There are times when it pays to see a lawyer.
Admittedly, lawyers can be expensive, but, used properly, a lawyer can also be cost effective. The trick is knowing when and how to use a lawyer.
Reading legal self-help guides, representing yourself in small-claims court, filling in the blanks in a standard-form will, even writing a simple agreement between friends--these are all valuable ways to protect and defend your legal rights. But there are times when you should not "do it yourself."
Option to Buy
Take the case of a Monterey Park woman who wanted to rent a house with an option to buy it later. The landlord was agreeable. The woman was to pay her entire savings, $3,500, as the fee for the option, and the rent was to be applied against the purchase price. All the parties agreed.
The landlord used his typical rental-agreement form and, without consulting a lawyer, added a few clauses to provide for the option to purchase the property. The price was to be determined by the parties at the time of sale, the agreement said. And if the tenant "honored" the agreement, it added, the landlord would even "carry" paper.
Fortunately, the woman decided to consult a lawyer before signing the document. It was fortunate, because the lawyer told her that the agreement, as written, was probably not worth the paper it was written on. He said if the landlord later refused to sell the house to her, a court might conclude that the agreement was an unenforceable "agreement to agree," because it did not include such crucial terms as the price of the house, the length of the option period and the details of the financing arrangement.
That's not to say some court might not be willing to enforce the so-called option agreement, but why risk it, the lawyer asked. If you are investing a lot of money, isn't it worth a few hundred dollars to hire a lawyer to draft a simple agreement that may save you from losing your life savings?
It's almost like buying a used car for several thousand dollars but refusing to spend $50 to have a mechanic check under the hood.
There isn't much a lawyer will do for $50, but lawyers do not have to cost thousands of dollars. Having a lawyer defend you in court or filing court documents is usually very expensive, but you should be able to find a lawyer to read a simple contract and explain it to you or draft a letter agreement for a few hundred dollars.
In the case of the Monterey Park woman, the lawyer knew within 15 minutes that the agreement was too vague to sign. Even at a hundred dollars an hour, that's only $25 worth of advice and it protected a $3,500 investment.
Obviously, you don't need a lawyer to negotiate your car-rental agreement or even your basic apartment lease. But when your job, house, credit record or life's savings are on the line, take the time to have at least one session with a competent attorney.
It is important to seek a lawyer's advice before you get into serious trouble. It's what Century City lawyer and former law professor Louis Brown calls "preventive law." Lawyers can help you plan ways to stay out of court.
You should be prepared when you visit the lawyer. You can do a lot of your own research as background. Then use the lawyer's time wisely. Make sure the lawyer knows exactly what you want and how much you want to pay. Tell him or her that you just want to pay for an hour or two of consultation.
Sometimes, just hiring a lawyer to write one letter may suffice. In one case, a pawnshop refused to return a man's jewelry to him because he came in one day late to pay back a loan. But when the pawn dealer received a letter from the man's lawyer, he decided he did not want to litigate the issue and returned the jewelry. If the pawnshop dealer had wanted to fight, the man probably could not have afforded a lawsuit, but he could afford the one letter.
Most local bar associations operate lawyer referral services, which provide a short consultation with a lawyer for a lowered fee. Check with the one in your area for details.
Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, a member of The Times' corporate legal staff, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Legal View, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.