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Preparing for Court

UPDATED May 13, 2011

Choosing and Working with a Lawyer

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Below is information for choosing and working with a lawyer in CIVIL court.

Do I need a lawyer?

How do I find and choose a lawyer?
How do I explain my story to my lawyer?
Who gets to make decisions about my case - me or my lawyer?
What if I do not like what my lawyer is doing?
What if I cannot get a lawyer?  How do I represent myself?


Do I need a lawyer?


In most states, the protection order or restraining order laws are designed so that you can go to court without a lawyer. However, if there are children involved, if your abuser has a lawyer, or if you think you might need help, you may want to try to find a lawyer to make sure that everything is done right. 

For other cases, like custody, divorce, immigration, etc., it is usually better if you have a good lawyer to help you.  If you have been a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault, it is helpful if your lawyer understands the issues you may be facing and has experience working with domestic violence or sexual assault. 

How do I find and choose a lawyer?

If you can afford a lawyer, you may find a good referral through your state bar association or through a local domestic violence, sexual assault, or legal aid program.  If you cannot afford a laywer, you may be able to get help from legal aid or find pro bono services.  Click on the Where to Find Help tab above to find someone in your area who can help you.

Remember that if you are hiring a lawyer, you can interview the lawyer and make sure that you feel good about what he or she can do for you.  Be sure to ask about the lawyer's experience with whatever kind of case you need help with, and make sure the lawyer is able to explain things clearly to you.  You may want to check out the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence's list of Questions to Ask Before You Hire an Attorney.

How do I explain my story to my lawyer?

Once you choose a lawyer, take care to explain to the lawyer everything that you think is relevant about your case. Here are a few things that you might want to bring up in your first couple of conversations with your lawyer:
  1. explain what your concerns are about the case;
  2. tell him/her what your goals are the case is;
  3. ask about his/her strategy for how to accomplish your goals; and
  4. ask what things you can do to better prepare your case.
If you feel you are having trouble explaining things to your lawyer, write your story down.  Sometimes it is helpful to write things down in a bullet point list, keeping each bullet point to two lines.  When you write things down in this way, it often helps you get your thoughts straight and focus on the most important parts.  It also helps the lawyer follow what you are trying to explain.

Remember that the lawyer is probably trying to sift through everything you say to pick out the things that are most important to bring up in court.  If you think the lawyer forgot something, you can remind him or her and ask if it is something that might be important for the judge to hear.  Before your hearing, you can also ask the lawyer how he or she is planning to present your case to the judge. 

Don't be intimidated by your lawyer.  Remember that while your lawyer has special expertise in practicing law, you are the one that has hired the lawyer and it is your case that he or she is working on.  

Who gets to make decisions about my case - me or my lawyer?

Your lawyer is supposed to advocate for you and represent your interests in the case to the judge.  Your lawyer can make strategic decisions on the case such as what evidence to present, which witnesses will testify, etc.  However, YOU are the only one who can make decisions about what type of settlement to accept in the case.  For example, if your child's father wants joint custody or unsupervised visits and you feel this is not in the best interests of you or your child, you do not have to agree to this just because your lawyer might want you to.  You can tell your lawyer to refuse the offer and go to trial.  However, often times people agree to settlement offers that might not be ideal to prevent ending up with an even worse outcome at trial.  Your lawyer should give you information and advice to help you make an educated decision. Your lawyer can tell you the likelihood of winning your case based on what the law says and how judges tend to rule in your county. You should consider all of your lawyer's advice carefully -- but the final decision is yours.

What if I do not like what my lawyer is doing?

If you are concerned that your lawyer is not representing you well, please talk to a domestic violence or sexual assault advocate to try to help you figure out  what your options are.  You may even want to talk to another lawyer, if possible, for a second opinion.   An advocate or another lawyer can also help you think through questions you might want to ask your lawyer to help you better understand the lawyer's strategy. 

You may then want to talk to your lawyer about your concerns.  He or she may have very good reasons for the decisions he or she has made.  If you do not like the decisions and think the strategy is bad, you can explain why you think the strategy is a problem. 

If you are still unhappy with your lawyer's representation of you, you can hire a new lawyer.  If you do this, make sure that you get copies of your files from your first lawyer so that your next lawyer will have everything he or she needs to represent you.  You can find free and paid legal services on our Finding a Lawyer page.

If you feel your lawyer has committed malpractice, you may report him or her to the state bar association. 


What if I cannot get a lawyer?  How do I represent myself?

If you cannot get a lawyer, you may represent yourself in court.  This is called "pro se."   You may want to ask the clerk of court in your courthouse or someone at legal aid if there is a pro se program in your area.  You may also check the Where to Find Help tab at the top of this page.

You may also want to check out the books from Nolo Press at www.nolo.com.  They have some books that may be helpful if you are trying to represent yourself.  There is one called Represent Yourself in Court: How to Prepare & Try a Winning Case. There are also books on custody, divorce, immigration, and other issues you may need help with. WomensLaw.org has no relationship with Nolo Press and cannot vouch for their books or the information in their books.

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