Going to the courthouse does not have to put you in the poorhouse.
Lawyers can be expensive. In some of the big downtown law firms, experienced corporate takeover specialists charge their corporate clients more than $300 an hour just to review their legal problems.
Most of us can't afford to pay those prices. But even a neighborhood family lawyer often charges hourly fees more than $100. So before you start paying a lawyer to solve your legal dilemmas, consider some of the following cost-cutting tips.
--Ask a lawyer for a free consultation. Most lawyers will spend an hour or more with you to discuss your case, without charge. Be sure to confirm in advance that there will be no charge for the initial meeting. This allows you to do some comparison shopping. Be sure to pay attention. The lawyer's initial reaction may give you a good idea of the strength of your legal position.
--Ask your lawyer to work on a contingency-fee basis. The lawyer is paid a percentage from the proceeds of your case, so you only have to pay legal fees if you win. You still have to pay court fees and other costs, such as paying court reporters to transcribe depositions, but they are usually meager when compared to the hourly cost of a lawyer. Negotiate the percentage in advance and get it in writing. The percentage should be lower if the case settles and the lawyer does not have to go to trial. Unfortunately, most lawyers only take cases on a contingency basis in personal-injury matters.
--Join a prepaid legal-assistance plan. More than 16 million people are now covered by such plans. Most plans work like this: For one membership fee, you have unlimited access to a lawyer, who will write letters or make phone calls on your behalf. The fee does not usually include having an attorney by your side in court, but sometimes the preparation of a simple will or a review of a contract are included in the monthly fee.
(For a list of the legal-service plans available in California, send your request along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope to National Resource Center for Consumers of Legal Services, 3254 Jones Court N.W., Washington D.C. 20007.)
--Find out if you qualify for free or low-cost legal assistance from government-sponsored or charitable clinics. Contact the Legal Aid Foundation in your area.
--Persuade a public-interest law center that your case has the makings of a landmark legal precedent. Public-interest law firms are nonprofit organizations that try to expand the common law with selected court cases. If your legal problem is not run-of-the-mill and there are others in a similar situation, the ACLU, NAACP, Western Center for Law and Poverty, Public Counsel or other groups may take your case free of charge.
--Another source of free legal aid is the government. Your congressman can light a fire under a federal bureaucrat much quicker than an unknown lawyer can. Congressmen have staff members to intervene with federal agencies on behalf of their constituents. Government agencies can help you settle cases out of court, and file or investigate complaints on your behalf. --For many uncomplicated legal problems, your best bet may be a low-cost legal clinic. They are fast, cheap, usually consistent and best for routine fare. Such legal representation as drafting simple wills, filing uncontested divorces and counseling tenants are often best handled by lawyers who handle similar cases on a high-volume basis.
--There are lots of self-help books available, some of which are very good. Don't forget, however, the law is constantly changing, and an out-of-date book may leave you in a bind.