You've been sued. Do you need a lawyer?
- By Milt x_Zall
- Oct 12, 2001
In last week's column, I introduced what's important to know if you get
suedwhat's involved and what your options are. This week's column, second
in a three-part series, tackles whether you should hire a lawyer.
If a lawyer is not otherwise provided for you and alternative dispute
resolution is not an option, you must decide whether to hire a lawyer or
to represent yourself.
When deciding whether to hire a lawyer, it is generally best to look
at the economics of the situation: How much are you being sued for? What
is the likelihood you will win or lose in court? How much will the lawyer
Lawyers charge clients in various ways. Most charge on an hourly basis.
Others charge a flat fee, although this is generally done only for the most
routine cases. In either instance, most lawyers will ask for a retainerthe amount you pay a lawyer to begin work on your case.
In some cases a lawyer will proceed on a contingency fee, meaning the
lawyer will receive a percentage of the award or settlement obtained on
your behalf. This is rare but could be used if you have a counterclaim against
the person suing you.
Regardless of the method of payment, you should always have a written
fee agreement with a lawyer. When you try to decide about hiring a lawyer,
keep in mind that fees vary from one lawyer to another, as does the quality
of the services they provide. You may want to speak to several lawyers before
retaining one to represent you.
You may decide to defend yourself in a lawsuit instead of retaining
a lawyer, especially if it is a matter for small claims court. A small claims
division of the court hears only those cases where the money claimed is
below a certain level, usually no more than $1,500 to $5,000.
In small claims court, procedures are generally less formal and the
judge sometimes helps the parties resolve the matter. However, in some small
claims courts, parties may have a lawyer and demand a formal trial. Keep
in mind that if you want to represent yourself, you still can seek the advice
of a lawyer to coach you.
Finding a Lawyer
If you decide you will benefit by hiring a lawyer, there are a number
of ways to go about it. Most people find a lawyer through a personal referral
from friends, family members or colleagues at work.
If you seek a personal referral, remember that most lawyers focus their
practices on a few areas of the law. Just because a lawyer did a good job
for a friend in one matter doesn't mean he or she will be able to handle
something entirely different for you just as competently.
If you cannot find a lawyer through a personal referral, try a bar association
referral service. Some lawyer-referral services have panels of lawyers who
concentrate in certain fields of practice. You'll usually find bar association
lawyer-referral programs listed in the Yellow Pages under "lawyer referral."
If you are a member of a group or prepaid legal plan through your job
or other organization, you can contact this service for a referral.
If you have no money for a lawyer, you may qualify for legal assistance.
For more information about this, look in your telephone directory for your
local Legal Aid Society or contact a caseworker or social service agency
for a referral.
The stages of a lawsuit
Zall, Bureaucratus columnist and a retired federal employee, is a freelance
writer based in Silver Spring, Md. He specializes in taxes, investing, business
and government workplace issues. He is a certified internal auditor and
a registered investment adviser. He can be reached at [email protected].