As a self-represented litigant, you’ve already decided not to hire a lawyer to handle your civil case. But that’s not the end of the story.
It’s now easier than ever to hire a lawyer for a specific task or assignment while retaining control of your case.
When NOT to Hire a Lawyer
In legal circles, the practice of helping pro se litigants is called limited scope representation or unbundled legal services.
I prefer to think of it as bite-sized legal assistance, getting specified legal help on your terms when you need it.
But this only works when you know what matters in your case. It works best when you’ve analyzed the case yourself and plotted a strategy for winning.
If you hire a lawyer before you develop a litigation strategy, you may as well hire a lawyer to represent you completely. Your wallet will be drained either way. The more instruction you can give your bite-sized lawyer, the better for both of you.
By “litigation strategy,” I mean a clear understanding of the end game in your case, the outcome you want, as well as how you expect to get it. For instance:
- Do you want the contractor to refund your money? Do you plan to harass him with discovery until he gives up?
- Is your home in foreclosure and you simply want to stay as long as possible? Will you raise extraneous issues to cause delay in the case?
- In your negligence case, will you play it straight and pursue your claim (or defend yourself) at trial?
But there’s also procedure, and that’s where most of us need help from time to time. We may know what we want, but not always how to proceed.
Common Tasks for a Bite-Sized Lawyer
Judges make decisions based on case law — it’s the language of courts. Lawyers can be excellent resources for finding case law. If poring over dozens of cases on every issue is not the best use of your time, hire a lawyer to do your research for you.
In litigation, the most important things to understand are the elements of the claim(s). Depending on your jurisdiction, a negligence claim has 3-5 elements, each of which must be supported by facts. If you’re unsure of the elements in your case, or the facts supporting them, it might help to speak with a lawyer.
There are big moments in every case, and pro se litigants often stumble on these. You might consider hiring a lawyer to draft your motion to dismiss, or to draft your response to one. A lawyer can help you prepare a motion for summary judgment, or your opposition to it.
The pleadings are also important to get right. They stake out your legal position and can limit your options if done incorrectly. In other words, the way you proceed in the case can be limited by what you plead.
So a plaintiff concerned about starting on a strong footing might hire a lawyer to draft the complaint. A defendant may need help with the answer and any affirmative defenses.
There are lots of other ways to use a lawyer while staying in charge of your case. You might hire a lawyer to appear on your behalf at a hearing and deliver your oral argument. Or you might bring a lawyer to help as you argue your case before a judge.
Where To Find Help
JustAnswer is a good resource for legal research and other matters. To get started, select your state, describe the legal issue, and ask for relevant legal authorities in your jurisdiction. Better yet, describe the argument you want to support with case law, or ask if there’s an appellate case that states the exact legal opinion you want.
Choose the “High Detail” option at JustAnswer. You’ll pay extra for it, especially when you need it fast, but the judge will be impressed with your research.
If you need more than a simple question and answer, check out Avvo’s services, which start with a 15-minute phone chat with a local lawyer. Avvo offers other unbundled services in some areas of the country, and they’re growing. So be sure to ask if you don’t find what you need immediately.
When your needs are more complex, such as assistance in drafting a motion or having a standby lawyer to take with you to court, contact your county bar association for a list of unbundled lawyers in your area.
As pro se litigants, we take pride in being able to represent ourselves, and many of us do it well. But we’re not lawyers, and we shouldn’t be too proud to hire a bite-sized lawyer when needed.
It’s not a sign of failure. It’s a sign of maturity, and a sign that we take our cases seriously.
Have you worked with a lawyer as a self-represented litigant? What tasks did you assign, and what was your experience? Share in the comments below.