Ten years ago, trying to find a lawyer who would help you find your own way through the legal system was next to impossible. This is because, traditionally, attorneys have either taken on overall responsibility for a client's case or declined to get involved. But nothing in between.
Even today, many lawyers will not go for the legal coach arrangement because they do not want to get involved in what they see as the messy world of self-representation or risk being legally liable if you make a mistake. Fortunately, given the surplus of lawyers and a gradual change in the profession's attitude toward self-helpers, it's becoming much easier to find a lawyer who will act as your coach.
Ask at your local courthouses, bar associations, and law schools for names of any clinics that may be able to help you. Search the Web for advertisements of legal coaching services. But as you look for a lawyer to help you, recognize that law is an increasingly specialized field: You'll want to find someone who is knowledgeable about your type of problem -- not just any cooperative lawyer.
To accomplish this, the best approach is to get a referral from someone else who has worked with lawyers in your area of the law. For example, if you're opening a small business and want to find an appropriate lawyer to provide occasional guidance, you might ask the owners of excellent local businesses whom they work with.
Nolo offers a unique lawyer directory that provides a comprehensive profile for each attorney with information that will help you select the right attorney. The profiles tell you about the lawyer's experience, education, and fees, and perhaps most importantly, the lawyer's general philosophy of practicing law and whether the lawyer is willing to act as your legal coach. For more information, see www.nolo.com .
Once you have a few names, make and pay for a first appointment (lawyers will respect you less if you ask for a free consultation). Come right out and ask the lawyer if she is prepared to help you help yourself. If the answer is yes, discuss how much the lawyer will charge and how you can work together to keep fees down. For example, if instead of calling your lawyer three times with one question each time, you wait and ask all three at once, you'll almost surely use less of the lawyer's time. And if you can fax or email your questions so your lawyer can answer them when she has a free moment, chances are you'll save even more.
A lawyer acting as a legal coach can help you in several important ways.
Confirm that you have a good claim or defense. Not every injury or wrong amounts to a valid legal claim worth pursuing in court. For instance, if a home appliance explodes and burns your hand, causing painful injuries that require medical treatment, you likely have a good case against the product's manufacturer and the store where you bought it. But if the appliance breaks after its warranty has expired and does not do any damage to anyone or anything, you may be inconvenienced but do not have grounds to bring a lawsuit.
Find the law that applies in your case. To determine what evidence to look for and eventually present in court, you must know what law controls your case. You can research this on your own, but it is likely to be more difficult for you, a nonexpert, than for an experienced attorney.
Help you prepare documents. A legal coach can help you draft or respond to the initial pleadings -- the complaint or answer -- or check pleadings you have prepared. Your legal coach may be able to work as an "editor" to make sure any legal document you prepare is correct, logical, and persuasive.
File and serve legal documents. Legal documents often have to be written in precise ways -- sometimes even on a specific kind of paper -- and filed and served according to detailed rules. Your legal coach, or paralegals or legal secretaries in his or her office, may be able to assist you a great deal by typing court documents into final form and filing and serving them on your opponent for you.
Answer questions along the way. Preparing and trying a case necessarily involves maneuvering within a complex and impersonal system. You not only need to understand legal rules but also plug them into a winning strategy -- a strategy you will typically have to fine-tune as your adversary reacts to your actions. It can help you a lot to run your general plans by an experienced lawyer. You may also come to particular points of confusion where some expert legal advice can save you much time and frustration. For example, you may want help planning a deposition, subpoenaing documents, or deciding whether to accept a settlement proposal from your opponent.
It may be especially helpful to have your coach review your outlines of what you expect to testify about and what you plan to ask witnesses on direct and cross-examination. Your coach may spot areas where you reveal information you are better off keeping to yourself or questions that are likely to get you into trouble.
Be on call during trial. It may help to have a knowledgeable attorney who is familiar with your case to be available for last-minute consulting in case something happens at trial that throws you for a loop. If your coach agrees to be available by phone, you can ask the judge for a five-minute recess, even during the middle of trial if necessary, and make a quick call for advice.
Take over if things get out of control. You may feel that there is no way you can afford to hire a lawyer and that you will try your whole case from start to finish no matter what. But do not rule out hiring a lawyer to take over if you really need help and can afford it. If you have consulted a legal coach from time to time in preparing for trial, that lawyer may be in a good position to step in for you if feel you are unable to continue representing yourself.
Be persistent, and you're likely to find a lawyer who meets your needs. For more information on finding a lawyer, lawyer fees, and fee agreements, see Nolo's articles on working with a lawyer. For a comprehensive guide to working with a lawyer and the litigation process, get The Lawsuit Survival Guide: A Client's Companion to Litigation, by Joseph Matthews (Nolo).