lawyers are members of the Ohio State Bar Association, a voluntary bar association. There are also bar associations in every county and large city in Ohio.

    Bar association committees work to improve and simplify laws and the legal process. Many bar associations have certified grievance committees to help ensure that the members of the bar adhere to the high standards of conduct prescribed by the Supreme Court of Ohio. Grievance committees have authority under Ohio Supreme Court rules to investigate attorneys' and judges' conduct. Also, the conduct of judges may be investigated by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel or the grievance committee of the Ohio State Bar Association. If a committee finds sufficient facts to indicate a violation of the rules, it may file charges with the Court. The Court then decides whether to order discipline and how severe the sanction will be.

    © Ohio State Bar Association, January 2012

  • LawFacts Pamphlet Series
    Ohio State Bar Association
    PO Box 16562
    Columbus, OH  43216-6562
    (800) 282-6556 or (614) 487-2050

    Funding from the Ohio State Bar Foundation

    This is one of a series of LawFacts public information pamphlets. Others may be obtained through your attorney’s office, by writing the Ohio State Bar Association or through

    Click here to purchase LawFacts Pamphlets.

    The information contained in this pamphlet is general and should not be applied to specific legal problems without first consulting an attorney.

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