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

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By Christopher Elliott

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.

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.

When is enough enough?

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.

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. You’ll benefit from the steady hand of someone who knows their stuff.

When someone threatens you
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 someone is suing you
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, not following certain rules or meeting certain deadlines could cause you to lose some of your rights. So you’ll want someone who knows the ins and outs of the system.

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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. 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.

When you feel confused
And that happens more often than you think. You read a contract one way; a company interprets it differently. Allie Petrova, the managing partner of a tax and business boutique law firm based in Greensboro, N.C., asserts that everyone can read a document and understand what the literal meaning is. “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.

Unfortunately, lawyers are expensive

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.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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