Do I Need a Lawyer?
No. You do not have to have a lawyer when you go to court. In California, several hundred thousand people each year go to court without a lawyer. This is called being in "pro per" -- the legal term for a person representing him or herself without a lawyer. However, some cases are complicated. This is when a lawyer can be most helpful.
You may find that you need a lawyer if:
- anyone involved has an estate with substantial assets;
- anyone involved lives outside of California;
- there are some other legal proceedings going on at the same time;
- anyone involved has special needs (physically/emotionally disabled);
- anyone involved is a member of the armed services, or
- anyone involved is Native American (in which case, federal laws may apply).
Lawyers are trained to research the intent of laws and judicial decisions and apply the law to the specific circumstances you face. In addition to skills in legal research, a lawyer will usually have:
- familiarity with courtroom rules and procedures;
- an understanding of when a witness is needed, and how he or she should be prepared for a trial;
- an understanding of when an expert, consultant, or investigator is needed – where to find such a person, and how much is reasonable to pay; and
- experience with different strategies for effective presentation of a case in court.
If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer there are several options that may help.
- Every superior court in California has legal help available in family law and in small claims cases. Several superior courts can also help you with other legal issues. To find out what services are available at your court, click here.
- There are legal aid offices in many cities throughout California. These are non-profit organizations that provide free legal services to people below a certain income level. To find legal aid offices in your area and find out what areas of law they cover, click here.
- If you don’t have much money but the other party in your case does, the court might order the other party to pay for some or all of your lawyer’s fees. (You would have to ask the court for this. It is not automatic.)
- Many bar associations have Modest Means Panels made up of lawyers who will take certain kinds of cases for a reduced fee. (You would have to find your local bar association and ask if it could help you with this.)
- You may be able to find a lawyer who will coach you on representing yourself (called "coaching"), or who will only handle (and charge you for) the more complicated parts of your case. This is called "limited scope representation" or "unbundled legal services.” (Your local bar association may have a list of lawyers who do limited scope representation.)
Generally, lawyers specialize in a particular area of the law. They may specialize in trial law (civil or criminal), bankruptcy law, elder law, family law, etc. When working with a lawyer, it is important to know his or her specialty.
NOTE: A lawyer cannot represent you in Small Claims court but they may help you prepare for your case.
If you decide to hire a lawyer, make sure you understand:
- what you will be paying for,
- how much it will cost, and
- when you will be expected to pay your bill.
You may want to talk to several attorneys before you hire one.
- Go to the State Bar of California’s Lawyer Referral Service, click here.
You can also find attorneys listed in the Yellow Pages of the telephone directory, or through the internet.
- For more help in getting free and low-cost legal aid, click here.
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