How to win in court without overpaying

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By Christopher Elliott

Justice can be expensive, but you can win in court.

How expensive? A 2013 study by the National Center for State Courts suggests it’s unaffordable for most of us. Even a simple automobile case can exceed $100,000 per side if the case goes to trial.

No wonder most consumers abandon all hope when they have to head to court. Faced with wiping out their life savings or taking out a second mortgage on their home, they quietly settle — or don’t seek justice at all.

But there are ways to get justice without taking out a loan.

“It is possible to leverage the legal system to your favor,” says Farid Yaghoubtil, a personal injury attorney at the Downtown L.A. Law Group in Los Angeles.

Here’s how:

Find a pro bono lawyer

Pro bono — “for the public good” — is a free legal service, usually offered to low-income clients or nonprofit organizations working in the public interest. Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.

Those aren’t my words; they’re from the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Rules of Professional Conduct. The ABA says a lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono publico legal services per year to persons of limited means, and charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental and educational organizations.

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Finding a “pro bono” lawyer, or a nonprofit legal service, is the top choice for offsetting legal expenses, says Chad Ruback, an appellate lawyer. But, he warns, “that option might not be available for many litigants.”

Get someone who will take your case on a contingency basis

“Many people do not think of this,” says Anne Mitchell, president of the Institute for Social Internet Public Policy. Hiring a personal injury attorney on a contingency basis — in other words, instead of you paying the lawyer out of your pocket, he or she gets paid out of the award from the court or a settlement if the case settles beforehand — lets you avoid up-front legal bills.
“Many people think that ‘personal injury’ means that they had to be physically or medically injured, but in fact nearly any loss, including financial, can be litigated this way,” she says.

Note: Most contingency fees are between 33 and 40 percent, so keep that in mind.

Join a class action suit

“One of the best ways consumers can stand up to consumer fraud is by bringing a class action,” says Joshua Haffner, a personal injury lawyer in Los Angeles. “This allows consumers to represent not just their own claims, but similar claims of other consumers, banding together to make what would otherwise be a small case, a big liability for the corporation.”

That’s also more cost-effective. Most class action law firms advance costs and only get paid once there is favorable resolution.

Do it yourself

Yes, you can represent yourself in court — the technical term is pro se. Small claims court, where litigants typically represent themselves, is one example. But there are a few things you need to know before you go down that road.

“Typically, small claims disputes are capped as to the amount of damages you can ask for,” explains Yaghoubtil of the Downtown L.A. Law Group. “In such cases, if you bring a cause of action in small claims you can’t bring it again in limited or unlimited jurisdiction venues.”

If you decide to file in small claims, you must prepare the paperwork and submit it to the court along with the filing fees. Benefits of going to small claims court include a shorter waiting period and an informal setting for the adjudication of your claim. But small claims don’t permit the use of discovery and depositions to investigate your case, notes Yaghoubtil.

Go to the law library and over-prepare

Whether you’re going the “pro se” route, looking for an extrajudicial solution, or just want to lower your legal bills, you’ll want to enlist the help of your local law library. Law librarians can help you find the right books and documents to show up for your case well prepared, say experts.

“From a lawyer’s point of view, the single most important thing a client can do to keep his or her legal bills down is to be extremely organized,” says Justin Kelton, a partner at Abrams Fensterman in Brooklyn, N.Y. “The more legwork done by the client, the less that needs to be done by the lawyers, and less work usually equals lower bills. For example, clients often come to me armed with detailed written timelines of relevant events, pre-packaged sets of highly relevant emails and other documents, reports from their own investigations and findings.”

That means he has to do less work, and charge fewer billable hours.

Find an extrajudicial but legally binding solution

That’s what Diana Winkler did when her contractor changed his price for a landscaping project, and it didn’t even involve going to court.

“The contractor couldn’t do basic math, and ran out of rock and weed guard,” she recalls. “He also didn’t level the ground. He was going to charge us more money to buy more materials to complete it. We refused because he gave us a signed contract with the amount agreed upon.”

Winkler learned about the Registrar of Contractors, an agency that tracks and regulates contractors. “We filed a complaint with them and sent all the details, as well as copying the Attorney General,” she recalls. “The ROC came out to our property right away and got both of our sides. The ROC ruled in our favor that the contractor had to finish the job as stated in the contract without additional money.” (Related: Car buying legal advice you have to know.)

You can do it yourself, but you might even be able to avoid a trip to court. (Here’s how to fix your own consumer problem.)

Consider insurance or a subscription service

Some forms of insurance may cover your legal expenses. A subscription service like LegalShield may help offset some of your legal expenses, too. For a monthly fee, the service offers help with everything from IRS audits to moving violations, plus assistance with document preparation and legal advice. Either way, it’s best to check on your coverage now, before you have to go to court.

Bottom line: You don’t have to spend a fortune to get justice. Between your insurance, legal service, and a few proven strategies, you can have your day in court.

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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. He is based in Panamá City.

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