Abraham Lincoln was fond of telling a tale about being hired as the attorney for a big- wheel businessman. It seems the man wanted to sue a fellow over a $5 debt. Lincoln politely declined, saying, “I’m sorry sir, but with court fees and my fees it would cost more than five dollars to get your money.” “I don’t care how much it costs,” responded the client, “I want to teach him a lesson!” The businessman agreed to pay whatever fee the young attorney thought fair, so Lincoln thought about it for a moment and agreed to take the case for $10. The gentleman thought this fair and paid Lincoln the $10 in advance. Lincoln then found the young debtor, gave him $5 and told him to go pay his debt!
If nothing else, this illustrates the need to know which situations require the help of an attorney – and which can be handled on your own!
Know What’s at Stake
One of the first things to consider is what’s at stake. Obviously, when your finances or liberties are in jeopardy, the answer is to get legal help.
But what’s serious? An ordinary traffic summons is a minor brush with the law that you can probably handle by yourself. But the stakes are certainly higher when an arrest warrant for a stack of unpaid parking tickets comes to light during your day in court.
Some common situations where hiring a lawyer is advisable include these:
• You are sued
• Before you admit or deny guilt for a crime
• Before you make a statement to the police
• You have been in a serious accident which injured someone or damaged property
• You are considering divorce or adoption
• Someone in your family dies
• You want a will or need estate planning
• You are considering bankruptcy
• You have tax problems
• You are buying or selling a home
• You are organizing or dissolving a business
Approach the Bench
Not sure whether your situation requires legal help? Many attorneys will provide an initial consultation or answer simple questions free of charge. The key is to meet with one early, before the situation gets worse.
Consider the Alternatives
Short of hiring a lawyer, there are several alternatives for resolving your legal issues.
Do it yourself. If you have the time and inclination, you can do many of the things lawyers do. If you have a relatively uncomplicated estate, for example, you can write your own will. Legal software publisher Nolo (www.nolo.com) publishes Quicken WillMaker Plus 2011, which sells for around $40. Nolo and a variety of other websites also publish forms for do-it-yourself incorporation, divorce, trademark and patent application.
Work with a paralegal. For more complicated issues, an interim step is working with a paralegal. In Nevada, these professionals can handle living trusts, bankruptcy petitions, real estate closings and uncontested divorces – often for just a few hundred dollars. The only things paralegals cannot do are give legal advice and represent you in court.
Work the system. If you have a problem with a regulated industry such as banking or insurance, contact the state agency responsible for overseeing that industry. For instance, Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto’s office can assist with issues of insurance fraud, Medicaid fraud and claims against the state. Likewise, many community groups offer free legal help. Check with area elder associations, civil rights groups and other organizations.
Consider an alternative. Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to settling civil disputes. This involves businesses and individuals using mediation or arbitration use rather than expensive and time-consuming court action. In fact, Clark County’s Eighth Judicial District Court maintains an ADR Office in downtown Las Vegas specifically to provide alternative means of resolving civil disputes.
The Defense Rests
In today’s lawsuit-happy world, it’s important to protect your rights. The State Bar of Nevada offers a free, non-profit, Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS) http://www.nvbar.org, which refers over 28,000 people to panel attorneys each year. More than 250 lawyers in 30 broad areas of law participate and agree not to charge LRIS clients more than $45 for an initial consultation.
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