What is a General Practice Attorney?
UPDATED: April 28, 2020
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- A general practice attorney can handle most common legal issues
- You may never need any attorney more specialized than a general practice attorney
- Real estate law is no longer something most general practice attorneys can take on
- General practice attorneys can usually recommend an expert when you need one
If you had to name some famous attorneys from history or fiction, you would probably come up with a list that included a lot of legal specialists. Law & Order was full of criminal prosecutors and defense attorneys. Johnny Cochran and Perry Mason are examples of a historical and fictional defense attorney, respectively.
Gloria Allred and Thurgood Marshall both made their names as civil rights litigators, and John Grisham's fiction is full of attorneys specializing in niche areas of practice ranging from torts to business law to criminal defense.
A lot of attorneys aren't those kinds of specialists, though, so what is a general practice attorney? We've got answers.
Many practice different types of law as general practice attorneys. That statement leads naturally to the next question: What is a general practice attorney?
Once you know the answer you can enter your ZIP code above to find exactly the right attorney for your needs, including general practice attorneys who may offer free consultations near you.
What is a general practice attorney?
A good way to think about a general practice attorney is in comparison to a general practice doctor or medical practice. Commonly also referred to as a family practice, a general medical practice tends to be the place that people go for regular, non-emergency medical care.
In the field of medicine, a general practitioner is where you would go for a check-up or for your vaccinations, for example. You would take your kids there for strep throat or a sports physical. You might go see this kind of doctor to treat a non-emergency injury or to manage prescriptions.
You would not go to the family doctor if you had a medical emergency, though. If you suddenly came down with an exotic disease, your family doctor wouldn't be much help. If you needed brain surgery or a kidney transplant, the family doctor would not treat these issues.
A general practice attorney or law firm is pretty similar. Many general practice attorneys can provide a broad range of services that will be more than enough for most people most of the time. If you have an especially complex or specialized legal issue — just like if you have a complex or specialized medical need — the general practitioner might not be up to the task.
In both cases, though, the general practice doctor or lawyer will be able to provide guidance and recommendations for the specialist that you need.
What does a general practice lawyer do?
Though there are a variety of potential reasons, typically there are two main situations that lead to an attorney having a general practice. The first type of general practice attorney is one who is just starting out in their own practice.
While building up a practice, turning away a client isn't always a good idea, or even possible. Often, these attorneys will take on whatever cases and matters they can, both to build their practice and to find the kind of legal work they may want to specialize in.
The other type of general practice attorney, typically, is probably what you think of as a local, small-town attorney. Probably less common now than in the past, there are still plenty of communities where just a few attorneys are available to serve the people who live there.
Typically there are no special requirements for being a general practice lawyer. There is also no difference in earning potential for general practice attorneys rather than specialists. Though lawyers practicing in an in-demand specialty may charge a higher contingency or more per hour, a general practice lawyer is paid in the same way.
Like all lawyers, there really is no such thing as a general lawyer's salary. Instead, they bill by the hour or work on contingency. So how much does a general practice lawyer make? That depends on the arrangements that lawyer makes with clients. If a general practice lawyer is new to the practice of law, they usually will charge lower rates than experienced specialists.
What's a general lawyer's job description?
A lot of people will only need the services of an attorney a few times in their lives. While these are rare and unusual occurrences, the majority of needs most people will have are relatively straightforward, common tasks for a general practice attorney, such as the following:
- Creating a will, trust, or estate plan
- Serving as an estate executor
- Handling a straightforward civil lawsuit (as plaintiff or defendant)
- Drafting or reviewing a contract
- Dealing with a minor criminal matter (a traffic ticket or misdemeanor)
Usually, what a general practice attorney can offer in the wide range of practice areas is at the expense of depth of expertise. With that in mind, it's important to consider one of the most important things a general practice attorney can do for a client: your general practice attorney can help find a good lawyer when you need an expert in a narrow field of practice.
In a lot of instances, a general practice attorney will take on relatively straightforward matters for clients they have relationships with, even if it's something they wouldn't normally do. Family law, which includes divorce and custody, is generally a specialized field. If a general practice attorney has a client with a simple divorce, though, they may be willing to take on the matter.
Will general attorneys handle real estate?
One of the things that many general practice attorneys have done traditionally is to handle real estate transactions. It was typical for a lot of attorneys to be able to assist with selling a house, buying a house, or acquiring or disposing of land from time to time.
This changed in the last few years, however. The passage of legislation in the wake of the financial downturn related to mortgage-backed securities led to many attorneys stepping away from real estate transactions. The protections put in place required attorneys to invest in encryption and off-site servers, adding a lot of costs to any practice that handled real estate.
As a result, a lot of general practice attorneys couldn't justify continuing to do occasional real estate work. The added expense simply wasn't justified for doing only a few transactions a week or a month — though most attorneys will be able to provide a few recommendations for real estate attorneys near you.
What are the different types of lawyers?
Just like you wouldn't ask your family doctor to do open heart surgery, you wouldn't want to ask your general practice attorney to defend you in a death penalty case.
If you have a relationship with a general practice attorney, it's a good idea to ask them about any legal issues you encounter. Typically, they can tell you if it's something they can handle, and if it's beyond them, they can suggest some more experienced attorneys in that specific area of practice who could help.
Every jurisdiction has rules of professional conduct that require attorneys to have experience or training to competently take on a matter or to be able to devote sufficient time to become competent through study or consultation. These rules make it possible for an attorney to take on an unfamiliar matter, but only if it's relatively straightforward.
You may want to find a specialist — with your general practice attorney's help if possible — if you are dealing with:
- Complex trusts, estates, or wills
- Medical malpractice or other personal injury cases
- A serious criminal offense or felony
- Real estate transactions
- Personal or business tax law problems
- Workers compensation or employment law matters
If you have a good relationship with a general practice attorney, it may be a good idea to reach out to them first, even if the issue is one that they might not be able to help with. Not only will they have relationships with other attorneys, but they may have training or specialization you don't know about, too.
Imagine an attorney who has a general practice, but finds many clients in need of a certain specialized area of law. They might seek additional training and education in that area of law — tax law or intellectual property law for example — and be well-equipped to handle complex matters in those fields even though they remain a general practice attorney.
Maybe you don't want to do all that extra training, though. You might be wondering "how do I prepare to become a lawyer?" The general practice lawyer requirements are the same basic requirements as any other lawyer: anyone who has been certified by their state to practice law can be a general practice lawyer.
Typically you have to attend law school and pass your state's bar exam to be an attorney, whether you have a specialty practice or plan to meet the general lawyer job description instead.
How do I know what kind of lawyer I need?
General practice attorneys are usually able to handle most common, straightforward legal needs. Due to attorney rules of professional conduct, an attorney will not take on a matter when they aren't able to provide competent representation.
Regulatory action in the last decade or so has also made it less likely that a general practice attorney can assist in real estate matters.
However, many people will find most of their legal needs met through a general practice attorney, and even if the matter is beyond that attorney's abilities or training, a general practice attorney will often be a great resource to find the specialist you need.
Remember, though, that every general practice attorney will have a different set of skills, education, and experience.
If you don't have a relationship with a general practice attorney and aren't sure whether you need a specialist in a particular field of law, there are options. Asking friends, colleagues, and neighbors might be a good way to start. In addition, many communities have services to help those with legal needs find attorneys.
For immediate results, you can begin your search by entering your ZIP code and other information in the search tool below to find attorneys in your area, including finding a general law attorney near you.