Readers often ask when to use a lawyer, how to find one and what it will cost.
Equally important, however, is knowing when not to use a lawyer. There are lots of ways to try to resolve disputes without a lawyer, and often they are worth a try.
If they work, it will save time and legal fees. If they don't, well, there are lots of lawyers waiting for your business.
Your first option is self-help. The "do-it-yourself" remedy usually won't work if you're involved in complicated legal or financial deals, but if you're trying to resolve a relatively simple dispute with a merchant or a colleague, a lawyer should be a last resort.
Sit down, face to face, with your colleague or adversary and try to negotiate your way to a solution to your joint problem. If the dry cleaners has refused to pay for the green blotch on your silk shirt, sit down with the owner or manager, not a salesperson, and negotiate.
If face-to-face meetings are not your cup of tea, try a polite letter. Make sure it is addressed to the particular individual who can solve your problem. Explain in simple, understandable English why you think you deserve a refund, a credit, or, as the case may be, an apology.
Having such a letter (be sure to keep a copy) will help you later if you have to turn to a lawyer to sue, because you may be able to use it as evidence. It is part of the "paper trail" that supports your case.
Self-help can sometimes be risky, because you may violate someone's legal rights without even knowing it. For instance, if you are a landlord and one of your tenants first skips the rent and then skips town, you might be inclined to go into the apartment, gather up his belongings and sell them to the highest bidder to make up for the lost rent.
But if you did that, you'd be in big trouble. Not only would you have an angry tenant to deal with when he returns, but he would have a valid legal claim against you for not complying with specific legal rules about what you can do when a tenant "abandons" the premises.
The proper steps are summarized in the book, "The Eviction Book for California" by Leigh Robinson. You can also read them, in legalese, in Sections 1980-1991 of the California Civil Code. If your reading doesn't help answer your questions, it is probably worth the money to pay an experienced real estate lawyer for a quick consultation. Robinson's book, which sells for $14.95, is available from Express Publishers, P.O. Box 1639, El Cerrito, Calif. 94530.
It is one thing to use self-help methods to negotiate your way out of a dispute, but you should think long and hard before you file a lawsuit yourself, draft a contract or try to play lawyer. There are numerous reference books to help, many of which I have mentioned in this column, but remember that trying to represent yourself in court (other than small claims court) is a difficult, time-consuming and frustrating process. (It's even frustrating when a lawyer does it for you.)
The old maxim, "A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client," bears repeating.
Another way to avoid lawyers is to try to mediate your disputes. There are some lawyers, psychologists and other social service workers who practice mediation and try to help you work through your dispute without using the formal adversary system. This process has been most commonly used for divorces, avoiding the need to pay for two lawyers, but it can also work with neighborhood battles and some consumer problems.
In Santa Monica, the Neighborhood Justice Center, a mediation program sponsored by the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., helps solve private disputes for a low fee. Telephone (213) 451-8192. The biggest problem with mediation, however, is that it takes two to tango. Both parties have to agree to mediate or the process simply will not work. So if someone bounces a check and then avoids you, the mediation process won't get you your money. To collect, you might have to sue.
If you don't want to use a lawyer and the amount in dispute is less than $1,500, you might want to sue in small claims court, where lawyers are not allowed. The judge will be more interested in an accurate and truthful summary of the facts than complex legal arguments.
Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, The Times' senior staff counsel, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Jeffrey S. Klein, Legal View, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.