If you worked on it first…

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:





Working on a legal case yourself is not for the faint-hearted.
 Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr,  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic


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.

Please read disclaimer


*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…


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. 


Dividing and conquering

I set up this blog two years ago and have had a delightful time writing on whatever topic I please—law, horses, grammar, politics, people I admire (and those I don’t), and in general, an inchoate mishmash!

Now it’s time to get serious.  I am dividing my blog into thirds.  Wahlerlaw.wordpress.com will remain—but sticking mostly to legal content.

My equestrian consulting and education posts are now moving to: wahlerequine.wordpress.com.  I shall continue to write about the world of horses, with equine law content cross-posted to both sites

Best of all, though, I’m starting a political blog. You heard it here first!  Introducing

Watching the Bull: Observations from the Big Sky Country, a freewheeling discussion of local, state, and national politics from a progressive Big Sky perspective.

Now you have a choice.  Focus on what matters to you the most, or follow all three blogs if you wish!


Bedlam is Local

With the intensity of the national election in 2016, many local “down ballot” issues are forgotten.  One of the most important in my community is asking the voters to fund a major remodel of the local jail.  It has the scintillating title, “General obligation bonds to design, remodel, equip, and furnish the county detention center facility.” On top of the $6.5 million ask, there is a second ballot measure, a 15-year mill levy to raise another $4 million for operations and maintenance.  The owner of a $200,000 home will see almost a $100 increase in annual property taxes if the bond and mill levy pass.1

But pass they must.  The Lewis and Clark County Detention Center is in crisis.


From A Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth, 1733. “The Madhouse,” Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Riding while intoxicated


1914 Christmas message, C.M. Russell
Source: Montana Historical Society MacKay Collection, Helena, MT

Not long ago, Montana newspapers reported on a Montana Supreme Court case involving a woman who was allegedly riding while intoxicated.

Except she wasn’t.

In spite of sensationalistic headlines describing the case as a “drunken horse ride,” police actually encountered the woman leading her horse and attempting to get on the animal, but failing. The news reports also stated that the officers let her go “because she was on foot,” implying that they might have arrested her if she had been riding.

Except they probably wouldn’t have done so.

Here we have a great example of how most journalists aren’t legal experts.  The woman wasn’t arrested for riding under the influence; she wasn’t even on the horse.  The Montana Supreme Court  stated that—at 7:15 in the morning— the police “observed that [the woman] was stumbling and had difficulty maintaining her balance.”  But, “because she was not committing a crime, they allowed her to leave the area. The officers observed that she was physically unable to mount her horse, and after repeated unsuccessful attempts to stay on the horse, she led it away from the area.” State v. Ellis-Peterson, 2016 MT 159N, ¶2. So the police let her go, not because she dismounted, but because she was not breaking the law—yet.  It had nothing to do with riding the horse.

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A plea for planning


This is a “lawyer phone,” waiting to ring in 5…4…3…
Credit: Wikimedia commons

I can predict with regularity that the phone at my law office will begin to ring off the hook about two weeks prior to: 1) the start of the school year, 2) the end of the school year and 3) Christmas vacation. Inevitably, it is because an existing parenting plan has a transition for the child that is, for some reason, not working. Unfortunately, unless law enforcement or ambulances are involved, a call at the last minute generally will not get a parenting plan changed until long after the immediate crisis has passed, so this is my plea to parents: PLAN AHEAD.

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Good Fences

Today my mind is drifting to the topic of rural life and mentally streaming some narrative blend of Garrison Keillor and Lyndel Miekle. Springtime in Montana is weeks ahead of schedule, and tuning up the fences on our own property is a task that is not very poetic in practice, but so very necessary.  With cow-calf pairs next door to horses, with my mares across the fence from the neighbor’s geldings, livestock drama often ensues.

Why IS the grass always greener on the other side the fence—and in both directions?  Perhaps a brief poetry break can answer the question:


You never know when neighborly goodwill is going to be needed…

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down. I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

—from Mending Wall by Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)

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The Reluctant Cavalryman

Schreck 1920

A large version of this U.S. Cavalry recruitment poster adorned the reception area in Judge Hunt’s personal office area at the Montana Supreme Court.
artist: Horst Schreck, 1920

Rest in peace, Bill.

“Judge Hunt” was one of the reasons I am a lawyer today. To me, he is best remembered as a strong-minded but humble man; someone who did remarkable things yet never tooted his horn about it.  He fought—vigorously—for what he believed in, yet never felt he was better than anyone else; a voice for civility, graciousness and modesty against our current age of rage and vicious aggrandizement. Though I was not a part of his inner circle of friends and family, his influence on me was profound.

When I got a call at the small Macintosh computer repair business I ran back in the mid-1990s, I didn’t know it would change my life. The voice on the phone was an older-sounding fellow who said, “this is Bill Hunt, I need someone to look at my Mac.”

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Are you in a horse club?

Are you a member of a horse club—or any other club, group, association, or membership organization for that matter?  Worse yet, did you let yourself get talked into (or flattered, guilt-tripped, bribed, manipulated, drafted or heroically charged into) becoming an officer or a board member?

If so, my condolences.


Disaster at an event organized by a horse club can strike at any time. Photo credit: Pitke, Wikimedia commons,  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Well, now that you’ve agreed to volunteer, and if you can’t weasel your way out of it, then you may already suspect that, to quote Spiderman (and Justice Elena Kagan, who also quoted Spiderman): “with great power there must also come—great responsibility”?   (Yes, the US Supreme Court has quoted a comic book, who says the law has no sense of humor?)
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