Hiring a Lawyer For
Small Claims Court
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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