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Do you need a lawyer to sue someone?

Mitchell Allen
Profile Picture of Mitchell Allen

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:

Do you need a lawyer to sue someone?

A:

The short answer to this question is no. That being said, it's important to understand that while you don’t always need an attorney, it is highly recommended in some situations because the courts will expect you to know the laws and follow all the same procedures as an experienced attorney would. In other words, a court will not give you any preferential treatment for not following the rules or for not knowing the law enough to handle your own case.

The complexity of your particular case is also going to also dictate whether you can represent yourself effectively in a lawsuit. Try to imagine representing yourself in a high-profile case like the one that occurred in San Diego in February 2014. This case involves a death, and the burden of proof would be enormous for such a case—even with the help of a seasoned attorney. This represents the type of lawsuit in which a lawyer, or even a team of lawyers, is considered essential. The bigger the stakes and the less straightforward the case, the more you need a lawyer.

On the other hand, many people successfully represent themselves in small claims courts. If you aren't sure whether you need a lawyer, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  1. Do you have a good understanding of your case and are you able to explain it well enough to a judge?
  2. Are you able to feel confident speaking in a public setting such as a courtroom?
  3. Do you keep organized and accurate records?
  4. Do you have neat, legible writing or good typing skills?
  5. Do you have the free time to prepare yourself for the court case? This includes learning the required steps, preparing papers, making copies, performing legal research and attending any necessary court hearings.
  6. Are you available to respond to documentation that you receive from the other party? Keep in mind that you may be required to do this right away.
  7. Do you have the capability to read, comprehend and respond as quickly as necessary to all documentation that you obtain from the court?

If you answer yes to most of these questions, you may be a good candidate for self-representation in a lawsuit, particularly in a small claims court.

Many households are familiar with Judge Marilyn Milian and the TV courtroom series, The People's Court. That is an example of a small claims court (although a bit of a dramatized one). The proceedings in this type of courtroom are informal and provide an avenue where you can go to get back the money that a person owes you (think back rent, damaged property, etc.). Many people who appear in small claims court do not have an attorney, and the purpose of this court is to provide an uncomplicated means to resolve smaller disputes that don’t involve enough money to necessitate the expense of a formal trial. There is, however, a major restriction on this type of court: the amount involved can’t be over $10,000.

Have a question? Ask Mitchell here.

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    - Martin Luther King, Jr.