A Fool for a Client? How to Avoid Playing the Fool

By Bob Glaves  |  CBF Executive Director

Having identified the core roles lawyers play that are most important for someone facing a legal problem and what that means for our profession, today’s series finale looks at things from the perspective of the person facing a legal problem.

How can we best help people facing legal issues assess when they realistically can do things on their own, when they need a lawyer, and how much lawyer they need to achieve a just yet cost-effective outcome for their case?

The Continuum of Options

As is true in medicine, where health issues range from minor aches and pains to potentially deadly injuries or diseases, there are a whole spectrum of legal problems people encounter that require varying levels of legal assistance to reach a fair and effective resolution.

In medicine, the continuum of services that may be necessary to address a problem ranges from online self-help information to brief take two of these and call me in the morning advice to complex surgery and hospitalization, with a whole range of options in between.

In law, that continuum also starts with online information and self-help and then ranges from brief advice to complex litigation, again with many options in between.

As is true for a layperson facing a health issue, it is not easy for someone who is not trained in law to know where their problem falls on the spectrum and what level of legal help on the continuum they might need. To help people avoid being the fool who represents him/herself when they really need the assistance of a lawyer, our profession needs to provide better tools and resources to help them make that determination.

Many in the online self-help world act as though people can handle just about any legal problem on their own, while many in the bar would have us believe that there is never a substitute for talking to a lawyer. Reality requires a more nuanced analysis.

That will take more than just creating an algorithm that automatically makes the decision based on the nature of the problem, as many of the factors people should consider are individualized and purely human. Technology, however, can be used to create credible resources and tools that help people understand their legal issues and determine when and how a lawyer can help them.

Factors to Consider

While some of the factors people should consider in determining whether and how much lawyer they need obviously will be dependent on the particulars of their legal issue, there are some common questions that always should be part of that analysis to help tease out when having a lawyer is most essential.

How important is the matter to you? This should always be the starting point of the analysis. The more important the issue is to you, the more you should strongly consider talking to a lawyer to understand your options and determine next steps.

What is at stake if you do not win or get the result you are seeking? The more that is at stake, the more important it is to have a lawyer as studies consistently show that lawyers get better results. This might be money or something very important to you personally, such as your family or your home.

Are you on equal footing with the other side? If the other side has an attorney or you feel like they have more power than you, it can make all the difference to have a lawyer represent you.

How complicated is your legal issue? If your matter is complicated, a skilled attorney can make a big difference in what happens in the case. Talking to a lawyer at the beginning of your case can help you figure out whether your matter is simple enough to handle some or all of it on your own.

Can you be objective about the matter? This one is the principal source for the original fool for a client adage. If the issue you are facing can make you angry, upset or scared, then having a lawyer to provide objective advice or representation can help you avoid making a decision based on feelings that may cloud your judgement.

How comfortable are you researching the law and rules, filling out forms and appearing in court? Court cases require understanding the law, navigating the court process, completing court forms, and appearing in court. If you handle some or all of a court case on your own, you need to be comfortable handing these tasks. Appearing in court can be scary and emotional for some people.

Putting It All Together

While each situation will be different and some are more clear-cut than others, the above factors offer a good roadmap for virtually any legal issue.

For example, signing a personal cell phone contract could technically be considered a legal issue but it would strain credibility to suggest someone should consult a lawyer for that. But if it is a contract to purchase a home, the analysis looks different.

A dispute over a $300 debt is not the type of situation where most of us would consider consulting a lawyer absent special circumstances. For the many Americans living paycheck to paycheck though, that situation again may look quite a bit different.

There are many other situations where the nature of the issue will not be as apparent or easy to size up. Getting advice from a good lawyer up front will help you understand your options. From there, you may decide you do not need to do anything further or that you can handle some or all of the matter on your own. But having advice from a good lawyer early on will help you make the best decisions and can save you a lot of time, money and trouble later on.

And that is the last point to make here that needs to be a more regular part of the analysis in all cases: how much lawyer do you need? Even though you may benefit from or prefer to have a lawyer representing you from start to finish in a legal situation, you may really need a lawyer only for certain parts of your case.

Representing yourself in a contested court proceeding can be a frightening situation and a shortsighted thing to do when the stakes are high. That is where having a lawyer can make a big difference. But going to court for a routine status hearing or handling other more procedural aspects of your case on your own is something many people can do with a little bit of guidance.

As I noted in my last post, our profession has a lot more work to do to make flexible representation options more accessible and realistic for people facing legal issues. If we can do that, and give people better resources to credibly size up their legal problem and assess their need for a lawyer, we will have a fighting chance to fulfill the promise of equal access to justice.