Do I Need a Lawyer for This? — Six Questions to Help You Decide

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December 20, 2013 by sandyonyourside

Most lawyers will tell you (surprise!) that you should always seek legal help when you’re going to court.   But here’s the thing:  Most middle-class and working class families simply can’t afford the huge fees lawyers charge!  Or they’d rather put the money toward things like college tuition or retirement.  Going to court without a lawyer is more and more common.  But it can be risky, and it’s not for everyone.  In the end only you can decide whether going to court without a lawyer makes sense for you and your family or business. Here are some questions to consider.

 1.  How complicated is my case?  Some cases (like small claims, evictions, guardianships, and petitions for domestic violence restraining orders) are more “user friendly” than others (malpractice cases, appeals, any case in federal court).  In the more user-friendly cases, you can often find a lot of information on the court’s website to help you fill out forms, understand court rules, etc.  More complicated cases are those that involve experts, complex financial, technical, or legal issues, a large number of witnesses and documents, or very high stakes.  In these cases it might be advisable to at least touch base with a lawyer for a consultation.  A general rule of thumb is, the more complex the case, the riskier it is to proceed on your own.

 2.  Who is my opponent? If your opponent is a corporation, a government body, or any person or institution out-of-state, proceed on your own with caution.  Special rules apply for suing and serving court papers on corporations, government bodies, and any person or organization from out of state, and you will be expected to know and follow those rules.  A wrong step can be costly.  Moreover, large corporations and government agencies have many lawyers at their disposal.  They can, and will, bombard you with endless requests for information, tons of procedural motions, delaying tactics, and lowball settlement offers.  Are you prepared to cope with all of this on your own?

Similarly, you may have a history with the opponent (an ex-spouse, a business partner) that makes keeping your cool difficult.  Can you remain logical and reasonable when dealing with this person? Do you feel safe proceeding against them?  Be brutally honest with yourself here.

3.  Do I have what it takes to represent myself? Don’t be fooled by lawyer shows on tv — preparing for a legal case can take many hours of hard work, and the case itself may go on and on for months, even years.  Ask yourself these questions:

*   Do I have the time to do the research, writing, evidence gathering, and argument preparation my case may require?

*   Am I confident working on my own?

*   Am I comfortable reading statutes and rules and legal cases and law books?

*   Am I good at following rules and keeping to deadlines?

*   Am I comfortable with public speaking and competent thinking on my feet?

*   Will I be able to present my case to the judge in a reasonable manner and not lose my temper or become overly emotional?

  • Make sure you can answer yes to all of these questions before proceeding on your own.  It might be a good idea to sit in on a court session or two and talk to the court clerk about the forms you will need and the rules you will have to know.  Many court clerks are willing to provide you with sample legal pleadings that you can use as models.

4.  What resources are available to me?  Many courts have “Lawyer for the Day” programs, where volunteer lawyers answer litigants’ questions and may even represent litigants in court, but usually on a very short-term basis.  Other resources that may be available where your case is being heard are Self-Help Centers, where you can get help identifying and filling out forms and learning how to proceed with your case; law libraries, with helpful and knowledgeable librarians; automated programs to help you correctly fill out legal forms; self-help pamphlets; and more.  On my Links page you will find information to help you find out what resources are available in your state and in your community.  Obviously, the more resources the better.

 5.  What are the alternatives to going to court?  Consider whether it makes sense to go to court at all.  There are other procedures, like court-centered or private arbitration, mediation, and other forms of alternative dispute resolution, that are often cheaper, faster, and more informal than litigation.  It is worthwhile exploring these alternatives and whether they may be right for you.

 6.   What’s my Plan B?  Sometimes cases start out simple but get pretty complicated.    What will you do if this happens to you?  Are you willing to consider less expensive alternatives to getting legal help, like hiring a lawyer to advise you but stay in the background, or hiring a lawyer to help you with just the complicated issues (this is called “unbundling” — more on that next week).  Don’t get caught at the last minute without a Plan B.  Think ahead.

This list of questions may seem intimidating, but remember, thousands of men and women successfully represent themselves in court every day, even in hard cases.

      Courts have a constitutional obligation to ensure that self-represented litigants are treated fairly and respectfully. 

My goal is to help you be as well prepared as you can possibly be.

Have a great holiday.  I’ll be back after the New Year.

Sandy Lundy


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This blog is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Also, it does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author, Sandy Lundy, and any reader or correspondent.

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