Helping Yourself

Consumers' Guide to Legal Help
Helping Yourself

Can I handle my legal problem myself?
Where can I find basic legal information?
Where can I find more information about proceeding on my own?
What should I know about legal documents and forms?
Can I hire a lawyer for only part of my legal matter?
Can I get help from a legal hotline?

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Can I handle my legal problem myself?
Sometimes, people can't afford legal representation or they just want to do it themselves. People without legal training may be able to handle some simple legal problems on their own. (This is called proceeding "pro se" or "pro per.") Handling a legal problem by yourself can be risky, however, because each step may involve tax issues or other legal consequences that you may not think about. Representing yourself requires a lot of time and energy to learn the proper procedures and law. The first thing you will want to do is to learn as much as possible about the law and procedures related to your problem. You will want to get information about the law and courts in your state.

Where can I find basic legal information?
Public service Web sites such as www.lawhelp.org can help you find information about the law in your state. Published legal books also can be very good sources of legal information. Some books are produced by bar associations or government agencies as a public service. Look form them in the "self-help" or "law" section of your local bookstore or library. (Your library's reference desk should be able to tell you where to find legal books.) Books may not address your particular situation, so you still may want to consult with a lawyer for help with part of your legal situation. Also, make sure a book specifically describes the law in your state, and that it has been published recently (older books may not be up-to-date, since the law changes frequently).

Where can I find more information about proceeding on my own?
A number of local courts or non-profit organizations provide guidance to people who want to handle legal matters by themselves. Most court-based pro se assistance services are operated by court staff in or near the courthouse, while others are operated by government or non-profit agencies. These organizations help people select court forms, understand court procedures, and file case. (These organizations cannot complete forms for you, or give you legal advice, however.) To search our site for help in your state, please select a state from the Find Legal Help home page or select a state from the drop-down menu on the left.

What should I know about legal documents and forms?
If your legal problems requires you to go to court - to file papers to start a case or to respond if you are the defendant in a case - you will need to use certain documents and forms. In some states, the courts have provided forms that you can use. If forms or model documents are available from an official source in your state or local jurisdiction, we recommend that you use them. If no documents are available from the courts in your state, consider these alternative sources:

Customized, lawyer-prepared documents - The best alternative to official forms is to obtain a form or model document that has been prepared by a lawyer in the state or jurisdiction where the legal issue is. Make sure that the lawyer is licensed to practice in your state and with experience in the relevant area of law.

Commercial blank forms and model documents - If you can't find an official source for forms or model documents, you may want to consider turning to commercial, Web-based or mail-order businesses that sell documents and forms to use in many types of legal matters. Some Web sites permit you to construct and purchase documents online. Make sure you use forms and documents that are acceptable in your state.

Customized documents prepared by non-lawyers - There are a number of document preparation services operated by non-lawyers. These services are supposed to provide only "legal information". In most situations this means letting you select from a list of instructions and blank forms or model documents. Because they are not lawyers, they are not qualified to tell you which documents to use, or to instruct you on how to proceed in the specific circumstances you face. However, many of these "document preparation" or "paralegal" services gather facts from you and then select documents for you and tell you how to handle the matter. Sometimes these services will even customize the documents to your situation. Be very careful in buying documents prepared by such vendors. These providers may be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law in your state. If you use one of these services you lose the protections of confidentiality and loyalty that a licensed lawyer provides. You cannot complain to a lawyer discipline agency or pursue a legal malpractice claim if things go wrong. If you use one of these vendors, make sure before you spend your money that the documents are acceptable in your state and in the court/local jurisdiction where they will be used.

Can I hire a lawyer for only part of my legal matter?
If you decide you need legal help with a part of your legal problem, consider hiring a lawyer to work only on that part. Some lawyers "unbundle" their services and provide help with just a portion of your case.

The idea that a lawyer can do only part of a case is not universally accepted. Some courts, judges and lawyers don't like this approach. They fear that people will hire a lawyer to prepare some documents, and won't know what the documents mean or will get lost later in the process and do more harm than good. But this view is changing, and even some courts and traditional lawyer referral services will help you find a lawyer to do just part of a case. We don't endorse or recommend any of these, but offer them as examples for your information. This list is far from all-inclusive. There are many lawyers who will provide unbundled services; and many maintain web sites.

Can I get help from a legal hotline?
A legal hotline allows people to call and speak with a lawyer about their legal questions or problems. Some hotlines may offer brief services such as document review, preparing letters and providing legal forms. Some hotlines may limit their service to specific legal matters or for specific groups of people (such as low-income people).

Updated: 9/20/2006

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