The question of when to hire a lawyer does not always have a simple answer. There are certain circumstances in which the answer is an unqualified “yes,” but often it is a matter of evaluating several factors.
When you need to hire a lawyer
There are some situations where hiring a lawyer is essential:
You are in over your head
This is more of an emotional decision, based on having the feeling that you aren’t comfortable representing yourself. The comfort level varies from person-to-person, depending upon factors such as how much you know about the area of law, how much information is readily available, how much effort you are willing to put in to educating yourself, how well you understand legal terms and concepts (such as contracts, court documents, laws, court rules, and court opinions), and how confident you are in your ability to express yourself in English, both verbally and in writing (especially if you need to appear in court). If you decide “I can’t afford to lose this case,” it’s time to find a lawyer.
You could go to jail
If you are charged with a crime, including domestic violence, tax fraud, or even some motor vehicle offenses (such as driving under the influence, vehicular homicide, or so many unpaid parking tickets that an arrest warrant has been issued), hire an attorney.
You could lose a lot of money
If you stand to lose a great deal of money in a lawsuit, find a lawyer.
Your opponent has an attorney
You will be at a disadvantage if you try to go up against an attorney representing your adversary.
Bodily injury is involved
The most common situation is an automobile accident, but this could also involve a variety of situations, such as someone being bitten by your dog or getting injured on your property, or injuries due to a defective product. You may have automobile or homeowners insurance, but it is still advisable to consult a lawyer. If you or a family member have been injured, and it appears you have a good claim, most personal injury lawyers will not charge you any fee, but will take payment from the judgment they obtain.
You are in a complicated divorce
If there are disagreements over assets or children, if there are allegations of domestic violence, or if you have a sufficiently complex financial situation so that the division of retirement benefits or serious tax considerations come into play, you will need legal assistance. In some states, even if you are in agreement, or close to agreement, you can both hire one lawyer to assist you in getting through the legal process.
You need to administer the estate of someone who died
Many states have simplified procedures for “small estates,” where a person leaves minimal assets and the law (or the will) is clear about who inherits. In these cases, it may not be necessary to hire a lawyer. But with many estates, the procedures are more complex, there may be tax issues, and a probate lawyer can be of great help.
You want to do comprehensive estate planning
It is possible to prepare a simple will, power of attorney, living will, or even a basic living trust without a lawyer. However, you need to be sure you know what you are doing. Especially if there is a sizeable estate, tax issues, or a complicated or extensive distribution plan, it is important to find a lawyer to be sure things are done right.
You are adopting a child
Adopting a child is an important matter, and an attorney will assure things are done right.
A contract is needed
It is essential that you understand the terms of any contract you are asked to sign. If you don’t understand the terms, or how to prepare a contract, consult a lawyer.
Complex business matters
If you need a complex business organization (multiple entities), have complex tax matters, need to file for a patent, or become involved in litigation, hire a lawyer.
When to consider representing yourself
Provided you feel comfortable handling the matter yourself, there are several situations that are more conducive to self-representation. These include:
Parking tickets and minor traffic violations
Most people who go to traffic court for these minor infractions do not hire a lawyer.
Relatively simple divorce
If you and your spouse can reach an agreement on the division of your property and debts, aren’t going to be arguing over the custody or support of a child (or do not have any children), and are willing to cooperate in preparing and filing the necessary court papers, it is possible to handle your own divorce.
Small claims court is available
Most states have a specialized procedure for dealing with relatively minor disputes, typically involving claims below a certain dollar amount.
Basic business matters
With a little research you should be able to figure out things like registering for an Employer Identification Number (EIN), an assumed name (also known as doing business as or d/b/a), and a trademark or trade name; forming a business entity (LLC, corporation, partnership, etc.); creating basic contracts and forms; and hiring employees and independent contractors.
When to avoid the legal system
Here are a few examples of when you may be better off to try some form of dispute resolution outside of court, or even forget about the problem and move on:
You are angry and it is 'a matter of principle'
Things clients want to pursue as “a matter of principle” are rarely worth pursuing in court. This includes problems like someone demeaning you (slander and libel), causing you “emotional distress,” and minor disputes between neighbors. You won’t be able to prove any monetary damages.
You’ve been fired
Even if it’s worthwhile to sue your employer, you will need to be prepared to pay a labor lawyer several thousands of dollars up front, with no guarantee of success. It may take years to have your case resolved. You may be better off filing a claim for unemployment compensation, or a complaint with the appropriate agency if you think you’re the victim of unlawful discrimination or harassment. Also, potential employers may be reluctant to hire you with a history of suing an employer.
Finding a lawyer
You have answered “yes” to the question, “Do I need a lawyer?” Now you need to find one. There are various types of lawyers (such as estate planning, criminal, business), so it ’s important to find one who practices in the area of law you need. An attorney search can be made by asking friends for a referral, consulting print or online directories, or contacting your local or state bar association. You can also ask a lawyer to give you advice on an hourly basis, without providing full representation.
The value of hiring a lawyer
Legal services generally do not come cheap. The more complicated your legal problem, the more you will need legal advice, and the more it will cost for legal help. In some cases, it can be much more costly to try to represent yourself. One question to ask is: How much is it worth for the peace of mind that comes from handing the problem over to a professional?
Aside from hiring a lawyer or going it alone, you may have other options such as contacting a state agency (such as a consumer protection agency or a commission for public utilities, insurance, or banking). There might also be legal assistance available through various groups you belong to, or a community senior citizens organization.
Get legal advice from a LegalZoom legal plan attorney. Sign up for the LegalZoom legal plan to receive access to an independent attorney at an affordable price. LegalZoom legal plan subscribers receive unlimited phone consultations with an attorney on new legal matters, tax advice from tax professionals, and document or contract review up to 10 pages, all for one low monthly fee.
Find out more about Hiring an Attorney