Know the Laws:
UPDATED April 16, 2015
Below is information for choosing and working with a lawyer in civil court proceedings, such as protection orders, custody, divorce, etc. (For someone who is a crime victim and dealing with the prosecutor on a criminal court case, most of the information will not apply.)
Although a lawyer may not be absolutely necessary, having a knowledgeable lawyer who will fight for you in court can change the whole legal experience for you. It can be intimidating to speak up in front of a judge or to know what your legal rights are in the court process if you are representing yourself.
A person who wants to file a case in court should be able to get the necessary forms from the courthouse or online from the state's courts website. For civil protection orders, the forms are often designed to be filled out by a person without a lawyer and can be fairly straight-forward. However, for cases that are more complicated, such as divorce, filling out the forms correctly and knowing what to write in the forms to try to get the best outcome can be challenging to do alone. Also, once the court case has begun, the other party involved may file legal papers (motions) that need to be answered in a certain legal format, which can be difficult to do without a lawyer.
A lawyer can be especially important if the other party has a lawyer and/or if the case cannot be resolved and the judge is going to hold a hearing or trial. There are complicated “rules of evidence” that spell out what type of statements, documents, or other evidence can be admitted (accepted by a judge) in court, which a lawyer would know.
If you cannot afford to pay a lawyer, you may be able to get free legal assistance from a non-profit legal organization in your area. We have links for legal assistance in each state on our Finding a Lawyer page. However, very often, the demand for lawyers outweighs the supply of lawyers and so there may be waiting lists or you may get turned down. If this happens, you may want to ask the legal assistance program if they can recommend any other programs in your county that you can call or if, at the very least, you can get a free consultation with an attorney or some ongoing guidance from an attorney if you have to represent yourself in court.
If you can afford to pay a lawyer, or if you cannot get free legal help and feel that your only option is to figure out a way to pay for a private lawyer, your state's bar association likely has a program where they will refer you to a lawyer in your area. Often times, the initial half-hour consultation with the lawyer will cost between $25 and $50 and then it is up to you to decide whether or not to hire the attorney to represent you. You can find a link to your state’s bar association legal referral service on our Finding a Lawyer page. You may also be able to get a referral to an attorney who is sensitive to issues of domestic violence if you call your local domestic violence program or your state coalition against domestic violence – see our State and Local Programs page.
For a list of suggested questions to ask an attorney who you are considering hiring to represent you, see How do I pick the right attorney? What questions do I ask?
Choosing the right attorney to represent you can be crucial to your case. Before deciding whether or not you want to retain (hire) the attorney, you should interview the attorney to see if you think s/he is qualified, just as you would interview anyone that you are hiring to perform any job. (However, interviewing and choosing an attorney may not be an option if you are assigned an attorney from a free legal services organization or if the judge assigns an attorney to you.) Here are some questions that may be helpful to guide you in your initial meeting with an attorney:
If you cannot get a lawyer, you may have to represent yourself in court, which is known as being a "pro se litigant." (“Pro se” is a Latin term that means “on one’s own behalf.”) Many courthouses have an office within the court that assists self-represented litigants in filling out paperwork or by providing brief advice - ask the clerk of court if there is any help for pro se litigants available in the courthouse. Advocates at local domestic violence organizations may also be able to help you with filling out forms or may accompany you to court for support if you are a victim of abuse. Go to our State and Local Programs page to find an organization near you. For tips on representing yourself in court in a protection order or custody case, go to our Preparing Your Case page.