How to Decide Whether You Need a Lawyer
Going Pro Se: What are the costs?First, think about the value to you of getting this matter resolved. Do you know what the nature of your legal matter is? Is it simple or complicated? Does it involve going to court? Does it involve filing anything with the court? How much money is involved? Next, think about the costs of hiring a lawyer. Do you know how much legal representation might cost? Do you know if you would have to pay it up front? Finally, think about your willingness to handle the matter yourself if need be. Does the thought make your stomach turn, or is it actually interesting and challenging? Keep in mind that in New Jersey there are pro se kits available to help you pursue many matters yourself.
The Truth of Consequences: Why "How Could This Possibly Go Wrong?" Is a BAD QuestionIn any case, before making the decision to go pro se, there is also the question of the things that might happen if you lose. Can you live with those consequences?
We pretty much talked about the civil context in a previous step, so let me move to the criminal context for just a moment. Criminal charges almost always carry the possibility of jail time. Now, I'm not talking about parking tickets or speeding tickets. If you hear your name tossed in with a word like "misdemeanor," "felony," "indictment," or "disorderly persons offense," that's more along the lines of a criminal legal situation. In New Jersey, you may be entitled to counsel for most criminal offenses. If you are unable to afford counsel, counsel will be provided to you. However, please note that you do not get your choice of counsel when it is assigned to you. You may get an overworked Public Defender.
Likelihood of Success: "Even a monkey could do this!"Or could it?
The key to evaluating the likelihood of the "benefit" side of our "cost-benefit analysis" is to make an informed decision. You need to be able to ask yourself questions about your case and somehow have enough information to make a guess as to your chance of winning, without feeling like you're guessing blindly. You may not be able to do that- if not, get ye to a lawyer.
Thinking practically, I'll continue to use the examples from the prior posts. If you have a $500 lawsuit, and you know very well that your adversary is full of it (and you have faith the Judge will agree), then where's your incentive to hire a lawyer? On the other hand, if there's $1,000,000 at stake, how sure do you want to be before you're willing to go it alone? More pressingly, could you ever be sure enough to gamble a large sum of money (or, in the example of a criminal case, your freedom) on the outcome? Probably not.
If you hear "law enforcement" and think "We don't need no stinkin' badges!"...There might be a problem.
If you deal with a situation on a daily basis, it should be much easier to learn about the law because you don't have to learn the substance of the case at the same time. For example, if you are a contractor and you are sued because of some work that you did, it is a lot easier to pursue the matter if the only thing at issue is whether the work was done correctly. You understand contracting a lot better than most people do, and so you will be in a better position to explain that portion of it. All you have to do is figure out the law and wade along as best you can.
On the other hand, if you're a computer technician and a landlord, and a tenant sues you for some injury they suffered at your property, you're probably not going to know enough about the property to give a good explanation of yourself when you have the added problem of figuring out what you might need to prove in court, what papers you might want to file, and how otherwise to handle the case.
ConclusionHopefully, if you have gone through my entire series on whether to go pro se, you agree with me that the answer is "not necessarily."
It's easy on the extremes. If it's a complex million-dollar suit, a bankruptcy, or a serious criminal charge, don't walk- run- to a lawyer. If it's your first parking ticket, or if you're being sued (or suing) for $500, it's time to touch up on your trial advocacy skills, courtesy of Law & Order. Okay, that last part is a joke.
Where it gets a little murky is in the middle somewhere. The key to the whole process is to take it the way I've laid it out here, rationally. Think it over. Make a list. Don't think about how you hate the other guy because they put you in this spot. If you can't channel all that energy in the first place, you're not going to do as well as you could.
Think it over, take your time, and try to make a reasoned decision.
The Short Version: Get This Guide in 59 Words or soIf you find yourself in a legal mess, don't move a muscle without considering the impact it might have on you for days, weeks, or years to come. Facing a large civil judgment on your assets will put a big damper on everything from your family vacations to your weekly paychecks. Facing a stretch of jail time? RUN to a lawyer..