Don't Try This Without a Lawyer

The next time you find yourself wondering whether or not you need a lawyer, take a moment to consider this old legal adage: He who represents himself has a fool for a client.

The next time you find yourself wondering whether or not you need a lawyer, take a moment to consider this old legal adage: He who represents himself has a fool for a client.

There are, of course, all sorts of legal issues a person can navigate without the help of an attorney—contesting a parking ticket, for example, or recouping a security deposit from your landlord. But taking a do-it-yourself approach for many other legal matters can be a mistake.

Contacting an attorney when facing criminal charges might seem like an obvious decision for many of us, especially when the charges are serious, but a surprising number of people appear in criminal court alone, thinking their case doesn’t warrant a lawyer.

Mark Davis, a Honolulu-based attorney with more than 35 years of private practice in the state, suggests that anyone charged with any crime seek out professional legal advice. 

“Some charges that people might consider to be small may, in fact, not be minor at all,” he said, citing drunk driving or shoplifting charges as examples. “The bottom line is that a lawyer who knows the system, who knows what sanctions are associated with various things can be very, very helpful in steering the right decisions for a person, even with a relatively small charge.”

Otherwise, it seems, people often need legal advice for major life transitions—not because they’re in trouble, necessarily, but to avoid trouble and make sure they get all the protections to which they are entitled under the law. According to Michael Nauyokas, a lawyer with 20-plus years of mediation and arbitration experience in Hawaii, divorce proceedings are one arena in which an experienced attorney is generally a must. Nauyokas hired a lawyer to help mediate his own divorce.

You just can’t be objective in a divorce situation, says Nauyokas, and “unless you’re a lawyer yourself, the process is too complicated. You risk the problem of being outgunned and taken advantage of if you don’t have [a lawyer].”

Anyone looking into estate planning, wills, trusts or business succession planning should also consider consulting a lawyer.

“You want someone who is interested in establishing a long-term relationship with you,” says Stephen Yim, a Honolulu-based attorney with 14 years of estate-planning experience. “It’s economical to stay with one attorney” he says, and since you’ll be discussing some intimate things with that attorney, “It’s important that you feel comfortable enough to ask questions.”

Yim says a lasting relationship with your estate planner is important because of how frequently the related laws change and the dynamic nature of people’s lives and goals. And it’s never too early to get started.

“People always think, ‘Oh, I’m too young,’ or ‘I don’t have enough,’” Yim says. “It doesn’t matter what you have because you’re going to accumulate, and there’s more to lose, relatively speaking, if you don’t have a whole lot. It’s also just as complicated for people who don’t have a whole lot versus people who do. The same issues come up because it’s all about communicating well with your family so they don’t struggle with each other as you pass these things on.”

Consider it an investment in yourself to have a lawyer look over the next employment contract you sign. Many of us don’t give those documents the attention they deserve and Nauyokas says this oversight could develop into a problem.

“The employer is certainly going to have a lawyer looking at it,” he says. “And if you’re an employee it’s just like the divorce scenario, you’re going to be outgunned if the other party is represented and you’re not.”

Ultimately, better safe than sorry seems to be a recurring theme in the legal world.

“There is never much harm or expense to sit down with an attorney to discuss whether you actually need to have a lawyer,” says Davis. “Most lawyers will do initial consultations without charge or a modest fee. And we’re always making referrals. A great question to ask any lawyer is, ‘Who would you call if you had this problem?’”

 The Fine Print

These lists are excerpted from  The Best Lawyers in America® 2010, which includes listings for more than 40,000 lawyers in 80 specialties, in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

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 Related Links: Best Lawyers in Hawaii 2010