You've been sued. Do you need a lawyer?

In last week's column, I introduced what's important to know if you get sued—what'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 cost?

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 retainer—the 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.

Next Week

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].

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