We hear this question at least once per week, and have for years. The short answer is, “it depends.” It depends primarily on whether the facts and circumstances of the potential client’s case justify the expense of hiring legal counsel. Here are some things to consider.
First, in a criminal case, where there exists the possibility of a jail sanction, there is the legal requirement for the Court to consider appointing a lawyer to represent the person charged. If that person is determined to be “indigent,” meaning they cannot afford to hire a lawyer, then the Court must appoint a lawyer to represent that person free of charge. Of course, a person is always free to hire a private lawyer in such criminal cases, but they will bear the cost of keeping the lawyer retained. While there are many fine attorneys who do so-called “appointed” criminal defense work, some people will simply prefer to retain their own lawyer, for many different reasons.
One such reason is convenience. People often say that they like the accessibility and ease of contact regarding their private lawyer. Some clients have us on speed dial. Further, not every one will find it comforting to be one of many clients being represented at the same time by say, a public defender’s office. We often hear people say that they prefer a more individualized approach to representation that they were not experiencing with their appointed attorney.
Another reason is choice. When the Court appoints a lawyer for an indigent defendant, the defendant does not get to choose who that attorney is, and as a result, the client (and the lawyer) are rather “stuck” with each other, unless the lawyer withdraws from the case. This may create issues from the very start, if for example, the client is not comfortable with the attorney appointed to represent him or her, for whatever reason.
In the case of a privately retained attorney however, the client is free to choose their counsel, and hence able to decide if he or she is more comfortable with say, a male or a female attorney, or someone who is of a particular race or religious background. An elderly client, for example, may be more comfortable with representation by someone in his or her age range, and so on.
To be sure, it is important, for purposes of maintaining a healthy attorney-client relationship, that the lawyer and the client are comfortable working with one another. The choice of a private attorney by a client can help facilitate that comfort in ways that an appointed lawyer simply cannot.
What about civil cases? In civil cases, such as family law matters, divorce, etc., the choice of whether to hire a lawyer is driven by somewhat different considerations. In civil cases, since there is no jail time at stake, the law does not provide for a free attorney like it does in criminal cases. If a person wants to have a lawyer represent him or her in say, a divorce action, then he or she must hire their own lawyer, or otherwise represent themselves.
We often are asked, “can I represent myself in a divorce?” The answer is “yes.” The laws of the State of Florida are set up in such a way to allow so-called pro se litigants (people acting as their own lawyers) to handle their own cases. The bigger question a person should be asking however, is should he or she be acting as their own lawyer.
Consider this: The law is a confusing thing for most people, even under the best of circumstances. It takes three years on average for a person to obtain a law degree. If it were easy to do, everyone would be a lawyer. It is not. Most areas of the law are quite technical, requiring a full understanding of procedures and substantive issues, that most lay persons simply have no knowledge about. Is it possible though to learn these things however in such a way as to grant a lay person the ability to represent himself? Sure. Anything is possible. I could go home today and try to re-roof my house if I wanted to. It is perfectly legal. I wouldn’t do that however, because I have no specialized knowledge or training in that area, and would hate to risk further damaging the roof due to my untrained attempts to fix it. The law is like my roof analogy.
We are comfortable suggesting that in family law cases, where minor children are involved, it is a good idea to have legal representation, particularly if there is an attorney on the other side of the case. If there are significant assets/debts at issue then the hiring of a lawyer is probably a good idea. Is there a question of alimony? Talk to a lawyer. If there are substantial issues at stake, then consult with a professional and see if the hiring of a lawyer in a family law case is right for you. Don’t leave it up to guesswork. If however, the divorce involves a short term marriage (under seven years duration). No kids, no property, no debts, no claim for alimony by either spouse and no other issues, then perhaps a lawyer is an unnecessary expense. The only way to be sure however is to talk to a lawyer about the facts and see what he or she recommends.