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"Dealing With a Legal Matter is Not a D.I.Y. Project"
Written by Bill Hunter, Prism Family Law Firm, 10/14/15
There are many projects we take on as “Do It Yourself” tasks- making a new headboard for the bed; changing the oil in the car; or making new throw pillows to redecorate the living room. But some things are just NOT DIY projects, like removing your own spleen, filing a cavity in your tooth, and dealing with most legal matters.
There are websites online with “Do It Yourself” instructions for just about anything- even how to put a filling in your own tooth! And it’s true, you can find instructions online for how to draft your own legal documents and file your own lawsuit. But when you take on one of these tasks, do you really know whether it’s done properly? The two main legal practices that people often attempt to handle on their own are attempting to draft legal documents and representing themselves when filing or defending a lawsuit. Both areas contain their own potential pitfalls.
Drafting your own legal documents.
Let’s first discuss creating your own legal documents. There are many great samples of documents online. In fact, as attorneys, we often use samples to create our own documents. However, a sample is simply a starting point for drafting your own document. When you download a free sample of a separation agreement, will, contract, or other legal agreement, are you sure that the document will be appropriate for your specific situation? Unfortunately, most legal situations are not one-size-fits all. Many legal documents will contain certain boilerplate language that will likely be found in most legal documents of the same kind. It is not only important to understand what all of the boilerplate provisions mean, but it is also critical to understand that there are a number of provisions that may be necessary to either add or delete depending on your specific situation. Without knowledge of the laws, statutes, and case law surrounding the particular legal issue you are facing, it is very easy to overlook certain provisions that may have a major legal impact on you currently or in the future. Unfortunately, the negative impact of drafting mistakes may not be discovered until years down the road when you attempt to enforce a poorly drafted document, and at that point, may either be un-fixable or very expensive to correct.
Representing your own interests in a law suit (Pro-se litigation).
Let’s shift our attention to representing your own interests in a lawsuit. There are a number of potential pitfalls for the pro-se litigant along most legal paths, and we broadly address a few of them below. First, it is important to understand rules of procedure, which provide very specific guidelines regarding the many procedural aspects of a law suit, including standing, timing, drafting, filing, serving, and answering lawsuits. Local court rules provide additional rules and guidelines that must be followed on a county level when filing a law suit. The rules often vary greatly depending on the type of legal matter involved. Failing to follow these rules may result in a suit being dismissed.
Second, when proceeding towards trial, it is important to understand how a courtroom works, the procedures followed within a courtroom, the tendencies of the judge you are in front of, and the framework within which you are expected to conduct your trial. Third, it is important to be familiar with the rules of evidence, which provide guidelines for putting on evidence at hearings and trials. When the proper steps and/or rules are not followed, the repercussions could be devastating. In some cases, your lawsuit could be dismissed, or the judge could rule against you and in favor of the opposing party without even hearing your side of the story.
Finally, consider the old adage from Abraham Lincoln, an attorney himself, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Courtrooms are courts of law…not courts of logic, and not courts of emotion. When representing yourself it is very easy to get caught in the emotions and unfairness of your particular situation, therefore missing the importance of the laws, procedures, and rules which are used to make a ruling on your matter.
Why don’t people hire lawyers?
People typically avoid hiring an attorney for one of two reasons. First, most of us have a natural desire to want to handle matters on our own if possible to save money. There is nothing wrong with this thought process, and every day many people successfully represent themselves in legal matters. That being said, when making a decision as to whether or not you will actually save money in a legal situation, it is very important to both understand what you may be entitled to under the law, and what you may cost yourself by potentially making a mistake or not properly pursuing all remedies. Ask almost any attorney and he or she will have many stories of assisting clients who have either drafted their own legal documents or represented themselves in legal matters attempting to save money on the front end, only to have to pay significantly more money in legal fees on the back end to attempt to undo and correct errors made. Worse yet, some errors may never be fixed, and some rights are lost forever if they are unknowingly signed away, not affirmatively brought, or not properly addressed. There have been many significant legal mistakes made by very bright do-it-yourselfers. These mistakes are often made not for a lack of intelligence, but for a lack of knowledge when it comes to the law. While certain statutes and legal concepts may seem clear on their face, most litigated legal issues have volumes of case law, treatises, law review columns, and other legal opinions weighing in on how the minutia of statutes and legal concepts are applied and treated in practice. When considering representing yourself in a legal matter, we suggest at least considering an initial consultation with a law firm to confirm that your understanding of the laws, rules, and procedures associated with your matter is up to speed.
The second main reason that people don’t hire an attorney is financial inaccessibility. Unfortunately, many people in this country lack the resources necessary to hire an attorney. We encourage people falling into this category to research law firms in hopes of finding a firm that may be able to work with you financially. Some law firms may offer pro bono services. Law firms and lawyers with less experience may offer significantly reduced rates compared to law firms and lawyers with significant experience. Some law firms offer unbundled service packages, which means that you only hire an attorney to help with one or more aspects of your case, such as the trial or drafting of a complaint, rather than handling the entire matter. Many firms also payment plans. We also encourage people to reach out to family members, friends, and other loved ones. When facing a serious legal matter, those close to you may often be willing to help financially more than you may expect, but you have to ask. Finally, we often encourage people to visit the “self serve” center of their local courthouse. Many courthouses have these centers which are designed to help pro-se litigants understand the basics of certain legal matters.
Whether you have the money and don’t want to spend it, or just feel that you don’t have the resources required to hire an attorney, we highly encourage legal “do-it-yourselfers” to at the very least consider an initial consultation with a law firm practicing in your area of concern. A consultation is an inexpensive way to get additional guidance on your issue from someone experienced in the field, which may help you avoid some of the common missteps made by many attempting to navigate difficult legal waters on their own.
Prism Can Help.
Have a legal issue in the Charlotte, North Carolina area that you would like to speak to a lawyer about? Our attorney practices primarily in Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties and are available to help with a wide range of legal matters, including family law and divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, equitable distribution, guardianship, estate planning, expungement, and contract disputes. Prism Family Law Firm offers several different payment structures to help those with most budgets, including: retainers, flat fees, unbundled services, limited representations, and payment plans. Have questions about payment options? Call Prism today at 704-412-1442 and an attorney will answer any questions you have.
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