Where to turn and what to ask when you need a lawyer
As much as we rely on the legal system to guide, shape and govern our lives, it’s not often we afford legal conflicts much thought until we’re faced with them. But in situations that require the intervention of an attorney, knowing where to turn and who to call can become the biggest determinant in how stressful or stress-free your case becomes.
We spoke with several attorneys in the Greater New Orleans region — encompassing practice areas like immigration law, professional liability, discrimination law and criminal defense — to answer some of our biggest questions about their unique specialties.
In the following pages, these area professionals share their methods for approaching each new case, their clients’ most common misconceptions, and their advice for those seeking representation in order to help our readers act quickly and confidently when taking on a complex legal matter.
“The stakes are high because a professional’s reputation, and sometimes very livelihood, is at issue.”
— MELISSA LESSELL
For matters relating to Insurance Defense & Professional Liability, Melissa Lessell of Deutsch Kerrigan, L.L.P.
From car accidents and medical malpractice to flood damage and workers’ compensation, a vast spectrum of legal issues are encompassed by the insurance and liability umbrella. But what it all boils down to is one question: Who is at fault?
Melissa Lessell, the youngest attorney at Deutsch Kerrigan to ever become an equity partner, most frequently represents professionals — such as other lawyers, insurance agents and healthcare providers — who are faced with lawsuits or complaints.
Lessell says that one of the most common issues professional policyholders encounter in matters of insurance and liability is also one of the most detrimental: not reading the policy.
“A lot of professionals do not read their insurance policies and do not understand the full scope of coverage afforded under it,” Lessell says. “I strongly urge professionals to read their insurance policies in full to get an understanding of what their policy actually provides in terms of coverage. And, under Louisiana law, if a policyholder receives a copy of their policy, they are legally deemed to know the contents of it.”
In other words, ignorance is not bliss: if you have received a copy of your policy, you are bound to its terms whether or not you’ve read and understood them. Lessell says that familiarizing yourself with the kind of policy you have, and provisions contained within it, is critical to understanding how legal fees might impact both the extent of coverage and any resulting judgements or settlements.
“A policy could be an eroding or wasting limits policy, which means that the costs of defense deplete the policy limits,” Lessell says. “Other policies provide that defense costs are outside of the limits. This means that the costs and fees have no impact on the limits of coverage available to respond to a judgment or settlement. Either type of policy is fine, but if a professional has an eroding limit policy and did not realize, they may not have the appropriate coverage.”
Because the nuances of this niche practice area might be difficult for professionals to understand, Lessell prides herself on being readily available for her clients and doing whatever she can to provide a top-quality defense.
“The stakes are high because a professional’s reputation, and sometimes very livelihood, is at issue,” she says. “I know it sounds cheesy, but I can really empathize with that professional, and it is a source of motivation for me. I use a team approach with my clients — we are on the same team and working together to achieve the same goals. I want to work with them to figure out a solution that fits best for them.”
“I know what many foreign nationals are going through and understand their reasons for wanting to immigrate to America; my family and I were once one of them.”
– CRISTIAN SILVA
For matters relating to Immigration Law, Cristian Silva of Silva Law Firm
The many complexities and technicalities of immigration law would be near impossible to navigate without the guidance of an experienced and knowledgeable attorney. Cristian Silva, a French, Spanish and English-speaking attorney who is himself an immigrant from Nicaragua, has more than a decade of experience working on employment-based immigration, family-based immigration and defensive litigation cases.
Silva explains that employment-based immigration applies to foreign nationals who are recruited by employers seeking expertise not readily fulfilled by U.S. citizens. Family-based immigration deals with foreign nationals who are petitioned by relatives who are U.S. citizens, while defensive litigation immigration encompasses a broad range of issues, such as asylum and Special Immigration Juvenile Status, and is meant to provide relief from deportation.
“The most common misconception is that every immigrant is afforded with a pathway to legal status such as legal permanent resident or U.S. citizenship status,” Silva says. “The truth is that immigration laws are quite narrow and exclude many persons from being able to immigrate to the U.S. legally. The sad part of the U.S.’s current immigration system is that it’s easier to come to the U.S. illegally than it is to come legally.”
Because immigration is personal to him, Silva approaches each client with empathy and compassion — especially in cases of family-based immigration, where the stakes are incredibly high for individuals who face separation from their families.
“I know what many foreign nationals are going through and understand their reasons for wanting to immigrate to America; my family and I were once one of them,” Silva says. “It is an extremely difficult choice to leave one’s country, culture, language and belongings. Having lived as an immigrant and witnessed the struggles that my parents went through to survive and later thrive in America drives my motivation to help others who are in similar circumstances. I understand them. I empathize with them. I know their fears.”
Even so, Silva says that anyone facing an immigration-related legal issue should consult several attorneys to find the best match for their needs and circumstances.
“I recommend having a consultation with at least two different immigration lawyers; preferably three. Ask a lot of questions and pay close attention to each attorney’s responses,” Silva says. “An attorney who takes their time in answering your questions and makes sure you understand the process is someone who will have your best interest in mind.”
I want to be a beacon in my community and make my representation of LGBTQ+ families known so that anyone can find me when they need me.
– ANDREA RUBIN
For matters relating to LGBTQ+ Family Law, Andrea Rubin of Sternberg, Naccari & White, LLC
Starting a family is a big step for any couple, but LGBTQ+ families often face obstacles and nuances that do not typically apply to heterosexual couples. Andrea Rubin, herself a member of the LGBTQ+ community and a partner at Sternberg, Naccari & White, has focused her practice on LGBTQ+ adoption, child custody, child support and other domestic issues.
“The laws were written with heterosexual people in mind, so sometimes LGBTQ+ community members need extra protections that they don’t necessarily realize,” Rubin says. “For example, many families believe that if both parents’ names are on a birth certificate, the second parent has all the rights of a heterosexual father. This is not the case. In LGBTQ+ families, the second parent must legally adopt the child for parental rights under the law.”
Rubin says that fear of discrimination is sometimes a deterrent for LGBTQ+ couples who need to navigate the legal system before starting a family, and for that reason, she strives to be visible and accessible for her clients.
“It was only earlier this year that LGBTQ+ employees became protected under the law from being fired for being gay, so they’re looking for someone who’s sensitive to their needs when navigating those issues,” she says. “I want to be a beacon in my community and make my representation of LGBTQ+ families known so that anyone can find me when they need me.”
When approaching a new case, Rubin strives to inspire confidence in her clients by demonstrating the extent of her knowledge and experience, setting expectations, and opening the lines of communications from the outset.
“I think it’s important for them to know that I’m experienced with these cases, I have institutional knowledge of the court system as it relates to LGBTQ+ clients, and I make it a point to stay up to date on legal decisions around the state and country that could affect LGBTQ+ clients specifically,” she says.
Most importantly, Rubin urges anyone taking on a legal challenge, be they LGBTQ+ or heterosexual, to contact an attorney right away in order to avoid any pitfalls that could become detrimental to accomplishing their goals.
“Just make the phone call. Send the email,” she says. “You don’t have to navigate legal questions alone. Even if you’re not sure you need an attorney, we can help you figure that out, too.”
Sometimes a supervisor treats employees differently because of unconscious bias or learned behavior. That is what training is for. Sometimes a supervisor discriminates because he or she can get away with it. That’s what the law is for.
– MICHELLE CRAIG
For matters relating to Discrimination, Michelle Craig of Transcendent Law Group
No business can be successful without strong relationships between the employer and employees, but what happens when an employee suspects they’ve been treated differently because of their race, religion, disabilities or other legally protected factors?
The question is sometimes easier asked than answered, and Michelle Craig, Founder and CEO of Transcendent Law Group, says confusion often arises when employees are unable to distinguish differential treatment and legally actionable discrimination.
“Despite what employees sometimes believe, an employer can treat employees differently for a ‘legitimate business reason,’” says Craig. “As a general rule, it is a bad business practice to treat people differently just because an employer wants to do so. It can be legally actionable discrimination if that discrimination is based on a legally protected reason, if the behavior fits the statute.”
Discrimination claims can occur under Federal and state law. Under Louisiana state law, unlawful discrimination occurs when an employee is treated differently on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, disability, age, sickle cell trait, pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions,” Craig says.
“Additionally, people come to me all of the time saying they are in a hostile work environment. They may, for instance, describe mean bosses or catty behavior. While this is bad for morale and bad for business, it typically will not create an actionable hostile work environment claim unless it is based on a protected characteristic and there are other factors.”
Because of the extreme nuances present in such cases, Craig says it’s of utmost importance to let a professional navigate discrimination claims. The easiest way to avoid incidents of legally actionable discrimination is for employers to have sound human resources policies and procedures, train employees on those procedures, set Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) standards for their organizations and infuse them into the company culture — something Craig is happy to help any leader accomplish.
“A lot goes into creating DEI responsive initiatives for my clients,” she says. “As an overview, I meet with the owners/employers and determine what their needs are. Do they want training because of a specific incident? Have they identified a systematic cultural or workplace issue that needs to be addressed? I then have honest conversations with the decision-makers about what they hope to achieve. Once we know the problems and the goals, then we develop a plan to implement.”
No matter what the circumstances may be, Craig prides herself on being a resource for both employers and employees seeking to rectify workplace conflicts.
“Sometimes a supervisor treats employees differently because of unconscious bias or learned behavior. That is what training is for. Sometimes a supervisor discriminates because he or she can get away with it. That’s what the law is for,” Craig says. “Practicing this type of law is one of the ways I feel like I am able to make the world a better place.”
Even if you believe you are in the right, you can still be charged criminally.
– GREGORY CARTER
For matters relating to Criminal Defense, Gregory Carter of The G. Carter Law Firm, LLC
When someone is arrested — be it for misdemeanor charges, felonies, juvenile crimes or federal crimes — seeking representation from an experienced criminal defense attorney can be the most influential factor in determining acquittal, case dismissal or charge reduction. Gregory Carter, who founded his private practice in 2011, says that when a person’s future is at stake, there’s no time to hesitate in seeking aggressive, strategic representation.
“Speaking generally, if you are being questioned by a member of law enforcement, then you should have a criminal defense attorney with you,” Carter says. That rule, he says, applies to anyone, whether or not they’ve committed a crime. Even if the accused is innocent, an attorney can ensure their clients’ rights are being honored from start to finish — and if any rights have been violated, the outcome of the criminal case could be drastically altered.
“A common misconception is that only guilty persons need a lawyer. This is absolutely not true,” Carter says. “The reason to retain a lawyer is to protect your rights. Law enforcement has no obligation to look out for your best interests, and even if you believe you are in the right, you can still be charged criminally.”
Considering the disproportionately high carceral rates of Black Americans, taking on this kind of work and relentlessly advocating for his clients is personal for Carter, so much so that he makes himself available for free consultations 24/7. It’s his way of trying to restore hope and justice to underprivileged and vulnerable communities.
“I believe that everyone deserves an equal chance at justice,” Carter says. “I understand that, historically, persons who look like me haven’t always been given that shot. I want to be part of changing that.”
And because early intervention by a criminal defense attorney can help produce favorable judgements, Carter says there’s no harm in seeking a consultation, even if you’re not sure criminal defense will become necessary.
“If you think you need a lawyer, then you probably do. You cannot go wrong by at least consulting a lawyer — it’s always in your best interests,” Carter says. “When searching out a lawyer, find someone you trust and someone who makes you comfortable. You are trusting your lawyer with your life, and you want to be comfortable that they are fighting for you.”
The key to helping your client feel more at ease is good and effective communication. Family lawyers are often more counselors than attorneys.
– JEFFREY HOFFMAN
For matters relating to Family Law, Jeffrey Hoffman of Lowe, Stein, Hoffman, Allweiss & Hauver LLP
When going through a divorce, seeking child support or custody, partitioning property or navigating any difficult family situation, it’s natural that emotions run high — which is why Jeffrey Hoffman sees himself as not just a family law attorney, but also as a source of compassion and support for his clients.
“Often, the issues involved in a family law case are very emotional and private; your client’s life could be in a state of chaos,” Hoffman says. “Many clients are scared and anxious due to the uncertainty of how their case will turn out. The key to helping your client feel more at ease is good and effective communication. Family lawyers are often more counselors than attorneys.”
Hoffman says that a common source of stress for involved parties is the fear of prohibitive expenses, but family law proceedings do not necessarily have to become costly. For that reason, Hoffman enters each new case with an open mind, seeking first and foremost to reach an understanding with the other party’s attorney “to find creative paths to settlement” before moving a case to trial.
“While there are several examples of divorces or child custody cases being incredibly expensive, most are not,” Hoffman says. “The key to reasonably managing family law cases is working together with the other side to reach agreements and stipulations, which will cut down on costly hearings and trials. Cases involving people focused on the children and co-parenting do not spend nearly as much money as those constantly fighting every issue.”
Regardless of whether the case moves to trial, Hoffman’s ultimate goal in every situation is to help families find peace of mind as they move forward. It’s a passion that was instilled in him by his father, Mitchell Hoffman, who along with his partners founded what is now one of the largest family law firms in the state.
“When they invited me to join the firm and work as a family law attorney, it was an easy decision,” Hoffman says. “One of the best aspects about practicing family law is that you get to know your clients on a personal level and see the direct impact this has on them and their families.”
Hoffman advises anyone seeking a family law attorney to find someone “who is experienced and has a good reputation, but most importantly, someone that you feel you can trust, who will be honest with you, and who you believe will give your case the proper attention it deserves.”