Do I Need a Lawyer?

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  • June 25, 2013

Do I Need a Lawyer?

The most common question I hear is, “Do I need a lawyer?”  Or, sometimes the question is phrased, “Do I really need a lawyer?”  To understand the answer to that question, one should understand exactly what a lawyer is.  The American Bar Association defines a lawyer (also called attorney, counsel, counselor, barrister, or solicitor) as

a licensed professional who advises and represents others in legal matters.  Today’s lawyer can be younger or older, male or female. Nearly one-third of all lawyers are under the age of thirty-five. Almost half the law students today are women, and women will probably ultimately be as numerous in the profession as men.  

One source lists matters best handled by a lawyer as follows:

    • being arrested for a crime;
    • being served with documents related to a legal proceeding or lawsuit;
    • being involved in a serious accident causing personal injury or property damage;
    • a change or pending change in family status, such as divorce, birth, adoption, or death;
    • a change or pending change in financial status, such as filing for bankruptcy or getting or losing valuable personal property or real estate.

The bottom line is whether you need a lawyer really depends on your goals and what is at stake.  If your goal is to achieve the best possible outcome in your case, whatever that outcome may be, you will have the best chance to achieve that goal by having a trained, educated, and experienced lawyer helping you.  If, on the other hand, you do not care about the outcome, do not care about your legal interests being protected, and simply want the case resolved as quickly as possible without regard for the costs and other consequences that may befall you, then you probably do not need a lawyer.

If your assets or liberties are at stake, you need a lawyer.  In criminal cases, the State Court of Bulloch County, Georgia even lists the dangers of proceeding without a lawyer on its “Arraignment Record of the Court” as follows:


I understand the dangers of proceeding without a lawyer, which include:

1. The possibility of a jail sentence;

2. The enforcement of the rules of evidence by the Court;

3. Strategic decisions as to the calling of witnesses and I or the right to testify must be made by me;

4. If a jury trial, strategic decisions as to voir dire or the striking of jurors must be made by me;

5. Issues must be properly preserved and transcribed in order to raise the issues on appeal;

6. The law provides for possible defenses such as justification, alibi, misrepresentation and entrapment, among others, along with the right to rely on the presumption of innocence, on which a lawyer could provide advice.

These dangers are just as real in a misdemeanor case, like underage possession of alcohol, as in a felony case, such as murder.

Are there cases where a person would not need a lawyer?

Sure.  For example, if the case involves a charge of speeding, and the person knows the potential consequences and is willing accept the penalties, that person does not need a lawyer.

There are other reasons why a person may not need a lawyer.  According to the Minnesota Judicial Branch, you may not need a lawyer if: (these are only examples)

    • You understand your case well enough to explain it to a judge.
    • You don’t get overly nervous speaking in public, like a courtroom.
    • You are organized and keep accurate records.
    • You can write neatly or type.
    • You have time to prepare papers, make copies, learn the required steps, file papers with the court, do legal research and attend court hearings.
    • You have time to respond (right away) to papers you receive from the other party.
    • You are able to read, understand, and respond promptly to all papers you get from the Court.
    • Your case is relatively simple and no one will come forward to argue against what you want.
    • You are comfortable negotiating with the other side or their lawyer, if represented.
    • You speak, read, and write English well.
    • When you read state laws and court rules and cases, you understand what you have read.

But, you need a lawyer if: (these are only examples)

    • You want legal advice.
    • You do not fully understand papers you received from the other party side or from the court. (Court administration may be able to answer some questions for you.)
    • You cannot afford to lose your case.
    • You have a complicated case.
    • You want to appeal a case.
    • You are charged with a crime.
    • You want to sue someone, but you don’t know the legal theory or basis for your claim.

In their excellent book, The Criminal Law Handbook: Know Your Rights, Survive the System, Paul Bergman and Sara J. Berman devote an entire section to the question “Do I Need A Lawyer”  The following excerpt from the book illustrates the importance of having a defense lawyer in a criminal case.

The truth is, no matter how smart or well educated you are, the criminal justice system makes it virtually impossible to do a competent job of representing yourself.  Each criminal case is unique, and only a specialist who is experienced in assessing the particulars of a case—and in dealing with the many variables that come up in every case—can provide the type of representation that every criminal defendant needs to receive if justice is to be done.

Criminal defense lawyers do much more than simply question witnesses in court. For example, defense lawyers:

1. Negotiate “deals” with prosecutors, often arranging for reduced charges and lesser sentences. By contrast, prosecutors may be uncooperative with self-represented defendants.

2. Formulate sentencing programs tailored to a client’s specific needs, often helping defendants avoid future brushes with the criminal justice system.

3. Help defendants cope with the feelings of fear, embarrassment, reduced self-esteem, and anxiety that criminal charges tend to produce in many people.

4. Provide defendants with a reality check—a knowledgeable, objective perspective on their situation and what is likely to happen should their cases go to trial. This perspective is vital for defendants trying to decide whether to accept a prosecutor’s offered plea bargain.

5. Are familiar with important legal rules that people representing themselves would find almost impossible to locate on their own, because many criminal law rules are hidden away in court interpretations of federal and state statutes and constitutions. For example, understanding what may constitute an unreasonable search and seizure often requires familiarity with a vast array of state and federal appellate court opinions.

6. Are familiar with local court customs and procedures that are not written down anywhere. For example, a defense lawyer may know which prosecutor has the real authority to settle a case and what kinds of arguments are likely to  appeal to that prosecutor.

7. Understand the possible hidden costs of pleading guilty that a self-repre­sented person might never think about.

8. Spend time on a case that a defendant cannot afford to spend. Defendants who can afford to hire a lawyer usually have jobs, and therefore lack the time (and energy) to devote to such time-consuming activities as gathering and examining documents, doing legal research, and talking to witnesses.

9. Gather information from prosecution witnesses. Witnesses often fear people accused of crimes and therefore refuse to speak to people representing themselves. Witnesses are more likely to talk to defense attorneys or their investigators.

10. Hire and manage investigators. Investigators may be able to believably impeach (contradict) prosecution witnesses who embellish their stories at trial.  By contrast, it is far less effective for a defendant to testify that “the prosecution witness told me something different before trial.

In addition to the possible direct consequences of not having a lawyer in a criminal case, such as jail time, fines, etc., there are collateral consequences, legal sanctions and restrictions imposed upon people because of their criminal record, that most people never even consider when trying to decide whether to hire a lawyer. The National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction is a collection of collateral consequences in all U.S. jurisdictions.


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