Wfor here Do I Go L egal Help? How do I choose a lawyer? Can I handle my problem without a lawyer? What do independent paralegals do? What’s a prepaid legal plan? How does mediation work? Can I go to court without a lawyer? CITIZENS LEGAL GUIDE AN ORGANIZATION OF AMERICANS FOR LEGAL REFORM Just as every medical problem you may face does not require a doctor, every legal matter does not require Where Do I Go a lawyer. While a broken arm would certainly require treatment by a physician, for Legal Help? you could be treated by a physical therapist for a Just as every muscle sprain, and you could medical problem treat a small cut on your arm by yourself. Similarly, you may face while some complex legal F problems are best served does not require by lawyers, others may be a doctor, every ew of us will go through our “treatable” by some other entire lives without having professional, or you may be legal matter does able to handle some legal some contact with “the law.” When problems yourself. There not require a a legal problem arises, will you know is a range of options avail- able to those needing legal lawyer. what to do? This brochure explains help. The first part of this what some of your options are for brochure will explain those options, including ways to dealing with legal problems; it also handle legal matters yourself, with low-cost alterna- suggests other resources you can tives to traditional legal representation or with a lawyer. The second part of the brochure will give some more consult, and refers you to HALT’s specific information about how to handle legal disputes Web site, www.halt.org, for additional between you and another person or business. information. One other thing: This brochure is designed to help people with non-criminal matters. If you are being charged with a crime, most of the information in this Many people mistakenly believe that brochure will not help you. (One part that may be use- the legal system only affects those ful for criminal cases, though, is the section titled “Us- ing a Lawyer.”) who are involved in a lawsuit. Actually, people become involved with the legal system in many areas Doing It Yourself of their everyday lives. Legal mat- ters may arise involving your job, your money, your family, your car, Y ou can easily handle some legal matters by filling out forms available through books, software, Web sites and other resources. (Most of the legal mat- your house, your neighbors—the ters that you can deal with in this way are matters that deal with a transaction of some sort, not matters that range of possibilities is as wide as involve a dispute between you and another person or the range of your daily activities. business.) HALT CITIZENS LEGAL GUIDE —1— Where Do I Go for Legal Help? There is a wide variety of resources available to help “Independent paralegals” (sometimes called “legal people with situations involving the law. For example, document assistants”) provide legal services directly to you can find products (books, kits and computer pro- the public, without lawyer supervision. They don’t have grams) that will help you develop an estate plan—com- a law degree or a license to practice law, but many of plete with will, trust and durable power of attorney— them have experience working in law firms and some draft simple contracts, file for bankruptcy and handle have attended paralegal school. In California, Arizona consumer problems like debt collection and credit and Washington, independent paralegals are certified disputes. Most “do-it-yourself ” books and software by the state. cost under $100 and contain dozens of legal forms and the instructions you need to complete each one. Soft- Independent paralegals may specialize in one area, ware packages are usually interactive, asking you ques- such as bankruptcy, divorce or social security, or they tions and producing a completed form based on your may offer a variety of routine legal services, such as responses. HALT’s Citizens Legal Guide, Do-It-Yourself basic will preparation, name Law evaluates self-help products and can help you pick changes and the areas men- which one is best for your needs. A lot of excellent tioned above. They charge self-help materials are produced by Nolo and are avail- “Independent far less than lawyers for able through their Web site, www.nolo.com. the same service and often paralegals” develop a high level of com- Some legal matters involve a dispute with someone provide legal petence in those services else. If you are litigating a case in small claims court simply because they have or representing yourself in another court, you may services directly prepared the same forms so benefit from resources on pro se representation. (Pro se often. is a Latin term meaning “representing yourself.”) Con- to the public. sult HALT’s “Guide to Pro Se Litigation” or, for small Should you hire an inde- claims matters, HALT’s Citizens Legal Manual, Small pendent paralegal? It de- Claims Court: Making Your Way Through the Sys- pends. If you’re looking for tem. There is more information near the end of this complex legal advice or for a lot of personal guidance brochure on how to represent yourself in court. throughout your transaction, an independent paralegal may not be the best choice for you. Independent para- legals are usually not permitted to provide legal advice. For example, they may not tell you what type of will is Low-Cost Alternatives best for you or advise you on how to complete a will Independent Paralegals form or even explain the laws that govern wills. Some and Legal Document Assistants independent paralegals stay within these guidelines, but others go further and give advice on how the forms D should be filled out. (This is particularly true of those oing it yourself isn’t for everyone. You may who have a lot of experience in will preparation.) If a find that you don’t feel comfortable tackling paralegal gives too much advice to you on how forms legal issues by yourself. Or maybe you’d just rather pay should be filled out, the paralegal may get in trouble someone than do things on your own. That’s where an with the state bar association. It does not, however, independent paralegal can help you. mean that any forms you complete under their advice are invalid, if their advice was accurate. A “paralegal” is a professional who works in a lawyer’s office or law firm doing legal research, drafting legal Independent paralegals are often forced to dodge state documents and helping out in other substantive ways, bar associations that seek to limit the performance of under the supervision of a lawyer. legal services to lawyers only, so they have not been HALT CITIZENS LEGAL GUIDE —2— Where Do I Go for Legal Help? able to organize and thrive in many locations. Most plans, the sponsor (the association, employer or union) independent paralegals are located in the states where may pay all or part of the membership fee. If you are they are state-certified and regulated, but there are a not eligible for a group plan, however, you may enroll growing number of independent paralegals in other in a private plan. These are sold directly to individu- states as well. Because the independent paralegal com- als through the mail, telemarketing and door-to-door munity is so scattered, there is often no good source sales. Anyone can join. They are considered “prepaid” to go to when you are looking for a good, qualified because they involve payment of an annual or monthly paralegal to help you handle your basic legal affairs. fee in advance. The best way to find independent paralegals remains by word of mouth, searching newspaper advertisements The type, size, coverage and cost of these plans vary and looking under “paralegals” or “typing services” in widely. Some, but not all, also offer litigation services. your Yellow Pages and, of course, checking online by Most offer the following: doing a search with the words “independent paralegal.” • Unlimited telephone counseling When hiring an independent paralegal or legal docu- • Help selecting a lawyer ment assistant, it is important to check their qualifica- • Follow-up by telephone and letter tions. Some important things to ask about are: • Document drafting and review • Reduced rates for any legal representation not • What sort of training does the paralegal have? included in the membership fee • How much experience does the paralegal have? • Is the paralegal accredited by any paralegal You probably don’t need to join a plan at all if you associations or state boards? rarely need legal advice or if you already have a lawyer • Is the paralegal licensed or registered (if you trust, who is usually available and who charges rea- required by the state)? sonable fees. You also may not want to join a plan if • Is the paralegal bonded, to protect you in case what you need is immediate legal attention. Your time of any problems with the work performed for and resources would be better spent finding the right you? lawyer for the job. • What does the paralegal do if there are legal issues involved with your document that he or Not all plans are created equal. If you decide you she cannot answer? would benefit from joining a prepaid legal plan, you need to evaluate your needs before choosing one. De- Prepaid Legal Plans cide what types of services you are likely to use, then select the plan that best provides those services at a Another option you have for price with which you are comfortable. For more infor- addressing your legal needs mation on legal service plans, you can consult HALT’s is to join a prepaid legal Prepaid legal pamphlet “Joining a Legal Service Plan: What You service plan. This can be a Should Know.” plans offer particularly smart option if you have an ongoing need limited services Free Legal Help for legal help. Prepaid legal plans offer limited services for a yearly You may be able to find free legal help, particularly if for a yearly membership you are a senior citizen or you fall below certain in- membership fee. fee. Many of these plans come levels. Many localities have free legal programs are group plans, provided to assist the poor and elderly. Law schools often run through a professional or free clinics to help people who cannot otherwise afford trade association, a union or a private employer. These legal help. Finally, there are many advocacy organiza- plans are not open to the general public. In group tions that can provide legal information to people in HALT CITIZENS LEGAL GUIDE —3— Where Do I Go for Legal Help? the particular area of the law in which the organization to remodel your kitchen or fix your car. Price is one works. HALT’s Legal Information Clearinghouse can concern; you don’t want to pay more than you have to. help you find resources that are appropriate to your However, you should also compare the types of servic- legal needs. If you write, fax or e-mail your request es different lawyers can provide and the amount of ex- for information to HALT, we will search the Clearing- perience they have. You wouldn’t want to allow a me- house to find an organization that may be able to assist chanic who has been working on Fords for a couple of you. Also, HALT’s Citizens Legal Manual, The Legal years to get under the hood of your Porsche. Similarly, Resource Directory: Your Guide to Help, Hotlines you probably don’t want an attorney who specializes in & Hot Websites contains listings of many helpful free real estate handling your employment discrimination resources. case—or the reverse. There are several places you can start when searching Using a Lawyer for a lawyer: Word of Mouth. The best way to find a lawyer who can W hen the legal issues that you face are more complex, or when you just feel more comfort- able with full-service legal help you is to get a recommendation from someone you trust. Your friends, family members and cowork- ers all may have used an attorney at some time, and help, you may want to may be able to recommend someone for you to use. hire a lawyer to assist you. Again, though, you want to keep in mind that an attor- While finding ney who mostly writes wills may not be the best choice While finding and hiring a lawyer may seem intimidat- and hiring a for your divorce case. ing, there is no reason to treat it much differently lawyer may seem Lawyer Referral Services. State and local bar associations than hiring any other ser- often provide lawyer referral services, which can pro- intimidating, vide callers with a selection of lawyers in many areas vice provider. That means that you, as an informed there is no of practice. Voluntary bar associations, such as a wom- consumer, should do your en’s bar association or a legal aid bar association, may homework and know your reason to treat it also provide lawyer referral services. Some nonprofit rights when hiring and organizations also provide lawyer referral services for much differently lawyers who have an expertise in the particular orga- working with a lawyer. HALT has proposed—and than hiring any nization’s area of concern. In addition, each state bar a few states have adopted association has a lawyer referral service. If you write into law—a Legal Con- other service to HALT, our Legal Information Clearinghouse can sumers Bill of Rights. It provide you with the contact information for a lawyer provider. referral service near you. outlines ways in which consumers have the right to control their legal affairs Yellow Pages. To find an attorney through the Yellow and to have their lawyers held accountable to them. Pages, look under Attorneys, Lawyers, Clinics and Legal Don’t forget that you’re in the driver’s seat as the em- Clinics. Please note that the Yellow Pages provides the ployer, and that the lawyer is working for you—not least information about a lawyer, so you will need to be vice-versa. sure to get additional information about the lawyer’s background and qualifications. Shopping for a Lawyer Regardless of where you search for a lawyer, you must shop wisely. Here are a few simple tips to consider You should consider several factors when searching for when looking for a lawyer: a lawyer, just like you would if searching for someone HALT CITIZENS LEGAL GUIDE —4— Where Do I Go for Legal Help? • Make sure a prospective lawyer is willing Use your lawyer’s (and your) time efficiently. You should to sign a written attorney-client fee agreement come prepared to any meeting with your lawyer. Col- (sometimes called a retainer). The most common lect all relevant documents and create a list of ques- consumer complaints about lawyers are related to tions or issues you need to discuss. This will save you fees, so this is a very important precaution. time (and money) and will make sure that your ques- • Get more than one estimate on the fees and costs tions get answered. involved for your matter. • If your matter involves a dispute with another Get it in writing. You should keep notes of everything party, ask about the chances of success. you discuss with your lawyer. In addition, you should • Learn about the different types of fee make sure that important discussions with your lawyer arrangements with lawyers and the advantages are summarized in a letter or other document. If you and disadvantages of each (i.e., contingency fees, and your lawyer discuss an important matter at a meet- flat fees). ing, you should follow up with a brief letter confirming • Ask the lawyer if he or she handles your type of your understanding of the discussion. Keep copies legal issues, what his or her experience is in of this and all other correspondence in a file with any similar situations, and what his or her track record other documents related to your legal matter. is in similar matters. If you have problems with your lawyer, you should consult HALT’s Citizens Legal Guide, I Have a Prob- Working with Your Lawyer lem with My Lawyer … What Can I Do Now? for more information. The most important thing to remember in working with a lawyer is that you are the boss. You are the one who hired the lawyer and you are the one who has to make the most important decisions about your legal problem. Mediation and Litigation L You can’t simply hand over The most your problem to a lawyer egal problems often arise out of disputes with and sit back waiting for another person or a business. While many of important thing results—unless you don’t these problems can be resolved by discussion between to remember in care about the results or the two parties, sometimes these disputes can only be the cost. Regardless of the settled with the help of a third party. But that third working with degree of involvement you party doesn’t always have to be a lawyer. It could be a choose, you have responsi- mediator. a lawyer is that bilities. Certain decisions you are the boss. can be made by no one but Mediation you. Also, you must give your lawyer all the informa- Mediation is a process where two or more people sit tion you have available that down with a neutral third person to negotiate an agree- is relevant to your legal matter—and keep him or her ment that meets the needs of both sides. It is a less informed of any new information—so that your lawyer formal process than appearing in court. While lawyers will not be blindsided by unexpected developments. may be allowed, most parties appear in mediation with- out one. In addition to your responsibilities, there are a couple of things you can do to make your relationship with A hearing starts with each person telling his or her your lawyer run more smoothly and efficiently. side of the story. If the two cannot agree on what the HALT CITIZENS LEGAL GUIDE —5— Where Do I Go for Legal Help? main issues are, the mediator is free to meet with each claims case varies from state to state, with maximum separately. Once problems and issues are identified, amounts ranging from $1,500 to $25,000. Each state the mediator tries to get the parties to settle with each also has different rules and procedures regarding small other. The mediator can ask questions, discuss areas of claims courts. Most small compromise, even make suggestions, but the mediator claims courts, for instance, cannot impose a decision, as a judge might. The final are only allowed to issue a Small claims decision is made by the parties themselves, not the decision that someone owes mediator. (There is another process, called arbitration, money to another person, courts are courts where the neutral party makes a decision that is binding but cannot order someone on both participants.) to do something or refrain designed for from doing it. Therefore (in average people When the parties reach an agreement, they put it into most states), if your neigh- writing and each sign it. Like any contract, the agree- bor is playing his stereo too to represent ment is considered legally binding and enforceable in loudly in the middle of the court. If you do not like a proposed agreement, you night, you could not sue in themselves cannot be forced to sign it. If you are unsure about the small claims court to make without an meaning or validity of a signed agreement, ask a legal him stop, although in some professional to review it with you. states you could sue for lawyer. money to compensate you Not all kinds of disputes are appropriate for media- for your lost sleep. Cases tion. It works best for people whose relationship will like this are often better re- continue after a settlement is reached—for example, solved through mediation or arbitration. neighbors, feuding family members, landlords and their tenants, and community and consumer disputes are all Before you sue someone in small claims court, you likely candidates for mediation. should consider whether you can prove your case. For instance, if you paid someone $5,000 to remodel your Because each mediation program is run differently, you kitchen, you must show the court that you paid the per- need to shop around and ask: son $5,000, that you had an agreement to do the work, and that the work was not done. If you cannot prove • How much does mediation cost? that you paid the $5,000, the judge will not be able to • Do you use volunteer mediators? rule in your favor. You should also consider whether • How are your mediators trained? you will be able to collect the money if you win. A • How long do problems like mine take to resolve? judge ruling that someone owes you $5,000 does not help you if the person who owes you the money is Small Claims Court broke. However, judgments by a court are usually good for about ten years, so even if someone is broke If other means of resolving your dispute are unsuc- now, that person will have to pay you eventually. There cessful, you may have to go to court to resolve your are also methods one can use to speed the collection problem. This does not always mean that you have to process, such as placing liens on property and garnish- hire a lawyer. Small claims courts are courts designed ing wages. for average people to represent themselves without a lawyer. In small claims court, each side in a dispute For an in-depth description of how to pursue a small gets to tell its story, and the judge may ask questions claims court case, you should consult HALT’s Citizens of them before handing down a decision. It’s a lot like Legal Manual, Small Claims Court: Making Your Judge Judy or The People’s Court. Way Through the System. The amount of money for which you can bring a small HALT CITIZENS LEGAL GUIDE —6— Where Do I Go for Legal Help? Representing Yourself in Other Courts Join Our Fight for Reform There are other courts where you may be able to rep- Since 1978, HALT has provided a powerful voice— resent yourself. In most states, landlord-tenant courts, working on your behalf in Washington and across the which deal with issues relating to rental housing, are nation—to help Americans navigate the legal system designed for people to represent themselves. Some with or without a lawyer. And we need your help. Join states also have family courts that are friendly to pro HALT to help us allow more people to settle their legal se litigants. In most states, however, the general juris- affairs simply and affordably. Contact us at the address diction court (the court that handles cases other than below or join online at www.halt.org. small claims and other specialty courts) is designed for lawyers to use. While you are legally allowed to Where to Find More Information represent yourself in any court in the country, doing so in a general jurisdiction court is extremely difficult. More information about how to use the legal system is However, if you must do so, HALT’s “Guide to Pro Se available on HALT’s Web site, www.halt.org, in HALT’s Litigation” can help you through the process. Everyday Law Series and in HALT publications Using a Lawyer, The Legal Resource Directory and Small ≈≈≈≈≈≈ Claims Court. As you can see, there is a wide range of options avail- able for dealing with the legal system—from hiring a lawyer to representing yourself, with many options in between. We hope this pamphlet has helped you un- derstand more about those options and the many re- sources available to help you solve your legal problems. AN ORGANIZATION OF AMERICANS FOR LEGAL REFORM Email: HALT@HALT.org Phone: 1-888-FOR-HALT (202) 887-8255 Fax: (202) 887-9699 1612 K Street, NW Suite 510 Washington, DC 20006 HALT CITIZENS LEGAL GUIDE —7— Where Do I Go for Legal Help?