Everyday I meet with new clients who are seeking help with their family or other legal matters. Some are able to afford to write a check without a hesitation. Others borrow. Others even still scrimp and save to be able to pay the retainer that is required in order to secure the services they seek.
As part of this representation, in family matters involving children, I attend the First Appearance scheduled by the Court. A First Appearance is the first event for families entering into the NH Court System. It is where the judge addresses everyone who has filed or received court paperwork, and where court staff schedules these parties for their first legal event, usually a mediation. I attend these meetings for several reasons: first, most clients are scared, having never been to court before, and they feel reassurance by my being able to lead them through this legal event, however short and inconsequential to their individual case; second, in order to avoid scheduling malfunctions, my participation in scheduling mediation helps to avoid delays due to rescheduling; and third, like my clients, I am able to hear the court speak about their philosophies on processing these cases, and always learn something new, which ultimately helps me direct my client’s message to the Court in more efficient ways.
The fact that emerges from the Court’s presentation and that remains the most shocking to me is that only about 30% of people in the Family Court System hire attorneys. That is, 70% try to do it by themselves. This fact often explains why many of my clients are people who have been in court before, but come to me to try to “fix” what isn’t working or what is a real problem. Sometimes I can help, sometimes I can’t. But I always wish these client’s came in sooner. Inevitably, the expense of a lawyer is always more when we are fixing a problem, rather than being involved from the beginning.
But, before I meet with these clients, my paralegal, an amazing resource to our clients, is often asked by potential clients calling whether they really need an attorney. In trying to help her respond to this question, my answer is simple:
“If your appendix were rupturing, would you go to your kitchen, pull out a knife, and operate? No. You would go to a professional who has medical training and license to take out your appendix in a facility that has all the right equipment to keep you alive..”
Years ago, I saw a commercial for some insurance company, I think, although I can’t be too sure. And, in every version there was a person on the phone in their home, with various medical instruments strewn on their dining room table, taking instructions from a doctor on the other end of the telephone. I remind people of the absurdity of that commercial. I tell clients that I wouldn’t attempt to fix my car, my pipes, appliances, or anything else, but instead hire the right person for the job. While it costs money, in the long run, it costs more if I try to do it myself and it considerably reduces the chance that I will do significant damage to the item needing fixing, to myself, and to everyone else around me.
One area where a lawyer can help is to tell you whether your circumstances are appropriate to bring before the court in the first place. A good lawyer will ask you questions, listen to your concerns, and give you an honest evaluation of whether you might prevail in Court. Lawyers who are regularly in court and very busy are the lawyers to hire. While you may wait for an appointment, they are the lawyers who have the experience to determine how the Court will approach your case. Your lawyer should also not be afraid to tell you something you don’t want to hear. If you aren’t going to be successful, your lawyer should tell you that, and you should be open to hearing and accepting their criticism. People who proceed forward without a lawyer, when they have been warned against bringing a case should not be surprised when they don’t prevail. In addition, in our office, we keep our relationships honest: we charge for consults. We will give you real information and don’t have to worry about a sales pitch. If I only meet with you for an hour, you at least get an hour’s worth of real information and advice, and no fluff as to why our office is good. We don’t need to tell you, we show you. We also reduce the number of appointments with the time wasting person who has no intention of hiring us, thereby allowing us to focus all of our energies on the people who have. When have you ever gotten anything for free that was worth something? I haven’t.
If you read the newspapers these days, you will find that lawyers and the legal profession are being attacked regularly. It’s a long standing tradition in my profession, so I try to ignore it as much as possible and not take it personally; the attacks are almost as vanilla as the two dominant political parties picking fights with one another during campaign season – they blend into the background until they sound like Charlie Brown’s school teacher (Wahh. Wah. Wah. Wahhhh). Nonetheless, it is apparently necessary that I point out that there is this misunderstanding that if you can think, can write, and can speak that you should be able to be your own lawyer effectively. After all, real lawyers make it look easy, don’t we? Nothing can be further from the truth.
For every hour of court appearance, I can remember, at times fondly and at other times with a shudder, the countless hours I spent reading cases in my textbooks, briefing them, discussing them in my three years of coursework, without confidence applying them in my externships and summer jobs, reviewing and honing principles of law in my bar review courses (2), and regurgitating on command during my two day exam which involved nasty, tricky multiple choice questions and state specific, subject specific essay questions. Those hours also included learning, understanding, and applying the rules of ethics for a required exam, these same rules that guide a lawyers daily actions with everyone, even when we are not wearing our lawyer hats. Finally, those hours also include the years – years – of daily practice, hearing people’s real problems, learning the nuances in the law, adjusting to the local practice rules which seem to change regularly, attending continuing education classes which advance my knowledge, and hearing and filing away snippets of information from every encounter and appearance in court in front of a Judge or Master. By the time we are engaged in active practices as primary lawyers on our client’s cases, we have an encyclopedia of knowledge that informs our every question, strategy, and action. We have learned to package information in a special way, in a special format, which calls on the same, time honored education that all lawyers and judges receive, so that one particular word can direct a Judge in the direction I want to take them, by calling on settled concepts of law or a particular series of cases.
The reality of the disparity between the effectiveness of my training and skill and the lack thereof of my opponent 70% of the time, the unrepresented litigant, is never so stark as when I sit in the back of the courtroom and watch people who are unrepresented try to tread water against a lawyer, even a bad one. It shows in the way they are dressed, the way they speak, the way they handle evidence; it is the difference between Tom Brady and Pop Warner. However, the message that is broadcast to the public is that the lawyers are the problem, when the lawyer is just doing the job they were trained to do against an opponent who simply doesn’t have the same encyclopedia of knowledge, and who shouldn’t be trying to represent themselves in the first place. It is almost like an unintended blood sport, where an unsuspecting citizen is struck repeatedly by the weapon of knowledge and skill. The result of course being that the unrepresented party walks away feeling like the system failed, blaming the court, the lawyers, and anyone else in striking distance. In many of these situations, as I have personally seen, the unrepresented person would have prevailed if the Judge could have been taught the right set of facts, with the right legal references, with the right documents, following the right procedure. But, the Judge can only make decisions based on what is presented in the courtroom, and can’t help the unrepresented person “try their case”.
Lawyers aren’t the problem. Judges aren’t the problem. Our system in NH works. Like any system, it works when you have all the right parts, including a lawyer knowledgeable and experienced in the area of law for which you require assistance, who can answer your questions, guide and advise you, and communicate with the court, when all else fails.
So, yes, you do need a lawyer.