Many of the letters have a sad, familiar ring to them. Others are amusing; some simply seek legal information, but by the time someone writes the consumer-law columnist of a major newspaper, usually they are at their wit's end.
The cases are frequently complicated and often involve senior citizens. One man complained that his 70-year-old father was convinced by a group of "con men" to donate his assets to a church that would "keep him healthy and wealthy for many years."
An Oxnard woman wanted to know how her daughter could get out of an investment in a Hawaiian time-share condominium deal she "got suckered into buying."
How Not to Pay
One man wanted to know how to avoid paying for a resort-camping time-share plan he had bought.
A Santa Monica man lost more than $50,000 in a real estate investment.
An 81-year-old widow said she entrusted her wealth to a businessman for real estate investments, but he transfered her money to his own account. Then she was convinced to use her home as collateral for legal fees by the lawyer she hired to get her money back. She ended up suing the lawyer as well.
One Anaheim woman complained that the "claim" form she received from Mexicana Airlines after she was bumped from a flight was in Spanish.
From the letters, it is difficult to know whom to blame, and all too often there is no easy advice to give. The law certainly does not have all the answers. And telling people to go talk to a lawyer is not always the best advice. If the problem does not involve a significant monetary loss, a lawyer may not be cost-effective. And finding a good lawyer can also be a frustrating experience.
Indeed, many of the letters are filled with complaints about lawyers:
"I am a widow who is 63 years old with a problem," one La Habra reader wrote. "I don't know if I'm being taken or not by my lawyer." Readers complain about lawyers who promised to handle their legal problem but later, long after the retainer or deposit check was cashed, would not even return phone calls.
One senior citizen from Saugus paid a lawyer a $1,500 retainer and $250 a month to file a suit, but later the lawyer would not even send her copies of court documents he filed on her behalf, she wrote.
Another reader spent more than $15,000 on several attorneys. One, she said, didn't even remember whom she was, after she had paid a $1,500 retainer. After losing her case and one appeal and being advised by another attorney that another appeal would be worthless, she wrote in frustration: "I have come to the conclusion that if one should have a legal problem, they should study law first."
Another reader, frustrated with the quality of legal service she received, asked in frustration: "Do you know of a good malpractice lawyer?"
Some Easy Answers
Many of the letters simply seek the current status of a law or legal doctrine or ask for more information about the court process. Those are the easy ones to handle, and they are answered in this column. But too many people have problems that can't be resolved with simple analysis of legal issues; they have lost large amounts of money or have problems that lawyers just can't fix.
Still, there may be some general common sense rules, based on legal principles, that will help you avoid falling into the same traps that have caught so many others unaware.
Don't part with your hard-earned money easily.
Don't get involved in business ventures or investments with strangers or others whose background and reputation you haven't checked out fully.
Beware of salesmen, especially those of the door-to-door variety.
Don't sign documents you have not read carefully and understood completely.
Check a lawyer's reputation before you retain one and demand a written fee agreement.
Don't give up if you have a complaint that you want resolved. Maybe somebody will be able to help. Demand to speak to supervisors. Keep calling until you find the right person. Write letters to consumer agencies, community groups and even consumer-law columnists.
Perhaps someone will have the right answer.