Here are some words you may need to know: plaintiff--the person who sues or files the lawsuit
defendant--the person who the plaintiff sues, who has to defend himself in the suit
criminal case--the government or "state" prosecutes a defendant accused of an act that could result in severe penalties such as time in prison
civil case--a person sues another person over a controversy between them, generally resolved with transfer of money or property
property--something owned which is of value and can be transferred; can be "real property" (real estate--land or buildings) or possessions that can be moved such as books or jewelry
bar--bar association, organization of lawyers
retainer--"down payment" of legal fees: client gives an amount of money to lawyer to be used towards legal services and expenses]
Sometimes you know you need a lawyer--you have just been involved in a major traffic accident, or your business has gone bankrupt. Sometimes you think you may need a lawyer--you want to buy a house, or something you paid a lot of money for is not functioning properly.
This pamphlet is being written with you in mind, to help you answer questions that may be going through your head right now. Do I need a lawyer in this situation? Where do I find one? How will I know which lawyer is the best one for me? For this job? What do I do if things don't work out? What do I do if they do?
But first things first . . . .
DO YOU NEED A LAWYER?
This is a question you will have to answer for yourself, but let us try to give you some ideas of how to approach your decision.
Collecting Information for a Civil Case
First, if you are involved in a civil case, NOT a criminal case, WRITE DOWN everything you know about the situation. Don't worry about your grammar or your penmanship--you can always rewrite or edit at a different time.
To the best of your ability, write down EVERYTHING you know, saw, or remember.
Use the language you feel most comfortable with--you can always have your words translated at a different time.
Keep a JOURNAL so that you can update your account and include any additional information that you think of or that develops. If you can not write, have someone else write your words down for you, or tape-record or video-tape yourself.
Give as much DETAIL as you can--even about your account or your journal entries themselves. Identify yourself, the date, time and location you are speaking at, the persons who are writing down or translating your words. Dates, locations, time of day, and other details could be vital information, and you need to get as much down on paper while things are fresh in your mind.
Gather as much relevant DOCUMENTATION as you can. Anything you can get yourhands on and a person could read or hear or touch or smell--receipts, bills, letters, broken pieces of product, tax returns, accounts of other people--could become valuable evidence if you carefully identify and organize those pieces of paper to help you tell your story--to your lawyer, to the court, to an opposing party, to whomever you will need to talk to--when the time comes. Collecting Information for a Criminal Case
If you are involved in a criminal case, most of the suggestions above apply to you EXCEPT that you do NOT want to write your story down--you want to TELL your lawyer all the details of what happened so that he or she can deal with the case appropriately. Don't worry if some of the information that you tell your lawyer is unpleasant or even incriminating: lawyers have strict rules about client confidentiality and work product privilege, and it is extremely rare exception that they can tell anyone any information that you share with them.
Evaluating Your Situation
Now look at all this information, and evaluate the situation--really think about the best course of action to take. The first thing you will probably want to do is NEGOTIATE directly with the other people involved in the issue. Talk with--and listen to--them. Be courteous; be clear; be persistent; be creative in ways of addressing everyone's concerns; be open to compromise; then, be willing to move on if that option doesn't work.
Next, you might try to MEDIATE--have a person who is not involved in the situation try to find some sort of mutually satisfactory solution to the problem. The Small Claims Court in D.C.--where you can file claims for less than $5000--has a formalized mediation program called the Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Program. The program is mandatory: you can not litigate in court unless you have tried solving the dispute with a court-appointed mediator. But if you can accomplish a mediated settlement informally, even before you go to court, all the better. (If and when you do hire a lawyer, he or she will first attempt to negotiate or mediate a settlement as well, even before you go to court, so you are ahead of the game if you can do it yourself.)
Some contracts require resolution of disagreements by ARBITRATION. The process of arbitration is similar to that of mediation, but an arbitrator's decision is binding, while a mediator's decision will not go into effect unless all the parties agree.
Even if negotiation, mediation, or arbitration do not resolve the situation, you should be proud that you tried. Besides, at the very least, you have additional entries in your journal describing your efforts to resolve the issue.
OTHER SOURCES OF HELP
You may want to try some other sources of help before you resort to the legal system.
Go to the Source
Where the problem originated may be the first place to turn. The PROFESSIONAL who initially dealt with you--the insurance salesman, the real estate agent, the investment broker, the accountant--or a supervisor--should be your first recourse. Most businesses also have CUSTOMER SERVICE representatives to resolve conflicts.
Go Outside the Source
Outside COUNSELING can sometimes get to the root of a problem. Ormany cities and counties have CONSUMER PROTECTION AGENCIES. Some television and radio stations have CONSUMER ADVOCATE hot-lines and news program segments that will investigate a problematic issue. SMALL CLAIMS COURTS allow people to pursue suits for limited sums in a process that is much more informal than the civil or criminal court procedureand does not necessarily necessitate that you hire an attorney. (*As mentioned before, the Small Claims Court in D.C. has a mandatory mediation program, so you not imagining it if all roads seem to lead to the Multi-Door Dispute Resolution Program.)
YES, YOU NEED A LAWYER
You have collected and written down a lot of information. You've tried negotiation, maybe even mediation or arbitration. The issue is not so simple to resolve. Perhaps there are legal rights involved. For example, if you have been charged with a crime, you have a constitutional right to have a lawyer. This right is so important that, if you do not have enough money to pay a lawyer, the court will appoint a lawyer to help you.
Even in a civil lawsuit, substantial rights may be involved, such as custody of children.
Possibly a substantial amount of property is involved: you want to buy a house, or bequeath certain items to your heirs. Maybe the case implicates a significant financial undertaking: you want to start a business, craft the terms of a major contract, deal with a debtor or creditor, pay the appropriate amount of taxes, avoid bankruptcy. Or maybe a change in personal status will result: you are going through a divorce proceeding, or want to be become a resident or citizen. Perhaps you claim or are sued for a civil wrong such as a personal injury or significant damage to property. You may feel that you have been inappropriately treated at your job, or you are a landlord or tenant who feels wronged.
If a situation involves questions of life, liberty and property: substantial legal rights and responsibilities, transfers of money or possessions, significant changes in personal status, you should consult a lawyer. You may only need to consult with an attorney for a short time to clarify and advise you as to your best approach, or you may need someone who can assist you over a long haul, explaining esoteric words and concepts to you and assisting you to navigate principles and procedures that are confusing and difficult to understand. You need someone who understands the law, the legal system, and how to help you. But who should you choose?
FINDING A LAWYER
The first determination you must make in finding a lawyer is whether you can pay legal fees. As mentioned above, if you are charged with a criminal offense, you have a constitutional right to the services of an attorney, and if you are unable to pay for a lawyer, the court will appoint someone to represent you.
On the other hand, you may be involved in a civil suit and need legal assistance but be unable to pay. Or maybe you can pay a small amount of legal fees, but not much. You need "pro bono help," that is, legal services for little or no cost. There are sources of legal assistance for low or moderate income people. Many of these organizations are listed in the phone book under "legal". Libraries, charitable organizations and religious organizations often have information about obtaining legal assistance.
Law schools run clinics where law professors supervise law students who work on cases and represent people like you for no charge. In the District of Columbia, law schools with clinical programs include:
Columbus School of Law, Catholic University
District of Columbia School of Law
Georgetown University School of Law
George Washington School of Law
Washington School of Law, American University (202)-------
Many legal assistance organizations are listed in the District of Columbia Directory of Legal Assistance Programs. You can go the office of the District of Columbia Bar at 1250 H Street, NW, Th floor, Washington, DC, 20005, and look though the directory for no charge. You can also call the DC Bar at (202) 737-4700, and, for a nominal fee, you will receive a copy.
If you can afford to hire a lawyer, you find one much as you would any other professional, like a doctor. You speak with family members and friends who have had a similar problem, and they recommend lawyers who helped them.
The District of Columbia Bar publishes a Legal Service Sourcebook. The Sourcebook lists lawyers in 25 generally recognized areas of legal practice, ranging from Administrative Law to Wills. Like the Directory of Legal Assistance Programs, it lists organizations that provide free or reduced-fee legal services to persons of low or moderate income levels.
As with the Directory of Legal Assistance Programs, you can go to the office of the District of Columbia Bar at 1250 H Street, NW, Th floor, Washington, DC, 20005, and look though the directory for no charge, or call the bar association at (202) 737-4700 and, for a nominal fee, a copy will be mailed to you.
Some lawyers advertise their services. You should evaluate any commercial or advertisement for legal services with the same objective analysis you might use to assess advertising for any product or service provider: What is the ad really telling me? Perhaps more importantly, what is the ad not telling me?
When you decide to hire an attorney--an agent who will represent your legal interests-- the most basic requirement is that the person should be a lawyer, that is, a person learned in the law. In our country, learning in the law is demonstrated by a person being a member of the "bar." The bar is an association of lawyers who set the standards of the profession. (*The concept of "bar" is derived from an actual railing in the courtroom which enclosed the area around the judge or prisoners and where legal arguments were made, so that lawyers literally practiced before the "bar.")
A person who wants to be a member of a bar usually has to fulfill a number of requirements, such as completing a full course of study at an accredited law school and then obtaining a certain score on a comprehensive examination, or passing the bar or bar examination.
Finding out if a lawyer is a member of a bar, and therefore really a lawyer, is not difficult. You find out what bar the lawyer is a member of, call the bar organization, and ask. The bar organization will tell you if that person is a member of good standing of that bar. In the District of Columbia, you can call the District of Columbia Bar Membership Office at (202) 737- 4200, and find out if the lawyer you are thinking of using is a member of good standing.
Once you have a list of several lawyers that you would consider using, call and speak with each one. Describe the problem you are having very briefly, and determine if he or she would be interested in meeting with you. Ask if the lawyer has dealt with other cases like yours. How would he approach your problem? Find out if the initial interview is free, and, if not, how much would you be charged. After these calls, schedule initial interviews and meet with the lawyers remaining on your list.
Bring your journal or notes and all your documentation to the interview. Discuss your problem briefly with the lawyer. How would he or she handle the situation? Ask questions if you don't understand something. Be honest with yourself: do you feel comfortable with thisperson? Remember: a lawyer can only represent you properly if you tell her everything she needs to know about the case, even details that may be embarrassing or incriminating to you. The lawyer can not disclose anything you say, but you need to find an attorney who you can be candid with.
You need to know yourself to know which kind of lawyer you want to hire. Do you want someone who takes charge and forges ahead, or someone who spends more time explaining various options and their implications to you? Do you prefer the enthusiasm of a younger lawyer, or the sage, fatherly advice of an older legal expert?
If your first impressions of a lawyer are favorable, find out how much the attorney charges and how payments would be made. For example, some cases can be done on a contingency fee basis: the lawyer receives a percentage of the money awarded to you as payment of the legal fee. Even with a contingency fee case, however, the attorney may ask for a retainer, or a down-payment, to cover expenses like filing fees or copying costs.
Once you have determined that the lawyer, the way he or she would handle the case, the amount charged, and the method of payment are all acceptable to you, work out a written fee agreement that clearly describes all the terms of your client/attorney relationship. A lot of misunderstanding can be avoided if all the details between you are set forth on paper.
Additional Sources of Information
D.C. Bar's Legal Information Help Line (202)626-3499 provides recorded messages on 30 topics in five areas of law (Family, Consumer, Public Benefits, Employment, Housing), gives information about the availability of free legal services or a recording on how to find a lawyer using the D.C. Bar Legal Service Sourcebook. The recordings are both in English and in Spanish.
The D.C. Bar also has pamphlets and booklets like this one on various legal subjects.
Call (202)737-4200 for more information about what might be available.
The D.C. Bar's Community Education Project offers opportunities to learn more about the law and the legal process. For example, there is a "Lunch 'n Learn" series presents one-hour work-site programs on different legal topics. Again, more information is available from the D.C. Bar, (202)737-4200.
The American Bar Association (ABA), the national organization of lawyers, offers publications as well. That organization can be reached by calling (800)------, or writing to ABA, 750 Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois, 60611.
PROBLEMS WITH YOUR LAWYER?
The Code of Professional Responsibility requires that your lawyer keep you reasonably informed of the progress of your case. Do not hesitate to ask questions if you do not understand something. Write a letter if your calls are not returned. If you become unhappy with how your attorney is treating you or handling your case, get a new lawyer. You will have to go through the process of choosing a lawyer again, but some annoyance may be part of the price of best protecting your legal interests.
Even if you find a compatible, knowledgeable, and skillful lawyer, you may end up having a problem with miscommunication and disagreeing with each other. If your controversy with your lawyer is related to legal fees or a retainer, the Attorney/Client Arbitration Board tries to resolve monetary conflicts in an amicable manner. For more information, you can call the DC Bar at (202) 737-4200, extension 238.
The Board of Professional Responsibility and the Office of Bar Counsel of the District ofColumbia investigate complaints of unethical conduct by lawyers. For more information, you can call the Office of Bar Counsel at (202) 638-1501.
In certain instances where lawyers committed ethical violations, the Clients' Security Fund reimburses their clients. For more information, call the DC Bar at (202) 737-4200, and ask about the Clients' Security Fund.
A word of caution, however: a trial is an adversarial procedure--one party wins; one party loses. By definition, both plaintiff and the defendant can have excellent representation, and one party prevails. If you lose your case, you can appeal the decision or ruling of the court, with your present lawyer or a new one, but an ethical complaint based solely on your unhappiness with your case's outcome will not be viewed favorably.
ONE LAST THOUGHT . . .
It is important to keep in mind that another term for lawyer is "counsel" or "counselor"-- someone who advises you. A legal counselor will consider not only the law and legal procedure involved in your situation, but also everything about you and the situation. You need someone who can advise you on protecting your best interests. For example, litigation takes time and exacts a physical and an emotional toll on a client. Your lawyer, knowing you, might truly be advising you of your best interests in explaining why you should not file a suit.
In choosing a lawyer, you need to evaluate yourself and your needs . You may need or want your attorney's services over a long period of time for a variety of problems You will need to share with him or her a lot of information--some of it intimate, or even incriminating--about yourself, your family, your friends. Because of your needs and vulnerability, you will need to trust this person and believe that he or she will protect you and the people and things you value most dearly (your best interests). You need an advisor whose personality and style of lawyering is compatible with a personal relationship that can last through good times and bad. You need a lawyer who will zealously represent your best interests. And with some foresight and research on your part, all of these considerations will be taken care of.
So, take some time to evaluate and choose a lawyer--it could be the start of a long and meaningful relationship.
This pamphlet was written by Nancy Karkowsky and published by the Practice Management Section of the DC Bar, chaired by Eric Siegal and Susan Sachs. Lay-out and printing was done by the Publications Department of the DC Bar. To comment or to obtain more copies, contact the DC Bar, (202) 737-4200.]