The practice of law in the state is overseen by the Supreme Court of New Jersey. To become an attorney, a person must have graduated from a law school approved by the American Bar Association and passed the bar exam. In the bar exam conducted in October 2020, 66% of the 1,407 applicants passed the exam, a mark consistent with pass rates from the previous five years. According to the annual survey of the American Bar Association, New Jersey had 40,137 active resident attorneys in 2021. After admission, attorneys in private practice also must designate a location in the state where an agent is available to accept subpoenas and other notices; they also must comply with requirements for continuing legal education and for payment of annual assessments of the funds established to reimburse clients or others who have been subject to attorney malpractice or other unethical or wrongful conduct. Other rules allow for limited practice in specific situations by law students and--in specific cases with approval of the court in a pending matter--attorneys not admitted in New Jersey who have been admitted in other states if they are associated in the matter with New Jersey counsel of record qualified to practice.
Complaints against attorneys are heard through district ethics committees supervised by a Director of the Office of Attorney Ethics appointed by the state Supreme Court, with discipline ranging from reprimands, suspension for limited periods or disbarment. A database of New Jersey attorneys who have been disciplined from 1984 through the last full calendar year is maintained online by the Office of Attorney Ethics.
Additionally, any person may appear without an attorney to prosecute or defend an action in any New Jersey court if he or she is a real party in interest to the action or the guardian of a real party in interest.
Salary ranges for attorneys vary widely depending on the region and city, with North Jersey tending to higher levels than in South Jersey and more rural areas; other factors affecting salary levels include the size of the firm, education, certifications in specialties and number of years spent in practice. According to the web site Salary.com, the average New Jersey attorney salary as of August 27, 2021 was $107,501, with a range falling between $91,651 and $124,348. Another web site, CareerExplorer.com, states that the average salary for a lawyer in New Jersey is $119,540 per year. The salary averages, however, significantly understate the salary levels at the top law firms; in 2021, for example, new lawyers just out of law school at major New York City firms were receiving annual salaries in excess of $200,000, a rate which the top New Jersey firms also approached as they competed for the top talent. Senior lawyers at large New Jersey firms make well over a million dollars annually.
Newark Court House circa 1880s. Image: NewJerseyAlmanac.com
- Finding a Lawyer: - Word-of-Mouth
Despite the transformation of how decisions are made in choosing services brought about by the digital revolution, the decision to hire a lawyer remains to a great extent reliant on the traditional method of word-of-mouth through asking family, friends or business and social contacts for suggestions. Person-to-person contacts, of course, have now been augmented by digital communication through email or over sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Advertising by attorneys, once prohibited as unethical in New Jersey and most other states, is now prevalent in print and digital media to assist in selecting a lawyer and nearly all law firms post their own Web sites to promote their services and provide profiles of their attorneys.
To be sure, the tried and true path of asking others to recommend lawyers can often identify attorneys who have shown that they have produced quality results for those whom one trusts and respects. Yet it also poses risks. Personal experience with lawyers is highly dependent on the type of legal work which was performed. A client who sought an attorney to create a business, for example, is often ill-suited to write a will, but informal exchanges on who to hire as a lawyer frequently do not go into the details of what and how the work was performed.
- Directories and Online search
The New Jersey Judiciary posts its own Attorney Search online tool to aid in finding New Jersey attorneys, which allows users to search for attorneys with information on their date of admission, current status to practice law, and county and municipality of their business office. The state Supreme Court, through its Board on Attorney Certification, has also created a process to aid consumers to find attorneys who have a recognized level of competence in particular fields of law, which currently include civil trial law, criminal trial law, matrimonial law, municipal court law, and workers' compensation law. Attorneys are allowed to use the designation of "certified attorney" if they: are able to demonstrate sufficient levels of experience, education, knowledge and skill in these areas of practice; have passed an examination; and have been recognized by their peers as having sufficient skills and reputation in the designated specialty. The Supreme Court posts a Certified Attorney database searchable by name, location or specialty.
Other online attorney directories are published by the New Jersey State Bar Association (through an affiliation with LegalMatch.com) and county bar associations. Most county bar associations also maintain lawyer referral and other free or low-cost advisory services. Examples include the Essex County Bar Association, the state's largest county bar association, which offers a referral service and initial consultation at $25 for a 30-minute consultation and the Burlington County Bar Association, which operates a lawyer referral service along with consultation for Family Law at $75 for a one hour consultation and any other type of law at $35 for a 30-minute consultation. The American Bar Association also posts a “Find Legal Help” guide on the Internet.
For those seeking a New Jersey attorney, another option may be to review the officers and committees of bar associations in specific fields such as wills and estates, real estate, criminal or commercial law for those attorneys recognized as experienced in these specific practice areas (see, for example, the standing committee lists and membership of the State Bar Association and lists of Specialty Bar Associations).
- Directories & Rankings -
- Martindale-Hubbell - First published in 1868 by James B. Martindale, a lawyer and businessman, the directory later known after a merger as The Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, even during the years when legal advertising was prohibited, was a standard reference used by other lawyers to learn of the backgrounds and experience of firms and individual attorneys based on their ethical standards and legal ability as judged by their peers and reviews from clients. Current listings are included for over one million lawyers and firms in US, Canada and worldwide. Based in New Providence in Union County, the Directory's parent company RELX (formerly Reed-Elsevier) also owns LexisNexis®, the leading legal research database of court decisions, laws and regulations, and lawyers.com®, an online version of the Law Directory for the consumer market ..
- New Jersey Lawyers Diary and Manual - Another publication with a long history as a print reference book is The New Jersey Lawyers Diary and Manual, which was first published in 1939 in Newark as an offshoot of a firm founded as a courier service running papers between Newark firms and the courts. The Lawyers Diary, (commonly referred to by lawyers as "the Red Book" from the color of its cover), continues as a staple of most law offices, with a database of judges, courts, lawyers, government agencies and court rules, fees and fines. Like the Martindale-Hubbell Directory, The Lawyers Diary also has evolved to offer a Web-based version branded as LDMonline. - US News & World Report - As part of its annual national ranking of law firms, US News & World Report, publishes a list, which includes a section of Best Law Firms in New Jersey, based on surveys of clients and professional references addressing a firm's expertise, responsiveness, business understanding, cost-effectiveness, civility, and whether they would refer another client to the firm.
- Best Lawyers - Best Lawyers publishes lists of lawyers compiled by conducting peer review surveys in which thousands of leading lawyers confidentially evaluate their professional peers. Lawyers selected must maintain their rating in subsequent polls to remain in each edition. No fee is charged lawyers to participate in the surveys or to be recognized by Best Lawyers. Its database is searchable by state and city, including New Jersey.
- Super Lawyers - Super Lawyers is a national rating service of lawyers from more than 70 practice areas who have attained high peer recognition. The selection process includes independent research, peer nominations and peer evaluations. Its 2021 edition lists 100 New Jersey attorneys.
- New Jersey Law Journal - The New Jersey Law Journal is the primary source of news and information relating to judicial decisions, legislative activity and developments affecting law firms and attorneys, including retention of major clients and rankings by number of attorneys and amount of revenues. Founded in 1878 as an independent print newspaper, it is now owned by ALM Media, which publishes Law.com, the leading legal industry media platform with over 18 online US national and regional legal publications that deliver news, rankings, and reports. While primarily read by attorneys, its news on leading judicial decisions, attorney hires and law firm rankings may be helpful for potential clients in researching and selecting legal representation. Other online directories, some with additional background information and advertising, can be found at sites such as FindLaw.com; Avvo.com; Nolo.com and LegalShield.com.
- Online Legal Services -
Some national web sites have gone beyond attorney listings to offer a range of online legal services. Initially, these national sites faced opposition in New Jersey and other states focused on their diverting legal work from in-state legal practices and raising issues over whether they were engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, but most of the objections have faded as a result of the web services hiring in-state attorneys to draft or oversee relevant documents or other work within the state. One of the oldest, most promoted and most comprehensive sites is LegalZoom, which offers do-it-yourself legal filings and documents such as wills and contracts, supplemented by a paid legal subscription plan that gives customers access to a network of attorneys who provide consultations and handle more complex services. Other sites with a range of services include:
LegalShield (monthly membership fees start at $24.95 for individuals and $49 for small businesses, cover basic services, individual plan includes unlimited consultations and legal document reviews with a licensed attorney. Its Last Will Estate Plan includes assistance from a lawyer to create will and testament, financial power of attorney and living will, plus one year of ongoing legal guidance related to estate, priced at $179 for one person or $279 for two people)
Avvo (offers free question on legal issue answered by a licensed attorney, also online database of some 16 million answers to previously submitted questions, online legal documents; parent company Internet Brands also holds interests in Lawyers.com, AllLaw.com, Martindale-Hubbell and Nolo)
Rocket Lawyer (free legal documents, including wills, contracts, and free legal information with access to representation by licensed attorneys; premium memberships $39.99 monthly gives free access to all documents, contracts and forms, sign and store documents online, answers on legal questions from experienced attorneys, non-member fees include document preparation $39.99, 30-minute consultation on every new legal matter $59.99, incorporation filing $99.99. Rocket Lawyer On Call plan includes a free family will or incorporation of business free from legal fees)
Lawyers.com (consumer version of Martindale-Hubbell directory, free question and answer service, lawyer lists and legal articles)
Incfile (limited liability company incorporation charges $75 state filing fee, other plans $224 one-time fee with incorporation tax ID numbers, IRS forms etc, EIN Business Tax Number, $374 one-time fee adds business contract templates. web domain name and email, bank resolution)
OnlineDivorce.com (online divorce documents and filing in US states and Canada, uncontested divorce starts at $139, contested divorce $2000)
CompleteCase.com (uncontested divorce services cost $299, with no additional fees for children, assets, or minor alterations)
Nolo (network of over 50 web properties of free legal information; do-it-yourself products include online forms and software with step-by-step instructions, offers links to over 30,000 local lawyers;. Nolo Willmaker provides will, heatlhcare directive and final arrangement documents for $89, higher fees for premium packages for trusts).
Justia (leading legal information portal with over 10 million monthly visits to view court decisions and opinions, also free lawyer profiles)
There is no requirement to retain an attorney for representation in court, although it is highly recommended for complex matters. In New Jersey, the most frequent situations in which people represent themselves are matters in municipal courts and small claims court.
The Municipal Courts in New Jersey are considered courts of limited jurisdiction, having responsibility for motor vehicle and parking tickets, minor criminal-type offenses (for example, simple assault and bad checks), municipal ordinance offenses (such as dog barking or building code violations) and other offenses, such as fish and game violations. A Municipal Court usually has jurisdiction only over cases that occur within the boundaries of its municipality. Many serious criminal cases, such as robbery, auto theft, or assault, start out as complaints filed in the Municipal Court but are then transferred to the Superior Court located at the county courthouse.
The Small Claims Court (a division of the New Jersey Special Civil Part Court), hears lawsuits for $3,000 or less, most often on landlord-tenant disputes for rent, product defects, home and property damage and repairs, bad checks and the like. Renters also can file for a return of a security deposit of $5,000 or less, but evictions must be filed in the Superior Court, not in the Small Claims Court. Other cases that cannot be filed as small claims include malpractice claims against doctors, dentists, lawyers, or other professionals; claims for child support or alimony; cases involving wills and inheritance; and claims seeking anything other than money from the defendant.
Legal assistance is also available to those without sufficient funds to retain an attorney in civil or criminal matters.
The nonprofit Legal Services in New Jersey, an affiliate of the federally funded nonprofit national Legal Services Corporation that provides grants to local legal aid programs in all 50 states, coordinates the statewide Legal Services system, which provides free legal assistance to low-income New Jerseyans who cannot afford a lawyer on their own for civil legal problems. Legal Services has five regional programs providing direct services to clients in all 21 counties through 23 local offices. The Legal Services program also prioritizes taking cases in matters which may establish precedents to help rebuild impoverished, deteriorating communities, or that address recurrent problems impacting low-income people. Another state-wide program is operated by Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, which provides free legal services throughout the state with over 1,500 attorneys and paralegals who volunteer their time. Nonprofits which focus on cases raising larger public policy issues in civil rights or civil liberties include the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey; GLAAD (Gay lesbian, bisexual, transgender), and the NAACP. New Jersey State Conference.
- Public Defender - Every individual accused of committing a criminal ("indictable") offense in adult court or any offense in juvenile court has a constitutional right to be defended by a lawyer. The New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, a unit of the state government, represents adult and juvenile clients who are charged with criminal and juvenile offenses in New Jersey state courts when the court determines that they cannot afford to hire private lawyers. Clients are fully represented whether or not they can afford to pay, but clients are required to sign agreements to reimburse the state in the future for reasonable fees and costs, including for such costs as obtaining court transcripts or utilizing expert witnesses. At minimum, state law requires that the public defender’s office charge defendants at least $150 and requires payment within six months of the case.
Criminal/juvenile representation also extends to directly-related sentencing matters such as decisions about whether an individual is eligible for certain special kinds of sentences such as Drug Court or Intensive Supervision Parole. Criminal/juvenile representation also extends to violation of probation matters. The Public Defender also will represent, youth who are charged as delinquent or as youth in need of supervision in cases where the judge believes the proceeding could result in institutional commitment. It also provides representation in Family Court to children when they are the subjects of litigation against their parents and/or guardians concerning alleged abuse and/or neglect or possible termination of parental rights. The Public Defender also provides representation to: individuals in mental health-related commitment, review and placement hearings. The Public Defender does not provide representation to individuals facing domestic violence complaints in Family Court; traffic or minor offenses that are handled in local Municipal Courts; or parole violation matters. Through its Division of Mental Health Advocacy, the Public Defender also provides representation to: individuals in mental health-related commitment, review and placement hearings; Division of Developmental disabled and special neeeds clients throughout the state at guardianship hearings; and individuals facing involuntary commitment under the "sexually violent predators" law.
In cases where the Public Defender is not authorized or where it has a conflict, the state Supreme Court has affirmed the duty of all attorneys to represent indigent defendants without pay by having the Administrative Office of the Courts assign attorneys to represent defendants through the Court’s pro bono computer system, which maintains an alphabetical list of attorneys eligible for pro bono assignment for each county.
Indigent persons facing federal criminal charges before the US District Court for the District of New Jersey are represented by the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the District of New Jersey.
Attorney fees are negotiated between the attorney and client, subject to any limits imposed by state law and the general principle that an attorney fee must be reasonable. New Jersey attorneys are required to provide new clients with either (1) a written fee agreement or (2) a letter summarizing the fee arrangement specifying how much the attorney will charge for the relevant work. This must be done when, or shortly after, the attorney first accepts the case, even when there has been a previous attorney-client relationship. The state Supreme Court also has established a system of Fee Arbitration which attempts to resolve disputes over fees before litigation is commenced. District fee arbitration committees throughout the state are maintained by volunteers, with the goal of resolving disputes over attorney fees through binding arbitration, a process which is typically completed more quickly and cheaply than by a court case. * Fee Arbitration, NJ Courts * How much do lawyers charge in New Jersey?, Clio.com * Types of Legal Fees, FindLaw.com - Hourly rates
Attorney hourly fees usually range between $100 and $500 depending on their experience and the type of case, with hourly rates for senior attorneys sometimes reaching $1,000 or more. In discussing retention agreements, it is suggested that potential clients obtain some guidance on who, such as a senior lawyer or a less experienced associate or paralegal, is likely to perform the bulk of work on their matter. Clients also may wish to explore whether there are options to reduce costs, such as the client copying documents outside the law firm, to lower expenses. Travel costs also may be a significant expense, with travel between courthouses, government agencies and other locations adding to bills, and it may be possible to lower costs if a client undertakes to assume routine tasks to pick up or deliver documents or other materials.
- Flat fees Flat fees for specific tasks, such as drafting a will or buying or selling a home, may also be charged, with simple wills often in the range of $500 to $1,000 and real estate transactions also around $1,000 to $1,500. Obviously, in situations with more complexity attorneys will propose higher fees or resist a flat fee agreement in favor of charging for time needed to complete the task. Some online services also offer flat fees covering basic services; the Nolo WillMaker, for example, provides a will, healthcare directive and final arrangement documents for $89, with higher fees for premium packages for more complex situations such as establishing trusts..
A contingent (or contingency) fee, is an attorney fee that is made contingent on the outcome of a case. This type of agreement is most common in personal injury matters--cases to recover damages for bodily injury due to the negligence or malpractice of others, including those caused by motor vehicle accidents, medical malpractice, product defects, falls, or any other cause of bodily harm. In this type of agreement, a client agrees to have the attorney or law firm receive as their fee a percentage of the amount that is recovered on the client's behalf, whether it be through settlement or a jury verdict or judicial decision. If there is no settlement or judgment at the close of the matter, the client does not pay any fee, with the firm or lawyer advancing all the costs. The New Jersey Supreme Court has adopted Rule 1:21-7 stating that a contingent fee arrangement, which is calculated on the amount of the settlement or judgment after costs are deducted, must be in writing and attorneys whose work is based on contingent fees cannot collect fees that are greater than the following percentages per awards: 33 and 1/3% on the first $750,000 that was recovered; 30% on the second $750,000; 25% on the next $750,000; and 20% on the next $750,000. * New Jersey Court Rule 1:21-7. Contingent Fees