In California, you have the absolute right to be your own lawyer in any case. But just because you have the right to be your own lawyer does not mean you that you should. The question, “Do I need a Lawyer?” is one question that I’m most frequently asked.
And almost always, my answer to this question is “Yes”.
At some point during any legal matter you are involved in, you should at minimum consult with a lawyer. Why?
Because when you are faced with any legal issue, no matter how simple, many things may be at stake; Your money, opportunities, employment, freedom, family, and time are just a few of the things that are commonly affected when a legal matter arises. If your case is mishandled, you could end up losing some of the most important things in your life.
You may think that you don’t need a lawyer because you believe the facts of your case are so “obvious” that the Judge, Jury or Prosecutor, will side with you and rule in your favor. Unfortunately, unless you have an extensive legal background or have mastered the art of legal research, writing, and argument, it is likely that your opinion of the evidence and the court system is inaccurate.
The court system can be very intimidating. Even some lawyers choose to stay “behind the scenes” and only take the type of cases that do not require, or rarely require appearing in the courtroom; some areas of law and procedure are so complex, even after years of law school, they do not feel comfortable enough to go before a Judge.
Now please do not be mistaken: When I say “in most cases, you need a lawyer”, I do not mean you need ANY lawyer.
Lawyers have spent years being trained on how to conduct legal research in order to know the rules and laws that apply to your case. However, that is not always enough. It is important to get help from a lawyer who knows the ins, outs, strategies, and rules that will be most helpful to your case. You need someone who is experienced working with your type of case, who truly cares about your best interest, and is confident that they can stand by you and protect you in the intimidating court system. (Be on the lookout for the upcoming blog entry: “How to choose the right lawyer for you.”)
Another reason I say you almost always need a lawyer is because you are at a huge disadvantage if you aren’t represented. Especially if the opposing party is represented by counsel and you are not.
Although technically it is unlawful for a Judge, jury, or other government official to discriminate against you because you do not have a lawyer, far too many times have I seen unrepresented parties receive different treatment than those who are represented by a Lawyer.
Here’s an example of a personal experience: On one particular occasion, while representing an African American client in Juvenile court, I was “mistaken” as my client’s mother. (Why this “mistake” was made is another topic to be discussed later). Upon first entry to the Courtroom, the Judge had a firm, condescending tone with both my client and I. However, after learning that I was in fact the Attorney on the case, the Judge’s entire demeanor changed and both my client and I were treated differently; definitely with more respect. I strongly believe that my client’s case results would have been different (more unfavorable) had the Judge ruled on the case, still believing that I was the client’s mother rather than his Lawyer.
Notwithstanding all of the above information, there are several valid reasons people choose to represent themselves instead of hiring a lawyer. One of the most common reasons is cost. Also, if all of the parties to a case agree on the issues, a lawyer may not be necessary. In small claims court you do not have the right to a Lawyer, therefore everyone represents themselves. Finally, some people feel that they do not need a lawyer because they believe they are capable of representing themselves.
If you choose not to hire a Lawyer to represent you, as previously mentioned, you should at least consult with a Lawyer for the following reasons:
- To get legal advice about the law, rules, and procedures that apply to your case (Remember: ignorance of the law, rules, and procedures is never an excuse to not abiding by them).
- To get legal advice on strategies for your case;
- To find out if your case is or could become complicated;
- To get an objective opinion on your case, as you may be too emotional and have a hard time seeing things accordingly. (Remember: your personal feelings, and the laws and facts are completely different);
- To learn about all of your options so you can make informed choices about your case;
- To learn how to and how long it will take you to prepare for your case.