Q: Why should I hire a lawyer when I can get the same or similar advice, cheaper, from a non-lawyer?
A: The easy answer to this question is to recite the old adage that "you get what you pay for." The real answer is more complicated. There are many trained professionals who can and do provide advice that touches on the practice of law. These professionals are well qualified and well trained. However, non-lawyer professionals often have interests that may, at times, make it difficult for them to provide you with neutral advice that is in your best interest. For example, insurance agents offering estate planning services often recommend estate plans dependent on life insurance. These agents may actively discourage estate plans that do not use life insurance, or they may not even mention the other options. While the recommended plan may be a valid plan, it may not be the best plan for you. A lawyer, on the other hand, is obligated to provide information on all available options and work with the client to select the best alternatives for that client. In this role, the lawyer may suggest that other professionals are needed as part of a team to provide the best solution to a client's problem.
Q: What should I consider before consulting a lawyer instead of a non-lawyer?
A: Under Ohio law, a lawyer must graduate from college and law school. A lawyer must pass the bar examination. A new lawyer must also pass a character and fitness evaluation. Lawyers are bound by a very strict code of professional responsibility--Rules of Professional Conduct--and may lose their license to practice law if the Rules are violated. Lawyers are required to participate in continuing legal education. Perhaps, most importantly, a lawyer can be sued for committing legal malpractice. A non-lawyer cannot be sued for legal malpractice because a non-lawyer is not licensed to practice law.
Q: What else should I consider?
A: Confidentiality and prohibitions against conflicts of interest set lawyers apart from most other professionals. Any information disclosed to a lawyer, with rare exception, is protected by the attorney-client privilege to the extent that a lawyer cannot be required to testify about this information. In contrast, accountants, insurance agents, credit counselors, bankers, brokers, etc., can all be compelled to testify about client communications. Lawyers are also prevented from representing two or more clients with conflicting interests. A conflict of interest arises when two or more persons have differing goals in the same matter. For example, a lawyer would not be allowed to represent both a building developer and the community fighting the development of that same piece of land. Most other professionals can assist clients with competing interests. For example, a bank can provide banking services, an insurance company can sell insurance, or an accountant can manage the books for any number of competing businesses.
Q: How do I get good advice when my problem is more than a legal problem?
A: While many "legal" problems can be solved by simply consulting a competent attorney, some problems extend beyond legal issues. A good attorney is willing to work with a team of qualified professionals, all of whom exercise their best professional judgment on behalf of the client. In fact, in order to meet professional standards, an attorney must engage other professionals if and when it is in the best interest of the client. When planning an estate, for example, a lawyer may be committing legal malpractice by not involving an accountant and an insurance actuary to make projections for wealth growth and needs. The independent judgment and expertise of each professional must be utilized to ensure that the client is properly served. A good professional, whether a lawyer or a non-lawyer, recognizes professional limitations and knows when to bring the expertise of another professional to the table.
Law You Can Use is a weekly consumer legal information column provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. This article was prepared by Stephen S. Mazzei, a partner with the Cincinnati firm of Young Reverman & Mazzei Co., L.P.A., and former chair of the Ohio State Bar Association's Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee.