A sad reality of our legal system is that it is largely unavailable to all but the wealthy.
True, there are exceptions — those accused of crimes who cannot afford an attorney must have one paid for by the state. California Rural Legal Assistance will help the very poor with questions regarding landlord-tenant issues and other common issues faced by the poor. Senior Citizens Legal Services helps seniors with legal issues related to aging. Occasionally, large nonprofit law firms, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, will champion an individual’s cause.
Then there is small-claims court, where lawyers are barred. But small-claims court is restricted to claims of $5,000 or $7,500, depending upon whether you’re a business or an individual.
For nearly all other matters, one must hire a lawyer. For a few tasks, such as drafting a trust, you can likely pay a flat fee. Otherwise, you’ll have to hire a lawyer on an hourly basis — and that, my friend, is enough to shake even John Wayne’s bravado. Lawyers cost anywhere from $200 to $750 an hour, with the average in Santa Cruz County hovering in the $250 to $400 range.
But what about the late-night ads, loaded with lawyers promising no fee unless they win your case? Unfortunately, these contingent arrangements are largely confined to personal injury and commercial collection. Indeed, contingency arrangements are illegal in several areas of law.
The expenses surrounding litigation can be even more frightening. Experts hired for litigation are often as expensive as, or more expensive than, lawyers. A one-day deposition (answering questions posed by a lawyer in front of a court reporter) can cost $4,000. This begs the question: Can one realistically hire a lawyer for a lawsuit worth between $7,500 and $25,000?
Claims in this range, I call “no-man’s land.” It will often cost as much in legal fees to get a judgment as the judgment is worth. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the effort it takes to collect once you have a judgment.
Regardless of the amount of your claim, you must have the resources to pay for the litigation. In one instance, a person called to tell me he had given his $120,000 retirement to his ex-wife, and now she wouldn’t give it back. (My first question was why he would ever hand $120,000 to his ex!) Unfortunately, he had few other resources, so couldn’t hire anyone to try to get it back.
A common call is from a man or woman going through a divorce and seeking representation. Although our firm does not do family law, these people often relate to me how shocked they are by the price to hire a family law attorney. It is not uncommon for divorce attorneys to ask for $5,000 retainers. I am aware of some in Santa Cruz County that require $10,000.
I briefly worked for a family law firm when I was just out of law school. The first case I worked on, the firm billed in excess of $100,000 in the first few months, while the other side billed even more. An acrimonious divorce can quickly deplete the assets of the marriage.
If you simply can’t hire a lawyer, there is one other possibility: You can represent yourself. This, of course, brings to mind the famous adage, “One who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Still, if you don’t have the bucks, you don’t have the bucks.
Happily, for most simple legal tasks, there is a publisher that offers outstanding self-help books: Nolo Press (www.nolo.com). I don’t hesitate to buy these books myself, because they are simply the best-written summaries on the basics of each subject — family law, contracts, neighbor law and many more. They’re in plain English and offer step-by-step instructions on how to proceed. True, they don’t offer more than a basic overview, but for many, that is enough to muddle through the arcane legal system.
If you can’t afford a hired gun, the next best thing is to arm yourself through Nolo Press.
Gary Redenbacher of Scotts Valley is an attorney in private practice. Contact him at [email protected].

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