When Do You Know You Need a Lawyer's Help With a Legal Matter?

Hiring a lawyer can be costly. Here's a sensible approach to determining when that cost is justified.

From a car accident to a dispute with a neighbor, to drafting an estate plan or other legal document, there are countless situations that could lead you to wonder whether you are better off enlisting the help of a lawyer. In this article, we'll discuss some of the most important things to consider when making this decision.

The Cost-Benefit Approach

Many people are hesitant to hire a lawyer because they are fearful of what it might cost. While it is true that legal services do not usually come cheap, having a skilled professional on your side almost always means a better outcome, when compared with the results you can expect when you represent yourself. Whenever you are involved in a legal matter of any significance, you should evaluate both the anticipated cost of hiring a lawyer and the potential benefit of that representation.

In determining cost, you should speak to more than one lawyer, since fees can vary from lawyer to lawyer (and there may be room for negotiation). Remember also that the most expensive lawyer may not necessarily be the best fit for you and your case. Learn more in our Guide to Legal Services and Billing Rates.

Once you know the approximate cost of the representation, you then need to determine the nature and scope of the benefit that you will (hopefully) derived from that representation. This benefit can be purely financial, as in the case of negotiating a fair settlement of an insurance claim, or it can be more personal, as in the case of a child custody dispute or the defense of a criminal charge involving a possible jail sentence.

Cost-Benefit in the Real World

A couple of examples will bring this cost-benefit approach into sharper focus. First, let's take the case of an insurance claim for stolen jewelry. You believe the value of the stolen articles is $2,500, but the insurance company is only offering you $1,600. The lawyer you're thinking about hiring requires a $1,000 retainer, charges $250 per hour, and estimates she will have to spend five hours on your case to achieve your desired result. If you engage this lawyer's services, it will cost you $1,250, and the most that can be recovered above the amount offered is $900.00. In this situation, a cost-benefit analysis would conclude that hiring a lawyer is not in your best interest.

Next, let's consider a child custody dispute between you and your estranged spouse. You suspect that your child is being emotionally abused and are adamant that she should not be in your spouse's custody. You have spoken to three family lawyers who specialize in contested custody matters, and the one you prefer requires a $5,000 retainer, charges $350 per hour, and estimates that she will have to spend 80 hours on your case to obtain a judge's custody determination. If you engage this lawyer's services, it will cost you close to $30,000, but it is obvious to you that you cannot win this case without legal assistance. Although the cost of hiring a lawyer may impose a huge financial hardship, that expense pales in comparison to the anguish you will suffer if your child is placed in your spouse's custody. Under these circumstances, a cost-benefit analysis will almost certainly compel you to conclude that hiring a lawyer is in your best interest.

Whether you are faced with a contract, a domestic relations matter, a civil suit, or a criminal charge, your decision to represent yourself or hire a lawyer should not be based on cost alone. Rather, you should assess the cost of hiring a lawyer in relation to the potential benefit of the representation, and make your decision within the framework of a cost-benefit analysis. Learn more about Selecting a Lawyer and your options When You Can't Afford a Lawyer.

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