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The law is a broad topic that touches on nearly every aspect of life. Everyone has at least some familiarity with legal topics from television, movies, and personal experiences.
In the United States, the legal system derives from English common law — making the structure of the legal system more similar to those in former British colonies than the systems in place in other parts of the world. The adversarial approach to reaching a resolution is one of the main features of the common law system, which uses attorneys on both sides of a dispute presenting cases under the neutral supervision of a judge.
You’re probably familiar with these roles in the context of a criminal case. An accused person is represented by a defense attorney on one side, with the state represented by a prosecuting attorney on the other. The civil law equivalent of that is the plaintiff, who brings the case, on one side with a defendant, who is being accused of something, on the other.
There are, however, lots of other types of legal practice beyond and within these well-known categories. Though the topic of law is one that requires lots of books — law school takes three years to complete — you’ll be introduced to many of the basics in this article.
What is criminal law?
Criminal law is probably the most well-known type of legal practice. Criminal trials make the news and provide fodder for documentaries, TV shows, movies, podcasts, and anecdotes. Trials, however, are only one small part of the criminal justice system.
Did you know that less than 10% of criminal cases go to trial?
Though the statistics vary from year to year, usually around 95% of criminal cases are resolved without reaching a verdict. This number includes those cases that result in a guilty plea or dismissal during trial, but the vast majority of criminal cases are settled as plea bargains, meaning the defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence.
According to the 2019 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, for example, 97.6% of all federal criminal cases in 2019 ended with a plea bargain. This is up from 97.4% the year before and, as the National Law Review points out, has been increasing steadily for decades from a low of 85.4% in 1991.
How does criminal law overlap with other areas of legal practice?
Criminal law crosses over into various other legal practices, too. Many of the rights of criminals are established in the constitution, and often constitutional law is a major factor in getting cases dismissed or in overturning guilty verdicts on appeal. Your right to refuse to allow a search of your home comes from the fourth amendment, for example, which protects you from unreasonable searches (which has come to mean searches without a warrant, generally).
This right includes providing evidence, but there are some gray areas that often arise. Many drunk driving laws, for example, require drivers to submit to blood-alcohol tests without a warrant. While you can refuse, the laws in many states will treat a refusal as an admission that the test would have resulted in a finding that you were over the legal limit for your state.
In order to find someone guilty of a crime like murder, the prosecutor has to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The standard in civil court is much lower, and that’s why you sometimes hear about someone being acquitted at trial but being found responsible in a civil trial. Though terminology can vary between states and jurisdictions, the proof needed to find someone liable in civil cases is much lower than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Typically the standard is “more probable than not” or something similar.
Why is civil law different?
Civil law has a lower standard of proof because the punishments are much less severe. Being convicted in a criminal case can result in fines and restitution, but it can also result in years of prison or even being put to death.
In civil cases, usually, the only thing you can lose is money.
Some types of civil cases can result in loss of property or an injunction, too. An injunction is an order from a judge to make someone do or not do something. This can be as simple as a judge requiring one neighbor to trim a tree to as far-reaching as the supreme court ordering that all public schools must be integrated.
As you might expect from the fact that most civil cases involve money damages, financial law makes up a huge portion of civil actions. This broad area of law can encompass various aspects of business law and contract law as well as legal and medical malpractice.
Some malpractice, especially medical, can be a criminal offense as well.
One area of civil litigation that you’re probably familiar with is class action lawsuits, which is when multiple parties are represented in a suit by one or two cases. Class action lawsuits are often brought against a previous employer or company, but they can stretch to a number of cases.
Most likely, you’ve received a postcard, a letter, or even an email (be careful with email notifications, as they could be a phishing attack) telling you that you are part of a class and that you can opt out of the class action lawsuit or remain a part of the class and get your share of the damages. You may even have gotten a few dollars from such a case or been given a year of free antivirus software. Sometimes, of course, the class action cases result in much more for members of the class, too.
What is government law?
Like most of the types of law we’ve discussed so far, government law isn’t a perfectly defined area of practice, but rather a type of legal practice that includes and overlaps with many others.
Constitutional law, for example, was already discussed in the criminal law section, but it’s undeniable that legal practice involving the constitution is a part of government law practice, too. Infringing on the rights guaranteed by the constitution – freedom of speech, protection from cruel and unusual punishment, right to vote – is a crime, can result in civil action, and is undeniably under the umbrella of government law.
Other areas of law that can be considered part of government law are:
- Intellectual property law: copyright law, patent law, and trademark law all fall under federal intellectual property law. These laws protect the rights of inventors and artists to profit from their work while also dictating when works become part of the public domain.
- Immigration law: the laws that govern how people visit, live in, and become citizens of the U.S. are all entirely under the jurisdiction of federal law.
- Tax law: The federal government and state governments govern taxes on income, sales taxes, and various other forms of tax. Whether it’s a state institution or the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, all tax law is part of government law practice.
There are more areas of law that fall under government law.
In addition, there are other types of law that are often categorized as being part of government law. The government is in charge of all maritime and aviation law, for example. Employment and labor law are also often under this heading, though violating employment rights (federal or state) can result in civil or criminal liability, too.
Administrative law is another form of government law. Typically, administrative law deals with fine points of federal and state regulation and transactions – not as exciting or well-known an area of law as criminal law, but essential to the functioning of the government.
As has been said before, government law crosses over into nearly every other aspect of law. Appeals courts like the U.S. Supreme Court often hear cases of all sorts. We may mostly hear about the Supreme Court weighing in on governmental matters, but they also hear criminal, civil, and even family law appeals.
How is family law different from other areas of legal practice?
Family law is pretty self-explanatory – it’s law that has to do with families. Of course, there are plenty of family issues that aren’t part of family law. A crime committed by one family member against another is still covered by criminal law.
If a family member breaks a contract or violates the terms of a will or some other document created under the banner of estates law, it’s still going to be adjudicated in a civil court or perhaps a probate court.
Family law governs the creation, addition to, and dissolution of families.
Generally, the creation part of family law refers to marriage or civil unions. Often, this is just licensing and ceremony, but sometimes there are prenuptial or postnuptial agreements as well.
Custody, Adoptions, and Child Protection Services
Adding to a family often happens naturally, with no courts involved. Sometimes, though, a person or family chooses to adopt or loses or gains custody of a child. Legal guardianships, adoptions, and child protective services are all part of family law in most jurisdictions.
The most well-known part of family law is divorce law. Divorce law includes spousal support or alimony law as well as many instances of child custody law. When a marriage is ended, the court will have to decide what is a fair distribution of the assets of the marriage, and sometimes this includes one spouse having to pay support to the other.
The goal of a divorce settlement is to be as fair as possible in the division of assets while considering the circumstances of the marriage and the roles each partner had in it.
The goal of child custody, however, in divorce or in other family law proceedings, is simply the best interest of the child.
Family law compared to other types of legal practice
One other major difference between family law and other areas of legal practice is how attorneys are compensated. In civil cases, a lawyer can work on a contingency basis. You’ve probably seen ads for auto accident attorneys claiming that they don’t get paid unless they win your case.
This practice is forbidden in family law cases. Since the standards in family law are either a fair division of assets or the best interest of the child, basing an attorney’s fee on the amount recovered would result in attorneys working for bigger paydays instead of the goals the court wishes to achieve.
If you’re ever involved in a family law matter, it’s best to find a family law attorney who specializes in your area of need. Complex divorces and negotiating child custody require specialized experience and training. However, if you have a very simple divorce, it’s possible that it’s something a general practice attorney can handle.
What is a general practice attorney?
General practice attorneys may be confused for family law attorneys since often the “family lawyer” is actually a general practitioner and not a family law attorney.
Think of a general practice attorney like a general practice doctor. You might go see your family doctor when you’re sick to find out what’s going on and what specialist you need to see, and often the family doctor can take care of what you need. If they can’t, they can usually point you toward a specialist who can provide the unique skills you need.
You wouldn’t want your general practice doctor to perform brain surgery on you or treat a rare disease, but seeing them is usually a good first step.
Similarly, a general practice attorney often can’t defend you if you’re charged with murder or be lead counsel on a million-member class-action lawsuit. They can, however, appear for you if you’re charged with a DUI or help settle a boundary dispute or maybe even help you buy a house. For more complex things, though, they can also help you find the specialized attorney that you need.
What does a general practice attorney do?
Most general practice attorneys are able to do most of the things most people would need from an attorney. They can create simple estate planning documents, review contracts, and at least begin a resolution of various legal disputes.
One exception recently has been real estate. After the financial crisis of the 2000s, greater security was put in place for loans and mortgages. This created greater expenses for attorneys who dealt in real estate and resulted in many lawyers who only did a little real estate work opting out of the area of practice altogether.
The least you need to know
The bottom line on legal matters is that there aren’t any quick and easy answers. Becoming a lawyer takes seven years of education beyond high school and even then many wouldn’t dream of taking on a matter outside their experience and specialization. In fact, lawyers can get in trouble or even lose their license for trying to represent someone in a case they’re not qualified for.
Laws can and do change all the time
Every year the federal and state governments are debating, writing, and passing laws that can and do change what’s legal and how to approach working through the legal system to resolve disputes.
With all these complications, you should always find trustworthy legal help instead of trying to solve complex legal issues yourself. Learning more about these topics can help you figure out what you need to look for in an attorney and help you understand your options, but it’s usually not a good idea to go it alone.
There’s even a saying about lawyers who decide to represent themselves: a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.
So, if you need legal advice, do your research and reach out to a professional. Many attorneys will meet with you and discuss your problem for free or for a low consultation fee. Though attorneys certainly can be expensive, it can cost a lot more to try and handle complex legal problems by yourself.