“I Need a Lawyer!”
WHAT do you do when faced with a legal problem? You may quickly realize the need for skilled help.
Suppose your car has been stolen and run into a tree. The thief is in prison, but now who pays to repair the car? And for the rental car that you need in the meantime?
Perhaps your son has been arrested. Apparently it is a mistake. How can you get him released pending investigation? How do you prove that he was not the guilty party?
How does a deserted wife get maintenance for herself and the children? If divorced, how can she be sure there will be equitable division of the family assets, including the home?
A man has died leaving a widow and three children. He had a small business. The business, now under control of the former foreman, soon starts losing money. What should the widow do to prevent the business and the husband’s estate from being swamped by debts?
The problems that people have, both deserved and undeserved, are unending. Some terrible things can happen to those who do not know how to protect themselves. A competent lawyer may be able to find a solution to problems such as these and many other legal questions that can plague people in today’s complex world.
Why a Lawyer Can Help
A lawyer spends years at law school to gain a basic understanding of the legal system. After that his experience in actual practice helps him to solve many problems effectively. Another asset that a respected lawyer may come to have is the trust of officials, judges and businessmen in his integrity and good judgment. Behind him, too, may be a backup system—partners for consultation, a library of legal references, younger lawyers, secretaries—all part of the legal organization needed to get things done.
Hence, it is not just time that a lawyer has to offer. All his assets must be considered when setting legal fees. So it would be unfair to criticize a lawyer’s fee merely because you do not understand or see everything that he does for his clients.
Before choosing a lawyer to help you with your particular problem, you should have some understanding of the different fields of law so you can ask whether your case is within his type of practice. The complexity of present-day life and business affairs has led to increasing specialization in legal practice. A lawyer who was effective in purchasing your friend’s house or probating a will may not be the right man to conduct a personal-injury suit or a malpractice action.
The Different Fields of Law
One field of law involves transactions where there is no argument, such as buying and selling houses, making wills, administering estates, financial settlements arising from uncontested divorce; and, in the commercial world, incorporating companies, loaning and collecting money, making contracts, and so forth. Such legal matters seldom go to court and are classified as uncontested or “noncontentious.”
In England and certain other countries, the legal profession is divided into two sections, barristers and solicitors. Solicitors are office lawyers; barristers plead in court. Where the profession is thus divided, lawyers are not allowed to practice in both capacities. However, in the United States, they may.
Questions and disputes that normally have to go to court because the parties cannot agree come under another field—“contentious civil law.” This includes motor-accident cases, contested divorces, enforcement of contracts and other matters that involve disagreements. Disputes with governmental bodies over taxation, zoning, building permits and business licenses are also areas of contentious civil law.
The loser in such cases can be ordered to pay money to the winner, or, to hand over a car or a piece of property. But the civil judgment is against his assets. He cannot be sent to prison if he does not have the money.
Criminal law covers threats to the public: theft, fraud, violence, trafficking in drugs, murder, and so forth. Punishment can be by fines, imprisonment, or even death. Enforcement of criminal law in reality provides the shelter that protects society from the storm of lawlessness that could otherwise destroy public order.
Finding the Lawyer That You Need
If you need a lawyer and do not know one, make some judicious inquiries. Do not be uneasy about asking questions. You could call the bar association or legal-aid office, if there is one. Often, a local businessman, a tax consultant or a personal acquaintance may be able to direct you to a lawyer with the needed skills. Or you could telephone some law firms to ask what type of law they practice. In some places, lawyers can now legally advertise their specialties, even showing price scales.
If you make an appointment to see a lawyer, do not feel obliged to retain the first one you meet. Briefly outline your problem and see what he proposes. You can reflect on the matter or even interview another practitioner before deciding whom to use. However, you may be charged a consultation fee for your first interview, depending on the amount of time taken.
Do not feel awkward about finding out what the lawyer proposes to charge for his service. Would you buy a car without asking the price? For ordinary business law such as a house purchase or the incorporating of a company, there should be no problem in deciding what the charge will be. But a lawsuit, for example, involves many uncertainties, so an exact figure usually cannot be supplied at the outset. Even so, the lawyer should be able to approximate at least the range of costs, and also the rate that is to be charged.
Beware of the lawyer who promises too much in the way of sure success in a contentious case. Lawsuits are uncertain at best. Also beware of the lawyer who agrees to work for fees that are too low: he may be incompetent or not intending to give proper attention to your problem.
In many cities legal clinics are springing up. They offer routine legal services at lower prices, which they say are possible because of high volume and streamlined procedures. These clinics are often criticized by orthodox lawyers on the grounds that quality may be sacrificed at such low prices.
However, a recent University of Miami study of one law clinic’s customers concluded that “quality need not drop and may even increase” in some cases. “To the extent that, for example, the clinic increases specialization and better control over caseload,” said law professor Timothy Muris, “quality may increase.” But for some persons the emotional outlet and support offered by a more personally oriented attorney at a distressing time in their lives may be worth the extra cost.
How You Can Help Yourself
Can you be your own lawyer? The nature of the problem and your own personality and abilities will determine. If you have no previous experience and the case is important, such as divorce, custody, serious accident, or if a large sum of money is involved, then you ought to be cautious.
Another thing to consider is that one of the fundamental reasons for using an attorney is to have someone not emotionally involved and who can view the circumstances objectively. Emotions can becloud the issues and a person’s judgment.
There can also be pitfalls in such matters as wills; these could even result in a lost bequest. Sometimes the cost of using a lawyer’s special knowledge is covered many times over by the money saved in the outcome. So it is wise not to overestimate your own abilities when deciding whether to do it yourself.
But if you feel that yours is a matter that you can handle mentally and emotionally, then necessary blank forms can be purchased at any law stationers. In certain noncontentious matters, there are “how to” books, even complete self-help packets, available.
Should you get the case started and later find it too complex, it may still be possible to obtain a lawyer to overcome the difficulty or conduct the remainder of the case. However, a lawyer with experience in such matters cautions: “It almost always costs less to get the proper guidance in the initial stages of a matter than to get it straightened out after the damage has been done.”
If your proceeding involves a relatively small amount of money and is in the small claims court, you may decide to conduct your own case. In lower courts proceedings are less rigid. But it is often helpful to go to the court some time before your trial and watch how things are done. Many judges are kind to those trying to conduct their own cases.
A beneficiary of an estate thought that the lawyer’s fee charged to the estate was unreasonable. The young man talked it over with a lawyer friend who pointed out where the charges were too high. After careful preparation, he went to court himself. He was well prepared, determined and unafraid. The judge reduced the lawyer’s fee by $6,000 (U.S.).
So, in some circumstances, you can help yourself, acting as your own lawyer. Nevertheless, in many circumstances a lawyer’s expertise and services can be indispensable; and you may find the foregoing information helpful in wisely selecting a lawyer when you do need one.
Will there ever be a time when no one needs a lawyer, when the legal profession as we know it ceases to exist? The next article discusses how, even now, strides in this direction are being taken.
[Box on page 9]
Do not hesitate to ask questions. Determine the field of law the lawyer practices; see what he proposes to do; find out what he plans to charge.