Over the years, I’ve noticed that a number of car mechanics and other repair shops post a semi-humorous sign that is a variation on the following:
OUR SHOP RATE: $XX/hr
IF YOU WATCH: $2XX/hr
IF YOU WORKED ON IT FIRST: $4XX/hr
Similarly, it is a good idea to talk to a lawyer before you try handling a legal matter on your own! We don’t really double our hourly rate in our legal practice if you come in after working on the case yourself first, but sometimes we are tempted. If you can represent yourself, it may seem less expensive than hiring an attorney, but if your case goes south, having a lawyer straighten out the mess could wind up costing you more than if you had hired counsel early on.
Now, I know that legal services are not cheap. And, I’ve known folks who successfully navigate the legal process themselves to get a divorce or a parenting plan, to obtain public benefits, to settle a small claim, to get their traffic tickets resolved, and so on.1 But I’ve also had to untangle some unmitigated disasters where I sincerely wish people had talked to me ahead of time.
You may not always need a lawyer for your case, but it is better to be safe than sorry. We’d rather help you get started on the right foot rather than have to pick up the pieces after disaster strikes. Some lawyers offer a reduced fee for an initial consultation.2 Even if you consult an attorney who charges you full price, it’s worth it. Here’s some reasons why:
- You can decide if you will need a lawyer or not and plan accordingly. (Yes, sometimes we will say that you may not need a lawyer!)
- You can obtain an evaluation of how good your case is and if it’s likely that you will get the results you want.*
- You can get formal legal advice. Non-attorneys—and this includes not only the local bartender, but also paralegals or the friendly clerks at your local courthouse— cannot do this
- You will get an estimate of the costs for various levels of legal services.
- You will learn about any ramifications that you may not have thought about. (For example, did you know that you can be financially liable if your dog bites someone? Did you know you might have to pay if your children vandalize public property?)
There are a times when I will almost always advise a client to retain legal counsel:
- If the other side is represented by an attorney.
- If your legal issue is one where you are potentially facing jail time.3
- If you risk a large financial loss if you lose the case (no matter how bogus the other side’s claim sounds to you).
- If the party on the other side frightens or intimidates you, especially if they have threatened or harmed you in the past.
- If you are vulnerable for other reasons, such as being in poor health.
You may not always need to retain an attorney as “counsel of record,” which means that they handle an entire court case for you. In Montana, since 2011, we also allow what is called “limited scope” representation. That is, a lawyer will help you with some parts of your case, but not necessarily the entire case. Such limited scope services might include:
- Legal advice on your case, but not appearing in court on your behalf.
- Drafting legal documents: This is an excellent use of a lawyer, even if your funds are limited. Though there are “do it yourself” forms available on the internet (such as via the Montana State Law Library), if you find the forms confusing or anything about your situation is out of the ordinary, even the best of the generic templates may not meet your needs.
- Appearing with you at a single hearing or an administrative law proceeding.
- Writing demand letters or making other preliminary offers to settle a case.
Legal representation can come in many forms, and here are some powerpoint slides that provide additional information. If you do decide to represent yourself in the Montana courts, here are some resources that may help.
But talk to an attorney before you pursue legal action; it’s money saved —and your rights protected— in the long run.
*Musical interlude: I often describe the results of a case as “Rolling Stones justice”: That is, you can’t always get what you want, but (if you try sometimes) you (just might find you) get what you need…
- The caveat to self-representation is if the person is honest with their representations, shows up when they are supposed to, and fills out any and all the forms accurately and thoroughly.
- A few lawyers offer free consultations. Usually the ones who routinely do so are tort attorneys who file lawsuits on behalf of people who seek monetary recovery for damages and work on a contingency fee basis. In other areas of the law, including family law, consultation cost varies by the individual law practice. My own policy is to offer an initial consultation for half my usual hourly rate.
- The threshold to have a public defender appointed at no cost to you (if you are low-income) is if being found guilty can result in jail time. Usually, if you want to argue about your speeding ticket (in most cases) or parking fines, you might want to consult an attorney, but in courts of limited jurisdiction, such as Municipal (City) courts and Justice (County) courts, many people successfully represent themselves.
All legal content contained herein is premised upon Montana law or applicable federal law and represents the opinions and interpretations of the author. If you do not live in Montana, some of this material may not be applicable in your jurisdiction. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for personal legal advice.