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Legal Coaches: Getting Affordable Help From Lawyers

by Paul Bergman and Sara Berman-Barrett
Copyright © 1993 Nolo Press

Even if it does not make economic sense for you to turn your entire case over to an attorney, consulting a lawyer along the way may be a big help. You may want to hire one on an hourly basis as a legal coach to give you occasional advice, but not to actually represent you. Instead of turning your case over to the lawyer, you pay--usually by the hour--for limited help and advice. This arrangement can be an affordable way to get the help you need.

Your legal coach may simplify your legal research, suggest evidence you should look for to prove your legal claims, explain a confusing rule of evidence, inform you of deadlines, alert you to courtroom procedures peculiar to your local court system or suggest ways of making your arguments more persuasive.

Traditionally, attorneys have either taken on overall responsibility for a client's case or declined to get involved. And many lawyers will not go for the legal coach arrangement, because they do not want to get involved in what they see as the messy world of self-representation or risk being legally liable if you make a mistake.

However, these days, many lawyers need work. And lots of lawyers are sympathetic to the fact that the average person cannot afford full-service representation in many lawsuits, given that lawyers' fees can run upwards of $25,000 in even fairly uncomplicated trials.

Why Consult a Lawyer?

A lawyer acting as a legal coach can help you in several important ways.

To Confirm That You Have a Good Claim or Defense

Not every wrong amounts to a valid legal claim that is worth pursuing in court. For instance, if a home appliance breaks, explodes and burns your hand, causing painful injuries that require medical treatment, you likely have a good case against the product's manufacturer and the store where you bought it. But if the appliance breaks after its warranty has expired and does not do any damage to anyone or anything, you may be inconvenienced but do not have grounds to bring a lawsuit.

To Find Out the Law That Applies in Your Case

To determine what evidence to look for and eventually present in court, you must know what law controls your case. You can research this on your own, but it is likely to be more difficult for you, a non-expert, than for an experienced attorney.

To Assist With Preparing Documents

Your legal coach may be able to help you make sure any legal document you prepare is correct, logical and persuasive. A legal coach can help you draft or respond to the initial pleadings--the complaint or answer--or check pleadings you have prepared.

To File and Serve Legal Documents

Legal documents often have to be written in certain ways--sometimes even on a specific kind of paper--and filed and served according to detailed rules. Your legal coach, or assistants in his or her office such as paralegals or legal secretaries, may be able to assist you a great deal by typing court documents into final form and filing and serving them on your opponent for you.

To Answer Questions Along the Way

Ultimately, what to say and do at trial will be your judgment call. But preparing and trying a case necessarily involves maneuvering within a complex and impersonal system. You not only need to understand legal rules, but also to plug them into a winning strategy--a strategy you will typically have to fine-tune as your adversary reacts to your actions. It can help you a lot to run your general plans by an experienced lawyer. You may also come to particular points of confusion where some expert legal advice can save you much time and frustration. For example, you may want help planning a deposition, subpoenaing documents or deciding whether to accept a settlement proposal from your opponent.

It may be especially helpful to have your coach review your outlines of what you expect to testify about and what you plan to ask witnesses on direct and cross-examination. Your coach may spot areas where you reveal information you are better off keeping to yourself or questions that are likely to get you into trouble.

To be on Call During Trial

It may help to have a knowledgeable attorney who is familiar with your case available for last minute consulting in case something happens at trial that throws you for a loop. If your coach agrees to be available by phone, you can ask the judge for a five-minute recess, even during the middle of trial if necessary, and make a quick call for advice.

To Take Over If Things Get Out of Control

You may know that there is no way you can afford to hire a lawyer and that you will try your whole case from start to finish no matter what. But do not rule out hiring a lawyer to take over if you really need help and can afford it. If you have consulted a legal coach from time to time in preparing for trial, that lawyer may be in a good position to step in for you if feel you are unable to continue representing yourself.

Shopping for a Coach

When you have narrowed your list to a few possibilities, call to make an appointment. Briefly describe the facts of your case, explain why you think it is a good case and state your reasons for representing yourself. Be as specific as you can about what you want. Explain, for instance, that you want the attorney's help with locating the law that governs your case, and, if possible, you need him or her to be available by phone or fax during your trial in case you need help pulling yourself out of a legal hole. Be sure to ask how much the initial interview will cost.

Paying the Price

Most likely, your legal coach will charge you by the hour. Rates for lawyers who do personal legal services work typically run from $100 to $250 per hour. Certain experts and big firm lawyers charge even more. It is important to find out exactly how the lawyer will calculate the bill. For example, some lawyers who charge by the hour bill in minimum increments of 15 minutes, and others bill in increments of five or six minutes. That means that a five-minute phone conversation, for which you are billed the minimum amount, could cost you different amounts, depending on how the lawyer figures the bill.

Of course, you want to get good value for your money, but that does not always mean looking for the lowest hourly fee. Hiring a more experienced attorney--even if his or her hourly rates are high--may cost less, since he or she may take less time to review and advise you on particulars of your case.

Many lawyers routinely ask clients to pay a retainer--a deposit or advance fee--which is kept in a trust account and used as services are provided. If your legal coach asks for a retainer, it probably should not be more than about $500, since you do not plan on running up high legal bills and do not yet know whether the legal coach relationship is really working out.

It will benefit both you and your coach to sign an agreement that makes clear that the lawyer is merely advising you, that you are making your own decisions and are responsible for the results in the case.

Keeping Lawyer Bills Down

Hiring a competent, supportive lawyer as a legal coach will likely be well worth the expense. But here are some ideas on how to get the most for your money.

Prepare for Meetings

Prepare for all sessions, including phone calls, by sending the attorney copies of all key background documents, such as the contract if you have a contract dispute. Whenever possible, put your questions in writing and mail, fax or deliver them to your coach before meetings.

Consolidate Your Questions

Because hourly charges are divided up into parts of an hour, you may be charged for more time than your coach actually spends with you. So it pays to gather your questions and ask them all at once, rather than calling every time you have a question.

Beware of Other Costs

Always ask if there will be any incidental fees, such as photocopy and fax charges. If there are, you may be able to find ways to cut them down. For example, if the law office charges $3 for each page it faxes, pick up a document, or ask that it be mailed to you instead of faxed.

Try to Answer Questions on Your Own

Remember that you are hiring a legal coach, not a full-service lawyer. That means doing as much as you can by yourself and turning to the coach only when you are really stuck.

Side Bar--Finding a Coach

Finding a good legal coach is likely to require some searching. You want a lawyer with trial experience and familiarity with the legal issues involved in your case. Many beginning lawyers, and some very experienced ones, have no more experience trying a case in court than you do. You also want someone you are comfortable with--someone who understands, respects and agrees to perform the role of legal coach. To develop a pool of potential legal coaches to interview, try these sources of lawyer referrals.

Friends and Family

Law practice is increasingly specialized, so an attorney who handled your friend's divorce may not be able to help coach you through a lawsuit against your former employer. But lawyers tend to know lots of other lawyers; even if a lawyer to whom you are referred cannot help, he or she may be able to recommend another lawyer who can.

Legal and Community Organizations

Ask to speak with a lawyer at a local legal aid center--the nonprofit law office that handles cases for lower income people--the local chapter of a national legal organization such as the ACLU, or a community organization focusing on the issues in your case, like a tenants' rights group for landlord-tenant disputes or a women's organization for sex discrimination cases.

Paralegals

Independent paralegals--non-lawyers who help people complete and file court papers but do not give legal advice--frequently refer clients to lawyers and get feedback on the lawyers' work. Check the Yellow Pages under Paralegals or Typing Services.

Related Products:

Books

The above links are connected to Nolo's on-line store where you will find a detailed description of each product.

The selected articles originally appeared in the Nolo News and are Copyright © Nolo Press 1996 and reproduced here with permission. If you find them of value, we encourage you to visit Nolo Press at their web site http://www.nolo.com. If you wish to post them on-line or otherwise distribute them, first read Nolo's copyright policy.

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