Debra is a co-founder at Courtroom5. Her goal is to help people succeed in court without a lawyer.
The average person is filled with dread when contemplating litigation, where they must file and respond to motions and pleadings. When high court fees and other costs are added to the formula, the average person is bound to be overwhelmed.
When faced with a legal crisis, in fact, the majority of us would hire a lawyer if we could. The problem is we can’t, and the main reason for that is money.
Let's review that through a sample civil case
Lucinda lives in the state of Nevada. She is a single mom with two elementary school children. She makes $43,000 per year so is considered lower middle class. When she bought her townhouse, she was told that the water heater was new and under warranty.
One day when the family was away, a fire started. By the time a neighbor noticed and called the fire department, it had destroyed the garage, part of the adjacent kitchen and the neighbor's kitchen. The fire department determined that the fire originated in the garage at the water heater. Lucinda contacted the home warranty company, which told her it does not pay for consequential damages. The company who sold her the water heater claimed that it didn't cause the fire.
Lucinda considers several choices, (1) doing nothing and footing the bill; (2) getting help from legal aid; (3) borrowing money to pay for a lawyer; and (4) representing herself in court.
The Cost of Not Pursuing a Legal Claim
Not pursuing a legal claim sounds easy and maybe even free of stress. To repair the garage and kitchen, including appliances, Lucinda is looking at roughly 6,000. The neighbor's townhouse would cost an additional $3000. If Lucinda doesn't take the claim to court, she'll have to pay $9000 in total to repair the damage. That's it. She won't have to worry about court-related costs, which could be high with an uncertain payoff.
Despite the risks, Lucinda decides that she must fight the case. As much as she hates the idea of going to court, she can't simply let the companies get away with not honoring their warranties. Too, she might get dragged into court anyway if her neighbor sues her before she can pay for the repairs.
Can Legal Aid Help With Legal Fees?
Once Lucinda decides to pursue her claim, she moves on to the question of getting a lawyer. She knows lawyers are expensive and wonders if she can get one for free through legal aid. The answer is no. First, Lucinda's type of case is not considered among the ones legal aid helps with. Second, and most importantly, Lucinda makes way too much money. Most people who are far below the poverty line can’t even get a free lawyer at legal aid. The Nevada Bar (2018) reports that in 2016, legal aid was able to close only 24% of eligible cases. The majority of eligible people were turned down. This predicament is not unique to Nevada. Lucinda finds out soon enough that legal aid cannot help her.
The Ups and Downs of Hiring a Lawyer
"Legal fees across a wide spectrum of situations can stretch into the tens of thousands of dollars. Higher, even, if any judgments are assessed. Not even celebrities and public figures famed for living lifestyles of the rich and famous are spared." (Homego, n.d.)
Lucinda likes the idea of getting a lawyer. She can hand her whole problem to him or her and immediately reduce stress. That would be ideal if she could afford it.
Unfortunately, lawyers aren't paid by the job. They're paid by the hour, and by the hour, they can be pretty steep, even in Lucinda's town. According to one source, attorneys can charge from a low of $100 per hour in small towns to a high of $400 in large cities (Virtual Paralegal Services, 2015). Too, oftentimes a lawyer would need a retainer to start, say around $5000. Some might charge as little as $2500 though.
Lucinda doesn't have the money for a lawyer and considers borrowing it. She has good credit and a decent job. She can take out a one-time personal loan, use her credit card for the first payment, or get a line of credit. The downside to borrowing is that Lucinda doesn't want to pay long-term for a short term problem. And what if the lawyer doesn’t help her? She could end up owing the lawyer and still have to fix the problems from the fire. She dismisses the idea of hiring a lawyer. That leaves Lucinda with one option, do it herself.
Consider Litigation Costs When Representing Yourself
Litigation isn't free. There are many costs involved, including clerk fees. Lucinda would have to pay them whether she has a lawyer or not. Yet, Lucinda is serious about her case. She does some research of statutes in her state to determine whether she should pursue it. When she learns that she has a strong case, Lucinda takes a chance and goes to court on her own.
Once Lucinda makes that decision, she reviews the costs related to a lawsuit in her county. They're high but manageable compared to paying a lawyer. She learns what she needs to learn to file suit. Below are the amounts she calculated in court fees.
- Fee to file a civil complaint: $270
- Demand for a jury trial: $280 (Optional but highly recommended)
- Service of summons: $50 ($25 per defendant)
- Court reporter: $60 an hour on the low end for each hearing. (Optional but highly recommended)
- Four hour deposition: $240 (Optional depending on strategy)
- Subpoenas: $50 (Optional depending on strategy)
- Transcripts: $300 - $900 (Per transcript. Optional depending on strategy)
By the time Lucinda serves summonses to the two defendants, she is $600 poorer and aware that she will need to come up with more later. She's relaxed for now. Six hundred dollars is not a huge amount of money, and she feels she can pace herself and learn what she needs to know to get a settlement or judgment in her favor.
Lucinda is ready to have her day in court at a price she can afford.
The Last Word
Believe it or not, Lucinda's case is not as stressful as it could be. Every day, millions of people face losing their homes, custody of their children, and more in civil courts. What's worse, many of them don't have a lawyer but must face a lawyer on the other side. It's not a fair fight. They must choose between duking it out in court as best they can or quitting.
Duking it out takes money but not as much as paying for a lawyer. If you have a strong case, it can be much better and cheaper than quitting. The downside to representing yourself is your own knowledge. If you go this route, be ready to bring your A game, and expect to pull out your credit or debit card from time to time.
State of Nevada Bar Association (2018). Nevada Legal Needs and Economic Impact Study - State Bar of Nevada. The Nevada Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission. Retrieved March 10, 2019 from https://www.nvbar.org/wp-content/uploads/SBN-AM-ENTIRE-PPT-NV-ATJ-Legal-Needs-Study-Slides_UDATE-6-23-2018.pdf
Virtual Paralegal Services (28, June 2015). Trends in hourly rates for attorneys across the united states. Retrieved March 10, 2019 from http://www.virtualparalegalservices.com/blog-entries/trends-in-hourly-rates-for-attorneys-across-the-united-states/
Homego (n.d.). Homego.Selling a House for Legal Fees. Retrieved from https://www.homego.com/selling-house-legal-fees/
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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2019 Debra Slone