Republished from: Montana State Bar Association,

Whether buying a home, drawing up a will, or doing any number of things that require professional legal assistance, almost everyone will need the help of a lawyer.

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 are required to 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 an attorney to the best of their abilities. As a member of the Bar, attorneys must regularly attend "continuing legal education" seminars on various aspects of the law. This helps the 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?

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 include:

  • 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. This 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 that might 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 which may provide substantial savings in taxes and other estate costs.

  • 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, however they may not prepare certain necessary documents nor give proper legal advice as often as 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 from such pitfalls.

  • When You Enter into Any Contract. Any agreement, oral or written, which involves a consideration (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, especially in 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 so that proper action can be taken. In addition, you should notify your casualty insurance company immediately.

The law exists to protect your rights but, more often than not, 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 of 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. You can also contact the State Bar's Lawyer Referral and 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 calling 1(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, to your lawyer. Your attorney won't be able to properly advise and/or represent you without you being completely candid with them. Your lawyer, however, must still be loyal to the administration of justice which means that he or she must not resort to any illegal or unethical tactics and must remain truthful.

How Do Lawyers Charge for Their Services?

Lawyers generally charge for their services on an hourly billing rate, a contingent fee, or a flat rate. Which billing method is utilized depends on the type of matter being worked on. You should discuss any specific questions about fees with your lawyer. Additional information can be found here.

Can I Handle My Own Legal Matters?

A number of do-it-yourself "kits" are offered for sale from time to time for legal actions such as divorce, creating a will, declaring bankruptcy, forming a corporation, or writing a contract. It is not illegal for you to use these for your own legal affairs. You must be prepared to accept the consequences of such action should any difficulties arise. Do-it-yourself law kits may appear to save money on the surface, however any minor detail in your case that you might have overlooked (which could easily be noticed by an attorney) could result in a loss far greater than what you might save by being 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 any legal matter in Montana. Be cautious about hiring a non-attorney, including friends, to assist you with legal matters. This is considered an 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. More information about the Unauthorized Practice of Law can be found here.




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