Basic Law: Trying Your Hand at Self-Representation

Article excerpt

It has been said of those who take legal matters into their own hands: "A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client." That may be, but there are times when handling your own legal affairs may be appropriate, even necessary, to save money.

Deciding when to serve as your own Perry Mason depends on an issue's complexity, how much money, property and other assets are at stake, and how emotionally charged the legal battle is.

Another factor is the state in which you live. Some states are simply more user-friendly. In California, where paralegals rather than lawyers are allowed to handle certain real estate and family law issues, more than half of family law cases are handled without lawyers, said Jeff Atkinson, an adjunct professor at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago and author of "The American Bar Association Guide to Family Law" (Times Books, $12). Most legal matters require a lawyer's attention, expertise and connections, but there are situations that fall into the routine category, requiring little more than standard forms, knowledge of proper filing procedures and a professional's quick review. Unless you feel so overwhelmed with the issue, a lawyer isn't always necessary to buy or sell a house, complain about defective products, write a will or declare a guardian for your kids, said Kenneth Lasson, a University of Baltimore law professor and author of "Representing Yourself: What You Can Do Without a Lawyer" (Plume, $13.95). It's a good idea to have a lawyer review the contracts before you sign them, but legal representation to walk you through each procedure step by step isn't necessary. No-fault divorces, especially if there are no kids or not much property involved, can be done without hours of a lawyer's time. Simple prenuptial agreements are another possibility, although the larger the assets, the greater the need for each party to have legal representation, Lasson said. There is a trend toward more self-representation because of the cost, said Atkinson, who estimated that average legal fees nationally are about $100 an hour. Fees can range widely. Big-city specialists can charge $300 an hour or more. …