If you need a lawyer

(Photo courttesy of Pexels-Kamps)

MARQUETTE — If you have a legal problem, it is important to act quickly to determine your rights and take steps to protect your interests. There are legal resources available in the community to assist you, and you may wish to hire a lawyer for guidance and representation.

Advice Hotline

There is a free, statewide hotline for people aged 60 and older who are in need of legal consultation. The program is targeted toward homebound individuals, those in rural areas, and people with limited access to lawyers for other reasons. Consultation is available during normal business hours by calling (800) 347-5297.

Resolving Problems Without a Lawyer

Not all legal problems require the services of a lawyer. For example, you can file a lawsuit in small claims court, where you give up the right to a lawyer.

You are also allowed to represent yourself in legal matters outside of small claims court, although it is generally not recommended in most cases given how complex legal issues can be.

Finally, there are some issues that may benefit from having a neutral party help settle the dispute without going before a court. This is called mediation and can be a productive option if you and the other person want to work to settle your dispute informally.

Small Claims

Small claims court may be used to recover damages up to $6,500. Examples of cases brought in small claims court are suits against dry cleaners for damaging clothing or against an auto mechanic for failing to properly fix your car.

You can’t use small claims court to sue for fraud, libel, or slander. You also can’t use small claims court to sue a person to force them to do something (like tearing down a fence) or to stop doing something (like trespassing). You can sue someone for causing damage greater than $6,500 in small claims court, but the maximum amount you could collect would be $6,500.

Small claims court operates differently than traditional courts. It functions differently because it is designed to avoid long delays and high court costs. People involved in small claims lawsuits give up the right to a lawyer, to a jury trial, and to appeal to a higher court.

Cases cannot be heard in small claims court unless both parties agree to conduct the case in that forum.

You must file a small claim in the court district where the person or business you are suing lives or does business, or where the action giving rise to the dispute occurred. Locate the district court and tell the clerk you want to file a small claim. You will be given a form called an affidavit. Complete the form, giving the exact name of the person or business you are suing, how much you are suing for, and the reason you believe you are owed money.

When filing a claim, be sure to bring any written evidence, such as receipts, bills, and contracts. There is a filing fee and a fee for serving papers on the person you are suing. The fees will typically total less than $100.

Legal Resources

If the person you are suing wishes to be represented by a lawyer or have a jury trial, he or she can have the case moved to the normal district court process.

If that occurs, you should consult a lawyer. Similarly, if you are sued in small claims court, you should consult with a lawyer for advice on whether to proceed in small claims court or have the case moved to the normal district court process.

You should bring any witnesses who can help your case and all papers, documents, bills, canceled checks, photographs, or other relevant evidence with you to the hearing. The trial will be informal. If you filed the case, you will speak first. You will tell the judge your story, have witnesses testify, and present written evidence.

The person being sued can ask you or your witnesses questions. When you have completed your case, the person being sued presents his or her case in the same manner. After hearing both sides the judge will make a decision.

If you win your case, the judge will sign a paper stating the person or business you sued owes you a specified amount in damages plus court costs.

If the person you sued doesn’t pay you according to the judge’s order, there are several legal procedures you can follow in an attempt to collect the money, but you will have to return to court to do so.

Free or Lower-Cost Options

Legal assistance is available to seniors 60 years of age and older through programs funded under Title III-B of the Older Americans Act. Services are targeted to seniors who are considered most economically and socially in need. Services include, at a minimum, representation, advice/counsel and legal education.

The Older Americans Act has established the following priorities for Title III-B legal services: income, health care, long-term care, nutrition, housing, utilities, protective services, defense of guardianship, abuse and neglect and age discrimination. Priorities may vary between programs depending on staff expertise

and contractual agreements with the Area Agency on Aging they serve. There are no income eligibility guidelines or fees charged for services; however, the programs are permitted to accept donations.

Seniors should contact their Local Area Agency on Aging for the nearest senior legal assistance program.

Hiring a Lawyer

If you have a legal issue that requires the services of a lawyer, finding the right one for your situation is vital.

Some lawyers work by themselves, while others work in small firms, large firms, or legal clinics. All licensed lawyers can represent you in any type of case, but many lawyers specialize in the kind of work they do, often focusing on areas such as family law, real estate, tax law, or criminal law.

Identifying the right lawyer is not an exact science. Here are some suggestions:

≤ If you have worked with a lawyer in the past and were satisfied, go back to that lawyer. If they do not handle the legal issue you are facing, they may be able to recommend a lawyer who does.

≤ Ask friends, neighbors, or relatives for a recommendation.

≤ Contact an organization, such as a consumer group or civic organization.

≤ Call the county or state bar referral service for names of lawyers who practice in the area.

≤ Perform an internet search or consult a phone book.

Lawyers are not certified in particular specialties of law by an independent group the way that doctors are, so any lawyer can advertise or request referrals in any area, regardless of their experience or expertise. You may wish to ask for references to be sure about their qualifications.

How lawyers charge for services

1. Flat fee: Under a flat fee arrangement, you are charged a specific amount for a specific service, such as $100 to draft a simple will.

2. Hourly rate: Under an hourly rate agreement, you are charged an amount for each hour a lawyer spends working on your case, such as $80 per hour. They may ask for a retainer, which is similar to down payment, if the work required is substantial and/or ongoing.

3. Contingency model: Under a contingency model, a lawyer may agree to take your case with the agreement that they will receive a percentage of any settlement or court judgement you receive. If you lose the case, you will not owe the lawyer anything.

It is important to discuss financial arrangements at the beginning of a relationship with a lawyer. Many lawyers will raise the issue over the phone or at an initial consultation. It is typically unwise to work with a lawyer who refuses to discuss costs.

A lawyer who charges an hourly rate will not be able to provide a summary of exact costs but will usually offer an estimate. It is important to know whether a lawyer charges additional fees on top of their hourly rate. If they have to file anything with a court, you will also be responsible for those costs.

Contacting a lawyer to discuss your legal issue does not obligate you to hire them. If you do not feel comfortable with them for any reason or cannot afford their services, you do not have to move forward with them.

Working with a Lawyer

After hiring a lawyer, they will ask you questions and discuss the case with you. They will lay out your legal options, advise you of the effects of each option, and take steps to pursue the option you select. The authority to make decisions are exclusively yours. You should not expect your lawyer to make decisions for you and you should not allow your lawyer to do so.

To get the most out of your time with your lawyer, prepare ahead of time. Collect and organize relevant documents and think through what you want to accomplish. Lawyers are not allowed to divulge anything you tell them without your permission, so you should be open and honest with your lawyer. You should ask them to keep you informed about the status of your legal issue, but do not expect immediate results.

Legal processes can take time. You should also not sign anything unless you are confident you understand all of its language.

Legal Resources

Your lawyer works for you and they should work to advance your goals. If you are unhappy with their performance for any reason, you may fire them and end the relationship at any time. You may still owe them for services they have already performed, however.

Complaints Against Lawyers

As is the case with every profession, some lawyers are not ethical. They may use disreputable tactics or charge you for unnecessary services. Do not pay a bill unless it is itemized, and unless it is consistent with your original agreement. Try resolving disagreements about fees by talking to the lawyer.

If you feel a lawyer has been dishonest, careless, or incompetent, you can complain to the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission. A lawyer’s license can be suspended or revoked. You can also file a lawsuit against the lawyer and seek damages.


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