For consumer problems, sometimes the best advocate has a law degree


In a do-it-yourself world, when shouldn’t you do it yourself? That’s sometimes hard to know with a consumer problem.

Most garden-variety disputes are self-advocated either outside the legal system or in court — the legal term is pro se, which is Latin for “winging it” — and sometimes successfully. No one knows the exact number of pro se litigants in the United States, but a 2010 report by the American Bar Association found they were on the rise.

“No book nor DIY method is an adequate substitute for seeking legal advice from an attorney familiar with your particular circumstances,” says Joy Butler, author of The Guide Through the Legal Jungle, a statement made without a hint of irony. Yes, there are plenty of resources for people who want to help themselves, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission and your state Attorney General.

But it’s true, there’s nothing like lawyering up.

Reality check: I publish a list of executive contacts that can help you avoid darkening the door of a courtroom. And by way of full disclosure, I usually err on the side of doing everything myself. I’ve only hired a lawyer twice in my life — once to defend against a frivolous and ultimately unsuccessful defamation suit, and another time to negotiate an employment contract.

But when do you say “enough” and call a professional?

When it’s complicated
Some consumer problems are simple; some aren’t. When things turn complex, you may need to consult a pro, says Morris Lilienthal, a personal injury attorney. “It’s important to look at the complexity of the legal issue,” he says. Lilienthal recalls a recent case when a plaintiff gave a recorded statement to the other driver’s insurance company, even though the other driver was the at-fault party. “The recorded statement he gave to the other insurance carrier was used as a basis to deny his claim,” he remembers. If you’re unsure of yourself, you can make mistakes. A lawyer can help.

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When you need an expert
If your consumer dispute requires someone with a deep knowledge of a subject, you may need to lawyer up. “You should consider an attorney when expertise is necessary — for example, certain areas of tax, business law, or intellectual property,” says Evan Walker, a lawyer based in La Jolla, Calif. You can quickly find yourself in deep water in a consumer dispute, and you’ll benefit from the steady hand of someone who knows their stuff.


When you’re being threatened
If someone is threatening to take you to court, you should talk to an attorney. “A consumer who’s been merely threatened with a lawsuit should at least talk to a lawyer, if not hire one,” says Daniel Watts, an attorney based in Carlsbad, Calif. For example, say you write a negative review of a sandwich shop on Yelp, and the business owner threatens to sue for defamation, consider at least asking a lawyer to review the complaint. “This takes just a few minutes of a lawyer’s time,” adds Watts, “but it’s worth it.”

When you’re being sued
If someone has filed a lawsuit against you, then you need to fight fire with fire. “Consumers should absolutely consult an attorney if they are sued,” says Sara J. O’Connell, a San Diego-based lawyer. And with good reason: In court, you could lose some of your rights if you don’t follow certain rules or meet certain deadlines. So you’ll want someone who knows the ins and outs of the system.

When there’s a tricky contract involved
“It’s true, we live in a DIY world,” says J.R. Skrabanek, senior counsel with the Snell Law Firm in Austin, Texas. “But there is no substitute for an attorney when a consumer’s complaint arises out of a contract, especially one containing a mandatory arbitration clause, a forum selection clause, or a choice of law clause.” These provisions are typically, though not always, enforceable, yet they massively influence a consumer’s options and pathways for actually achieving relief. “Engaging in a fight without an attorney in such a situation is fraught with peril,” says Skrabanek.

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When you’re confused
And that happens more often than you think. You read a contract one way; a company interprets it differently. “Everyone can read a document and understand what the literal meaning is,” says Allie Petrova, the managing partner of a tax and business boutique law firm based in Greensboro, N.C. “A contract may tell you that New York law applies, but will not show on its face how a savvy attorney or a judge would interpret the contract under New York case law and statutory law.” People often miss nuances and details that could work in their favor. A lawyer can help with that.

Now that you’ve decided you need a lawyer, there’s just one small detail: the cost. Lawyers are expensive. The average hourly rate for the typical consumer law attorney is $361, according to the National Consumer Law Center. That’s a lot of money.

You can either pay up or consider a legal service plan like LegalShield, which could keep your costs down. In a perfect world, lawyers would be affordable to everyone. But then, if they were, there’d probably fewer consumer advocates — and you wouldn’t be reading this right now.


Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

  • Jeff W.

    If Chris has bought or sold a home, I hope he had a lawyer review the real estate contracts! Real estate and estate planning (i.e., wills) are hopefully the only time anyone needs a lawyer.

  • FQTVLR

    I still miss the legal words of wisdom from Carver Clark Farrow on this site. His advice and comments were usually spot on.

  • sirwired

    I’d put:
    “When there’s a lot of money involved” (Because you can’t get a lawyer on contingency for a tiny case, and may not be able to recover hourly fees, even if in the right, for a smaller case.)
    and
    “Only after when other avenues of resolution have been futile.” Because once you play the “lawyer card”, there’s no going back. (Any lawyer worth his degree will tell clients that legal threats are to be taken seriously, and any further communication should occur only between lawyers.)

  • PsyGuy

    Anyone else notice how all the advice to consult an attorney, came from attorneys?

  • PsyGuy

    I do as well, well they were usually very accurate, except when they weren’t but those times were few.

  • Kerr

    Of course, to protect their profession!

  • The Original Joe S

    Do what I did: Send your kid to law school!

  • Rebecca

    “No book nor DIY method is an adequate substitute for seeking legal advice from an attorney familiar with your particular circumstances,” says Joy Butler, author of The Guide Through the Legal Jungle, a statement made without a hint of irony.

    This is some seriously great shade. Subtle, accurate and made me smile on a Monday morning.

  • sirwired

    Frankly, I wonder why one must, in some states, pay a lawyer to execute those contracts. For most mortgages, the contracts follow standardized formats required by Fannie/Freddie Mae and you will get the exact same contract no matter which bank originates your loan, and the deed transfer paperwork is the same no matter who you are buying the property from.

    What exactly is the role of the lawyer? They neither review nor negotiate anything; the only function I can see is that they serve as an escrow for the funds, but that hardly requires the services of an attorney. (I believe title companies perform this role in some states, and for less money.)

  • Travelnut

    It depends the specialty the kid decides on. My nephew decided to be a social justice warrior. He will freely admit he is very little help with matters such as probate law.

  • AAGK

    Sometimes?

  • AAGK

    Meanwhile, look at all the lawyers who come to this site and forum for advice. Keep in mind, if your case goes to court then it is lawyer v lawyer and one lawyer will be the loser anyway.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    While it does matter what kind of lawyer you need (e.g., a patent Lawyer won’t remember most details about criminal law, probably), most of the consumer issues discussed here probably don’t have enough money at stake to pay the lawyer’s fees. But my suggestion if you have a moderate value case (~$5,000 to 15,000), and self-advocacy and this website haven’t been able to solve the issue, is to either find a fresh out of law school kid, who passed the bar, but doesn’t have a law firm job (or not a secure one because he/she is probably not top of the class) who will take the case on contingency. The fresh out of law school kid will get practice, and if they win, you get some recovery. If they lose, and you wouldn’t have pursued it otherwise, you haven’t really lost anything.

  • MarkKelling

    I find it interesting that as I read this all the ad spots on the page are taken up be ads for lawyers! ;-)

  • Fishplate

    In the interests of fostering a proper classical education…

    “Pro se” means “for oneself”, or on your own behalf. Whether or not you are “winging it” depends on your education and experience and research.

  • deemery

    In Fairfax County VA, there’s a program (set up by the local Bar association) where you can get a 30 minute consultation with a lawyer for $75. It’s a great deal, they set you up with a lawyer who has expertise in your situation, and in that time you can determine if you have a case and what steps you can take next. (In my situation, the lawyer answered some questions on labor law, which gave me some ammo to talk to my company, and a contact if I decided I needed to pursue legal remedies.)

    I don’t think this would include writing letters or doing anything other than talking to you. But often, that’s enough!

  • The Original Joe S

    “social justice warrior”? is that another description of “troublemaker”?
    “He will freely admit he is very little help with matters such as probate law.” – Does that mean “worthless”?
    Can he do anything of utility to the average person?
    ha ha ha.

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