When You Need to Talk With a Lawyer

OCTOBER 5, 2015 VOLUME 22 NUMBER 36

So often we field questions (on this website and in our practice) about whether people need to consult a lawyer. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there is a terrific resistance to seeking legal advice. We lawyers don’t always help — our fees can be substantial, and unpredictable. We speak a language that sounds vaguely familiar but seems foreign to most people, and we often fail to translate — or even to recognize that our clients may not speak that language.

Too often lawyers treat the question dismissively. “Would you perform brain surgery on yourself?” we often ask. “Then why would you try to handle your own legal matter?”

That’s an unfair characterization. Legal help is seldom much like brain surgery. There are, of course, two big differences: brain surgery pretty much requires a patient who has been anesthetized, and it involves technical skills that are also unknown to most people, but also highly dangerous.

You can, in fact, handle most of your legal issues yourself. You are likely to do fairly well if you do, provided that you do plenty of research and have a basic understanding of the law before you start.

We don’t think most people should try to take care of their own legal matters, of course, and we’re not advocating it here. We just don’t want to terrorize you into hiring us. Instead, we want to convince you that legal representation is an expense worth incurring.

A better comparison might be with auto mechanics, or even plumbers. Can you change your own oil, or fix a leaky faucet? Of course you can. You will likely do just fine with either task. Similarly, you can probably find a health care power of attorney form online, fill it out and get it signed and witnessed. But there are some tasks — with your auto, with your plumbing, and with your legal affairs — better left to professionals.

So when do you need a lawyer? Of course it depends on your comfort level and time availability. I know how to change my car’s oil (it’s actually an electric car, but that’s a different story) but I choose not to do it. Why? Because I’d rather have it done professionally, and spend the extra time with my grandchildren, or finishing up the work I get paid for, or just raise a glass of wine instead. You might feel the same way about legal jobs — or you might not.

Before we leave the metaphor, let us make another observation: sometimes people who undertake their own auto maintenance (or plumbing, or legal work) mess it up. When that happens, the cost of fixing the problem may be well in excess of what it would have cost to turn the problem over to the professionals in the first place.

Some people take great pleasure in mastering disparate tasks for themselves. Others prefer to delegate when it makes good sense. When does it make sense in the legal world?

Complicated legal issues

Some things are harder to handle on your own, of course. You can figure out how to create a health care power of attorney, but are you as comfortable about your ability to create a living trust? Are you even sure you know whether you need a trust? How about funding of the trust? These issues are more complex than most simple documents.

High stakes

Your estate might be modest. Perhaps you own your house and a single bank account. Do you plan on leaving everything to your spouse, or to your only child? It’s hard to see how you will go very wrong by preparing your own will (though of course we have seen people who manage to do that). But if your estate is larger, or your family situation more complicated, you might benefit from getting legal advice.

Unusual legal problems

Do you need a guardianship or conservatorship for a family member who has become incapacitated? That’s a little out of the ordinary, and you will have a harder time finding help online or among your non-lawyer friends. Talk with a lawyer. Incidentally, the first thing the lawyer will probably do will be to explore alternatives to save you expense and legal complications. But that’s a point to be made later.

Why not hire a lawyer?

Most people are concerned about the likely cost of legal advice. Start your interview with a new lawyer by discussing fees. Will fees be flat or fixed? Or will they be hourly? If the latter, you have a harder time predicting the total fees (though they may ultimately be lower than flat fees). Ask the lawyer to honestly assess the likely total cost. Explore the possibility of setting a maximum fee, or terminating the representation if costs begin to escalate.

Interview more than one lawyer, but do it quickly. Make your first lawyer appointment and then immediately schedule a second (and maybe a third). Figure out which lawyer seems most responsive to your concerns, and most able to handle your legal problem. Ask friends and colleagues for their suggestions and for any experience they might have with your chosen lawyers.

Are you comfortable?

You might be talking with the best, the smartest, the most reasonably-priced lawyer in town. But if you don’t feel comfortable, the experience is not going to be positive. You should insist on getting calming assistance, and peace of mind — that’s a lawyer’s stock in trade.

[Next week: we’ll tackle which kinds of legal problems we most often see people foolishly trying to handle on their own.]

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One Response

  1. Excellent article. Many people do things spontaneously without the assistance of a lawyer and then realize consulting a lawyer in the first place would have been the best thing to do.

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