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How do I know when I need a lawyer?

Mitchell Allen
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Mitchell Allen is the founder and CEO of the Debt Education Certification Foundation, an organization that provides credit counseling certificates and debtor education courses for those who are filing for bankruptcy. He’s also the founder of legal services marketing agency LeadRival. He’s the author of numerous books on debt and bankruptcy.

Mitchell is not an attorney and his answers should not be considered legal advice. Please consult with an attorney about your legal situation. Full Bio

Q:

How do I know when I need a lawyer?

A:

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who has never needed the services of a professional lawyer before. People need legal services for a myriad of reasons, including divorce, bankruptcy, personal injuries, when they are accused of crimes, etc. However, sometimes the decision of whether or not to invest in a lawyer isn't so clear-cut.

Here are a few rules of thumb to help you decide if it's time to seek legal advice:

You Don’t Understand the Law

Not every legal situation requires a lawyer; some simple legal cases can be handled by the individuals involved (known as pro se legal representation). Many online legal services offer free legal advice and forms for cases you may be able to handle on your own as well. This often happens in small claims court cases. On the other hand, the legal system and laws can often be confusing and complex. You are going to need a lawyer if you don’t understand the law(s) involved in your situation and potential case.

For example, you may be able to understand the process of writing a will, but it would be another matter if you are dealing with complicated tax laws. In the latter situation, if you don’t understand all the legal issues involved, you could get into deep trouble with the IRS.

You’ve Been Severely Injured

If you’ve been severely injured in a motor vehicle crash or some other incident, you will almost always need an experienced attorney to help you make an informed decision and help preserve your legal rights. Serious injuries usually happen in the workplace, on someone else’s property, or in an automobile accident. A personal injury attorney has experience with the legal intricacies involved in this type of case, allowing you to focus on recovering from your injuries.

Usually, cases involving negligence, malpractice, workers’ compensation, and the recklessness of another person fall under the umbrella of personal injury cases that require the help of an attorney. Consider it an investment that'll help you get the compensation you deserve.

Your Legal Issue Has Long-Lasting Consequences

If your legal issue is going to have a long-lasting impact on your life or significant consequences, you shouldn't gamble on the outcome by handling things yourself; this is a clear case of when a lawyer is required. For example, a simple speeding ticket is something you can usually handle on your own: just pay any applicable fines or perhaps attend driving school in some instances. It’s a temporary incident with no significant consequences because your driving record usually clears after a predetermined time.

However, imagine you are charged with DUI/DWI. In this case, the consequences can be severe and long lasting, and the penalties increase if it's not your first offense. The fines can be heavy and jail time can be involved. In this case, you will need an attorney to help you maneuver the legal ramifications of pleading guilty or not guilty. A lawyer may even be able to negotiate a lesser charge for you.

Other significant legal issues that often require a lawyer include any criminal issues that could result in jail time, immigration issues, divorce where property and child custody issues exist, tax problems, when you’re being sued, or for real estate transactions.

Other Times You Need an Attorney

Many people are put off by the sticker shock of hiring a lawyer, but if you are facing a legal issue that may require a large investment, an attorney is a wise choice. The same goes for legal cases where you are facing a big entity, such as a corporation.

Some court cases, such as those involving class action lawsuits, can drag on for years and lead to a heavy investment in time and money. You will have a better chance of winning this type of lawsuit if you hire a lawyer who specializes in your type of case. These lawyers can also help put you on a more even footing when the powerful legal entity that you are going up against has more money to fight with than you do.

There are many uncomplicated legal issues that don't require an attorney. Individuals who want to handle legal matters on their own can often find DIY kits that allow them to get a simple divorce, form a business partnership, or declare bankruptcy, to name a few.

If you still aren't sure if you need an attorney, many offer free consultations that may help you sort out your legal options.

Have a question? Ask Mitchell here.

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    - Jeremy Bentham