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Should You Hire an Attorney?

Posted by attorney Carina Castaneda

There is an ancient legal maxim, “a man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client." Why should you hire an attorney instead of representing yourself? What might save money in the short run could end up costing more money and headaches in the long run.

The law has become more specialized and changes constantly. The self-help web site or generic court forms does not cover every fact situation. Even when judges are patient and understanding, trying to represent yourself, creates undue delay in the resolution of your case. The “slightest" procedural errors could be damaging.

Do you need a lawyer or not? Sometimes a lawyer is provided to the person being sued at no personal expense. For example, if you are sued because you were in an auto accident, your insurance company will likely provide a lawyer to protect your interests. If you are a sued as an officer or director of a corporation, the organization shall provide a lawyer for you. However, you are responsible for any suit you are named.

Additionally, in cases that are generally heard in small claims court, defending yourself may be a viable option. In small claims court, procedures are generally less formal and the judge sometimes helps resolve the matter. However, if the opposing party to your small claims action is represented by an attorney and requests a formal trial, you are at a disadvantage. An attorney could also assist in the preparation, negotiation and representation of your case in court.

Litigants representing themselves in court without the assistance of an attorney are known as pro se (“in one’s own behalf"). The right to appear pro se in a civil case in federal court is defined by law, 28 U.S.C. Section 1654.

Many individuals seek legal advice from court employees. The court staff are prohibited by law from giving legal advice or performing any legal services on your behalf. They should only advise you on what documents are required and the costs. They can not develop the legal strategy for your case nor are they trained to do so.

The right to assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is made obligatory upon the states by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This guarantees that a person accused of a crime shall have an attorney. An accused can appear pro se but the judge must make a finding that the waiver was “knowing and intelligent."

The right to self-representation carries with it the responsibility for one’s own mistakes. You cannot subsequently file a motion for appeal on grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. Here are basic questions to ask yourself: (1) Do you feel comfortable talking to the judge/attorney/witnesses? (2) Do you understand the burden of proof required for your case? (3) Do you know the case laws, statutes, court rules required?

Here are examples of catastrophic outcomes: (1) forgetting to add one sentence to a divorce judgment costs a client thousands later in child support; (2) Failure to understand which jury instruction to requests had resulted in a guilty conviction and jail; (3) Failing to follow local court rules resulted in a lawsuit being dismissed forever; (4) Signing a waiver foreclosed a client’s ability to file a lawsuit for additional money and legal rights.

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