I recently bought an old home, and it needed a new exterior paint job. The color had faded and certain areas were flaking. I found a painting contractor online, and we agreed that he would paint the whole house for $1,000 if I paid him 50% ($500) up front. I paid him the $500 and never saw him again. I want to recover my money in small claims court. Should I hire a lawyer to represent me?
While all fifty states have small claims courts, each state employs its own rules and its own procedures. Some states allow you to hire an attorney to represent yourself; others require only that certain types of businesses are represented by counsel; and others do not allow any lawyers at all in small claims court. First, if you are seriously considering an attorney, you should check with your local county clerk to see whether your state allows plaintiffs to be represented through counsel in small claims court.
But put aside for a moment the question of whether you can hire an attorney, and consider whether you should. In the example above, there is only $500 in dispute. The most you could possibly recover is $500 – maybe a little more, if the judge believed you suffered additional harm in having to find a replacement contractor.
Most lawyers charge either by the hour (usually several hundred dollars per hour) or on contingency (meaning that they keep a certain percentage, often 20% to 33%, of what they recover). For $500, neither option makes much sense. At an hourly rate of even $100, the preparation of the documents and travel alone would quickly exceed $500. And if your lawyer kept one third of your $500, you would barely have any money left!
For a small claim like this one, it probably doesn’t make much economic sense to hire an attorney. Unless you have a friend or family member willing to represent you for free, you should consider representing yourself. In small claims courts, this is the norm. Most plaintiffs are self-represented and, indeed, the courts are designed to be simple enough for average citizens to use without the aid of an attorney.
Having said that, you can certainly seek legal advice when suing your contractor. Law libraries (especially those connected to law schools) will likely have helpful librarians who can guide you to useful books and information. Bar associations in your state and city also might offer free legal resources, or even free consultations with pro bonolawyers. Also check out Nolo's series of articles on suing a contractor in small claims court in various states across the country.
Whether to hire an attorney or not depends in part on the size of your claim. Not all small claims lawsuits limit the possible damages to amounts as low as $500. In some states, small claims suits can request damage amounts as high as $25,000 – which is not “small” at all, to most people! If, upon reexamining the damages your contractor caused, you find that your claim is relatively large, or if it’s complicated for other reasons (like multiple subcontractor defendants), hiring an attorney might be advisable, whether you go the small claims route or proceed in "regular" court.