Hire an Attorney or Go it Alone?
In this economy, there are many people who cannot afford the high cost of legal fees. With layoffs, companies shutting down, and a stale housing market, it is no wonder that people are trying to cut costs. But where should this cutting occur?
Document Drafting Companies (“Legal Alternatives”)
There are several cases where using a document drafting company or using the free state forms* sound like a great idea. Admittedly, this could save you hundreds of dollars (in theory). What most people do not realize, however, is what problems could result in the long-term.
For instance, some document drafting companies will only charge a little over $100 to draft your paperwork. Remember, though, you get what you pay for. Such companies usually only take the standard forms (like the free state forms) and input whatever data you give them. In other words, they are merely acting as a transcriber. The risk to you as the client is that there is no one to catch a mistake you make, a mistake they make, et cetera. This is a particular concern with where some of the mistakes could have been avoided with competent legal advice.
Such companies also neglect to draft some of the paperwork correctly. When I worked at the courthouse, part of my job was to screen judgments and orders to make sure all of the requirements were there before it was sent to a judge. There were certain companies that would neglect to file important documents (such as the 90-day waiver request). This led to documents getting returned to the “clients” who had no idea why. It wound up taking months for some people to correct such errors, when it should have only taken a couple of days.
Protection of information is also a big concern here. Document drafting companies who are not quite familiar with the purpose of some of the state forms would include personal information, such as social security numbers, in the paperwork. Because a divorce case goes into a public file, anyone can then get your name, social security number, and birth date. This would make things very easy for someone who wants to steal your identity. The benefit of having a lawyer file your paperwork is that we know how to use the forms and can ensure that such information remains protected.
Lawyers also are not allowed to share the intimate details of your divorce with anyone. If you come in for an appointment and you tell your lawyer all of the horrible things going on in your life, we cannot divulge this information to anyone without your permission. Document drafting companies have no such obligation.
Another reason drafting companies are able to do things in such a cheap manor is that they are not required to maintain professional liability insurance. If you have a lawyer representing you in Oregon, we are required to carry such insurance. What this means for you: if we mess something up that ends up costing you a lot of money, we have insurance to help make you whole again.
Finally, if you have to go before a judge for any reason, it is you, the client, doing it. No one at the document drafting company is going to appear at court for you. If you have a highly contested case, this can turn into a disaster. Remember the old adage, “he who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Even attorneys do not represent themselves; we ask our colleagues for help when it is an area of law that we are not familiar with or if it is a case involving ourselves. If we have the legal training and background and still don’t represent ourselves, why are you?
So, what is the answer then?
While hiring an attorney for full representation is your best bet, we recognize that doing so can come at considerable financial cost. Some attorneys in Portland charge up to $350 an hour, while the lower end of the spectrum is still around $150 per hour. With full representation, the client can be more hands-off. You speak with your attorney on a regular basis but he or she drafts, edits, files your paperwork, and goes to any hearings or trials for you and does all the talking. But, again, these legal services come at a cost.
There are, however, other types of representation available to you. Many firms, including our own, offer “pro se assistance.” Pro se assistance means that although you are representing yourself (in your divorce, custody, domestic partnership, or restraining order matter), you can set up a relationship with an attorney for help and advice when you need it. That way, if you are not sure the best way to proceed in court, or how to even address the judge, you can call an attorney who will give you the answers you need. There is usually a minimal retainer fee required here and you pay by the hour, as you need to.
Along with pro se assistance is “document review.” What this means is you draw up your own paperwork (such as the state free self-help forms) and you fill them in to the best of your ability. Then, you go to an attorney and they can help by pointing out the parts of the document you filled out incorrectly or failed to fill out. They can also answer your questions about where to go from there and how you get the legal description of your house.
Finally, some attorneys will provide other limited services. This means that if you need help getting a particular type of order dealt with (such as a status quo order), the attorney will complete the work for this part of the case. Although you will still represent yourself in general, you can have someone deal with a certain aspect if you feel you are in over your head.
Hiring an attorney is an important decision. The process can be costly and intimidating, but our firm believes that it does not have to be. Regardless of your decision it is important to know all the options available and to move forward appropriately. Our firm is dedicated to helping clients make through this process.
* For information on the free state forms available, please see the Oregon Courts page: http://courts.oregon.gov/OJD/OSCA/cpsd/courtimprovement/familylaw/pages/familylawforms.aspx