The only time you should always be represented by an attorney is when you appear in a criminal matter. The United States Constitution provides that if the state is trying to deprive you of your liberty -- i.e., you are charged with a crime that carries a jail sentence -- you are entitled to be represented by an attorney. In this one instance, if you are unable to afford your own attorney, one will be appointed for you. In almost all other instances, the answer to this question is, "it depends."
Small Claims Court
If you will be suing someone in small claims court, which is an informal court proceeding and which by its nature is accessible to people representing themselves, it makes complete sense to represent yourself. In most instances, you may not be represented by an attorney in small claims court. Small claims courts are available to resolve disputes for a small range of dollar amount, from $1,500 in Kentucky, to $15,000 in Delaware, Georgia, and Tennessee. A chart listing the small claims court limits for each state may be found at Nolo.com.
Formal Court Proceedings
You can represent yourself even if you will be suing someone in a more formal court proceeding. However, you should weigh the risks and benefits before doing so. For disputes in ranges slightly higher than the limits of small claims courts (under $25,000 to $150,000), the cost of hiring an attorney may make it prohibitive. Hiring an attorney will cost money. You need to decide if this makes sense.
At this point, you should ask yourself a series of questions to determine whether you need to hire an attorney, as follows:
- What are the consequences to you if you are unsuccessful in representing yourself in the matter?
- How complex is the area of law for your situation?
- Do you have the time and energy to pursue the matter on your own?
The bottom line is you will need to weigh the balance of the money it will cost to hire an attorney to represent you in court against the advantages of having someone experienced acting on your behalf.
The advantages of hiring an attorney to represent you in court include the following:
- The law is complicated and changes on a regular basis.
- Attorneys are trained in the law and know the rules and procedures.
- Attorneys are trained to recognize legal problems and solve them.
- Attorneys are trained to investigate and evaluate the facts.
- An attorney will listen to your specific, individual, legal problem and proceed based on knowledge of your problem and his or her experience.
- The rules and procedures for litigation (going to court) are complicated.
- An attorney will already be familiar with the rules and procedures for litigation.
- You won't have to spend the time and energy learning the rules and procedures.
- The attorney you hire will be skilled in representing parties with disputes in your specific subject matter.
- An attorney will be skilled in methods of obtaining a positive result, including filing a lawsuit, going to court, and resolving the matter.
Another alternative to either representing yourself or hiring an attorney is to hire an attorney as a coach. And although attorneys would most likely prefer simply to be hired to represent you, there is a possibility that you can find an attorney to coach you while you represent yourself. By hiring an attorney as a coach, you will be able to keep down the costs of representing yourself in court. In this instance, it probably will sense to arrange to pay for the attorney's time on an hourly basis.
Representation for No Fee or Reduced Fee
There are a couple of situations in which it is possible to be represented by an attorney for free or a reduced fee.
If you have been injured and decide to sue, you may be able to hire an attorney to represent you on a contingency fee basis. This means that you will pay attorney's fees, typically a percentage of the recovered amount, only if the attorney recovers money for you. The costs and fees of a case will be paid by you if you lose, and are usually ordered to be paid by the losing party if you win.
If you are covered by insurance for the matter in which you are suing or being sued, you may be represented by an attorney for the insurance company at no additional charge other than what you have paid in insurance premiums.
If you can't afford to hire an attorney you may qualify for some form of legal aid. Legal aid is provided for people with low incomes in several types of matters, including consumer credit, denial of certain types of government benefits, and eviction.
If your claim involves an important public policy or social justice issue, you may be able to obtain representation pro bono (for free or a reduced fee) from an attorney with an interest in the issue. These types of issues include various types of discrimination, sexual harassment in an employment situation, freedom of speed or religion, and environmental problems.
Deciding to Represent Yourself
If you ultimately decide to represent yourself, you will find that many courts have self-help centers and Web sites offering assistance to people who have decided to forego hiring an attorney. For a comprehensive list of links for each state's self-help resources and information centers, go to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) Web site.
Additionally, if you will be representing yourself, you will want to look at two books published by Nolo: Represent Yourself in Court (the basics of handling your own representation) and The Lawsuit Survival Guide (detailed information about what happens in a civil lawsuit).