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Hiring a Lawyer For Small Claims Court

Sometimes it pays to pay an attorney to help you.

The legal profession has taken a lot of bad press over recent years. Negative comments and constant bad humor pop up in the media with regularity. Despite the efforts of local, state, and national bar associations to instill and enforce high ethical standards, we constantly hear about corrupt lawyers. It makes for good press, but it is an inaccurate depiction of the profession as a whole. As in every definable group, there are a few bad oysters that spoil the chowder.

The overwhelming majority of attorneys work hard to gain the best legal advantage for their clients. Trial lawyers have big egos by necessity. As advocates, they must wholeheartedly adopt and urge their clients' causes even in the face of contrary facts, law, and staunch opposition. To them, winning may not be everything, but it's high on the priority scale.

Lawyers who demand and receive large fees do so because they are worth it to their clients. They would not be worth it if they were not consistently good at what they do. As noted above, lawyers' careers flourish or falter on the strength of their reputations, built one client at a time.

Students are attracted to law for many reasons, but the hope of making a lot of money is usually not the most significant. Law presents the challenge to learn as much as you can about an ever-changing body of knowledge. One can never know all there is to know, because the law always changes. It has breadth covering all facets of ongoing human endeavor, and the depth of thousands of years of history. Some people who decide to pursue a legal career look at the law as a means of helping people in a meaningful way. Others want their lives to have impact on society. Most believe they can make a positive difference in the world.

The law is as old as humanity. Its current concepts and the language used to express them are nearly as old. Like other professions, it has its own jargon, obscure to those who are not trained in the law.

People fear, dislike, and distrust lawyers because they can't understand them. As stated earlier, some people believe that the obscurity of legal lingo gives lawyers a key to some mysterious treasure chest of knowledge that, when applied to their legal problem, will yield miraculous results. There is not one key, but many. There is information provided here and in other sources you may go to learn about the workings of the law: other books, seminars, "People's Law Schools," law courses offered by your local college's continuing education department, newspaper and magazine articles on law related subjects, and of course, the Internet. There is no mystery in the law, but it has a mystique that constantly draws our interest no matter what our situation in life, as is apparent by the enduring popularity of law related television shows, movies, and novels.

There are a lot of lawyers in this country, but you can briefly count the few who have earned reputations by pursuing frivolous suits. The weight of media hype in the rotten lawyer cases will continue to pull down the collective reputation of the profession. The majority's job is to keep the boat afloat by doing good work for their clients, day after day, one case at a time.

There are some situations in which you should consider hiring an attorney. Here are some scenarios that may make hiring an attorney worth the cost.

  1. When there is too much at stake. These cases remind me of investment salespeople on the radio. "How much are you willing to risk?" they ask. Small claims courts in this country hear claims having values up to $25,000. The greater the stakes in the case, the greater the risk of loss for not spending part of it in legal fees.

  2. When proof of your case is complicated. In cases of fraud, the swindle may be hard to prove. Here are five elements you need to prove in every fraud case: 1) a false representation; 2) made by a person who knew it was false at the time it was made; 3) with the intent to deceive another person; 4) whom it does in fact deceive; 5) with resulting damages. If there is insufficient proof on any one element, you will lose.

    Some schemes and scams are obscure. They must be put together like a puzzle before a judge can be convinced that fraud occurred and the injured party is entitled to recover. Proof of damages in a specific amount can also be difficult in these cases.

    Remember, in most states, once fraud is proven, the damaged person is entitled to recover punitive or exemplary damages. These are awarded to punish the deceiver and prevent the conduct from occurring again. The likelihood of a higher damage award in these cases will often offset the cost of hiring a lawyer to pursue this kind of claim.

    The same holds true with other legally technical causes of action, such as libel, slander, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Cases that are basically contract or tort cases can be complicated by the subject matter, such as conversion by manipulation of company records, or proof of personal injuries where there has been a pre-existing medical condition. You can also consider getting representation when the proof of your damages is complicated. You might need assistance to discover every dime of the damages in the first place, and then to put them in a form that a judge can understand.

    Not long ago a plaintiff came to my courtroom complaining that his former company had failed to pay him his full commissions for the five years before he left. He had handled more than 1,000 transactions during that time. His proof involved comparing all of his records, which were not complete or well-organized, against his commission check records. The company countered with all its records of the same transactions.

    The salesman won, but I am sure he did not win all he was entitled to because he could not prove everything. It is notable that the case took more than four hours to try, trying not only the issues, but also the judge's patience. Had he hired a lawyer, he might have received all that was coming to him, and it would have been easier on everyone involved in the trial. An attorney should have been able to summarize the transactions and prove the salesman's total loss.

  3. When your case has been "removed" to a court of "superior" jurisdiction. Superior courts usually have rules of procedure and evidence that only one trained in the law can understand and use effectively.

  4. When the proof of your case requires experts (especially medical experts). In order to recover damages for personal injuries, some states require that you have medical testimony to show that your treatment was reasonable and necessary, and that the treatment you received was related to the injury you are complaining about. Getting the facts from psychologists, psychiatrists, and other physicians, actuaries, accident reconstruction experts, chemists, cer- tified public accountants, and engineers of all kinds can be just as challenging.

  5. If you decide that you just don't want to try your own case after all. Trying one's own case is not for everybody. You will be no less a valuable person if you turn your case over to a lawyer after you make an informed decision about it. You can still be an asset to your attorney by presenting your case to him or her in an understandable way. It will save both of you time and it will save you money.

  6. For any other good reason. If you look back to the chapter on finding sound free legal advice, it should give you some ideas about where to find the best attorney to handle your case when you are willing and able to pay for it. In choosing an attorney, always try to get a referral. The best source for one would be your family, friends, and business acquaintances. As said elsewhere, lawyers live and die in the legal business on the strength of their reputations. If an attorney did diligent work for one client, it is more likely that the same level of effort will be repeated for others. Shop around. If you talk to a lawyer who does not handle cases like yours, ask him or her to refer you to two or three attorneys who do.

    You probably have some time. Most small claims must be brought within two years after the incident occurred. When you contact attorneys, be sure and find out what experience they have, their areas of specialty. Most important, be sure to find out how much they will charge you, based on your brief but complete explanation of what your case is about.

    You can go to secondary sources for referrals, such as local or state bar association lawyer referral services, referral services in the yellow pages, or similar call-in services advertised in daily urban newspapers.

    When you have had all your major fears quelled about what a particular lawyer will do for you and for how much, get it in writing. If he or she does not offer you a written contract, before the attorney does any substantial work for you, confirm your understanding in a letter to the lawyer.

    Once your case is turned over, you may have a great sense of relief. You are still responsible to provide your lawyer with all pertinent facts. As with any service contract, you are buying the lawyer's time, attention, and effort. Be willing to help whenever you can, but without interfering. Any way you can make the attorney's job more efficient will benefit your pocketbook. And insist that you be informed of any significant events or changes. The time a lawyer spends on your case is the lawyer's time, but your money.

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