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Can I Afford a Lawyer?

by | Feb 17, 2015 | Criminal Case

Does anyone remember the H&R Block commercial where the husband claims to be a “tax master”? If you do, you’ll also remember the H&R Block spokesman destroying the husband’s laptop with a katana before informing the husband that the husband is, in fact, “not a tax master.” That’s very much the feeling of many lawyers when they see a person represent themselves (or what we call “pro se,” which is shorthand latin for “on one’s own behalf”).

The husband was noticeably distraught at the destruction of his laptop. But, the point of that commercial and one that applies here is that as a pro se litigant your chances of making a mistake harmful to your case increase dramatically. Unfortunately, the look on the husband’s face after the destruction of his laptop may be but a fraction of the agony felt by those without a lawyer. In certain types of cases, that agony can go on for a very, very long time.

So what is the solution? First, let’s get one thing straight: if your case is important, you should stop saying “I can’t afford a lawyer,” and focus on finding one. I’ve written in other forums on the topic of sizing up a potential lawyer. That’s not something to repeat here, but part of that discussion was that you can nearly always find someone within your budget, if you are reasonable (more on what that may mean later).

Some will still conclude “I can’t afford it.” That may be true. If you really can’t, the first thing to do is reach out to what is almost universally known as “Legal Aid.” This is usually a county-specific service (some larger entities are listed here). If your income is low enough, you have the right type of case, and there is no conflict of interest, then you can probably get help that way. (a conflict usually exists when an attorney or their firm already represents the opposite party or has represented them in the past under the same set of facts)

What most people find, unfortunately, is that Legal Aid requires a very low income or doesn’t handle the type of case at issue. What then? This is where I implore you to be kind. Attorneys are people too, but unlike many professions, we are encouraged or even forced to offer no-cost or reduced fee options for representation. But if you call seeking help and act like “the client from hell,” there is no way a discount will be mentioned. Be kind. Be courteous. Heck, pretend you’re about to ask your grandmother for money, and maybe you’ll land a top notched litigator for a reasonable price.

However, almost no state requires pro bono services (in fact, Pennsylvania is generally terrible at providing legal help to persons with a low income), so many lawyers will respond that they don’t provide those services. That’s understandable too; it costs a lot of money to become an attorney and stay in practice. Still, that isn’t the end of the road either. Another advantage to hiring a lawyer, unlike an accountant or a doctor, is the ability to negotiate services. One increasingly common practice is called “unbundling.” Historically, a lawyer took a case for some broad range of services, a trial but not an appeal for example. I say a broad range, because something like taking a case to trial involves A LOT of smaller pieces, which in many cases can cost more than the trial itself.

Modernly, it’s not unheard of for a lawyer to “unbundle” many of these services. For instance, you might pay a lawyer just to give you legal advice. This is why lawyers often charge for consultations, because, when they might otherwise be billing a current client at least $100/hour (a low rate), they are talking to you for that hour. What if you talk to the lawyer and he/she thinks you could get the case tossed out? Well, then you might add a Motion to Dismiss or attendance at a Preliminary Hearing to your bundle of services. Maybe you’ve even been pro se for a while and want a lawyer to step in for a hearing or two. That might also be possible.

The only thing to keep in mind is that unbundling services can create ethical obligations the lawyer might not be willing to bear. In the end, that’s a judgment call and one that the lawyer should have the professional courtesy to explain as fully as possible.

At any rate, nearly everyone can afford a lawyer…if you are reasonable. It’s like buying anything else; you have to get a product within your price range. In many cases this means three things: (1) getting a less experienced attorney; (2) taking steps to settle your case quickly; and/or (3) realizing you can’t get everything you want. None of those options is overly appealing, but they are better than the alternative. In the end, going to court yourself is much like bringing a knife to a gunfight. You could still win, but it’s going to take some Matrix-style maneuvering. With a less experienced lawyer or a good lawyer available for only a limited time, your chances of survival are much better.

Two final pieces of advice: First, certain types of cases (but never family law or criminal law cases) may be negotiated on a contingency fee basis. Many firms advertise this as a “no recovery, no fee” policy, and that’s a good thing, because it ensures that the attorney is as motivated as you are to achieve the best possible outcome. That said, the same motivation can be a bad thing if you want justice more than money; the attorney needs to pay the light bill and, unfortunately, the electric company doesn’t accept justice as currency. If you do opt for a contingency fee, the percentage you agree to pay — usually anywhere from 30% to 45% — should have some basis in the attorney’s experience. If you get a brand new attorney wanting to charge you 40%, seek a second opinion. You may get a veteran attorney for only 33%, if you’re willing to shop around.

Related to contingency fees, other types of cases can be very reasonable, because federal law provides attorney’s fees to a plaintiffs’ attorney who win at trial. In other words, if you are a plaintiff and you win at trial, you should only have costs (filing fees, etc.), but not attorney’s fees, unless you have agreed otherwise. Speaking of agreements, these types of cases are usually backed up by a contingency fee. That means if the case settles the attorney will get a percentage of the settlement amount as their fee, plus any costs they advanced on your behalf.

Second (this will make some lawyers angry) before you call the number of a lawyer on a billboard or listed on the back of a phonebook, do a Google search for your county’s Lawyer Referral Service (or something like that). There are many, many skilled attorneys who don’t advertise at all. Remember, advertising costs money. That’s money that might otherwise be saved by you on the cost of services.

This is where I put at least one shameless plug for my firm. At Skala | Miller, we take the time and effort to save costs on the business side and pass those savings onto you. This often takes the form of highly competitive pricing and/or promotional discounting. Remember my advice about not being the “client from hell”? At Skala | Miller, we offer discounts to model clients and repeat clients. It’s a “you scratch our back, we’ll scratch yours” policy.

Let’s explore the possibilities together. Give us a call or a text to set up a consultation or click the link above.