Resolving Legal Disputes — Like on eBay

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Sunday 10th October 2010
In this article
  • Finding the right attorney.
  • Securing reasonably priced representation.
  • Online search for off-line help.
Resolving Legal Disputes — Like on eBay

So your best friend has decided he really doesn’t need to pay you back that $2,500? Or maybe your landlord doesn’t understand why you’d like that security deposit returned to you? What should you do? Well, in some cases you may choose to file a lawsuit.

Of course, filing a lawsuit may not be as easy as you think, and even worse, may end up costing you more than the claim itself. Experienced attorneys in big cities like New York or Los Angeles can charge up to $600 per hour (that’s assuming you can peel them away from their corporate clients). And that $600/hour does not guarantee you a positive result. That’s right: even if you lose your case, you might still receive a bill for thousands of dollars in legal fees.

Many "do-it-yourself" legal Web sites offer tools to help non-lawyer SharpMen research the applicable law or even craft their own case. How do you begin? Check out these tips for utilizing online resources to achieve offline legal results:

Step One: Conduct an Investigation

Most attorneys will tell you that your chances of success in a lawsuit depend primarily on your understanding of the facts surrounding your case. Conduct an investigation that includes all of the people involved in your dispute. If you’re fighting with a landlord, speak to other tenants in the building or neighbors who have knowledge of past events regarding the property. If your friend refuses to pay back money that he owes you, talk to other people in your circle or someone who may have had problems with the same person in other transactions.

While many of the people you speak with or records you find may lead to a dead end, a few discoveries may very well lead you to other incidents or facts that bolster your case. The more you know about a person or a situation, the more ammunition you have to lead a third party to see similarities that may confirm your version of the "the truth."

Step Two: Research Your Case

Once you’ve investigated the matter fully, research the law that might affect your dispute. Parts of this process may require you to seek the assistance and advice of an outside attorney. On the other hand, with the numerous resources available to you, both online and off, you can probably obtain a strong grasp of the legal implications of your actions with some good old-fashioned homework and common sense.

When you have a dispute, think sensibly and consult legal resources regarding terms you understand. For example, for the dispute with your landlord, type in "landlord-tenant." For information on getting money back from your buddy, type "debt." There are hundreds of Web sites that can help you with online legal research and there is likely to be a law library within driving distance. Check out or Findlaw to begin your search.

Often these few free or cheap research steps may save you additional time and money by revealing that you don’t have the "right" you thought you had. For example, if you believe that you should have received a check after vacating your apartment and handing over the keys, you may discover that your jurisdiction doesn’t require you landlord to refund your security deposit until three weeks after you leave. This small amount of information could save you time, money and frustration.

Step Three: Negotiate with Your Adversary

All too often, people forget that the best way to resolve a dispute is to simply talk to the other person involved. When a conflict becomes personal or emotional, there may be a tendency to immediately call a lawyer, despite the fact that this should generally be the absolute last step in the process.

No matter the severity of your situation, always attempt to talk out your differences before proceeding with formal legal remedies. Pick up the phone, schedule a meeting, or use a third party to arbitrate your problem. Even if you can’t ultimately resolve the situation through these means, these initial steps are likely to help you resolve the problem down the line, or may allow you to glean an understanding of the other side of the story. Of course, if these efforts ultimately succeed in saving you a $2,000 trip to the attorney’s office, that’s a pretty good thing, too.

Step Four: Look into "Do-it-Yourself" Organizations

If you’ve completed your investigation, researched the appropriate law and attempted to reconcile with the other side, but still find that you can’t resolve the problem, start looking for legal assistance. Before calling a high-priced attorney, make a cursory attempt to take matters into your own hands. Many legal problems require little more than a form filed with the appropriate government agency. Some cases are properly resolved in small claims court (where you are required to defend yourself and submit the appropriate paperwork without the presence of an attorney).

Unless you have a complex problem involving a substantial amount of money, you could consult with a "Do-It-Yourself" organization. Organizations like the Legal Action Workshop or FreeAdvice have a wealth of resources to instruct you on the basics of filing a claim, commencing a lawsuit or taking other action.

Plus, they generally have personnel available to assist you. And while the folks who man these do-it-yourself services are likely to be paralegals rather than licensed attorneys, they are likely to have experience in working with the materials offered and might be able to answer a few simple questions.

Step Five: Determine the Best Type of Legal Representation

The "Do-It-Yourself"-ers are not the only organizations that can forestall a trip to the lawyer’s office. There are numerous people and companies that can assist you in resolving a dispute without paying the thousands of dollars that an attorney might demand.

If you merely want to set up a corporate entity for your business, services exist that will file all necessary paperwork to get your company off the ground. For example, SharpManhas previously reviewed and recommended services like LegalZoom for simple business-related filings (incorporations, LLC agreements, etc., see Who Wants to Be an Entrepreneur?) and even prenuptial contracts (see Prenuptial Agreements 101 and How to Bring Up and Work Out a Prenuptial Agreement With Your SharpWoman).

For relatively simple regulatory filings, an experienced paralegal can often provide you with ample assistance. Even in those cases where you have an irreconcilable dispute with another party, organizations such as the American Arbitration Association can offer you a forum where, although it does not comply with legal formality, you can elicit the help of a knowledgeable, neutral third party in deciding your case.

Step Six: Find an Attorney

Of course, if none of these methods suffice, you’ll need to find an attorney. Unfortunately, your decision making doesn’t stop there. Lawyers practice in a wide variety of areas, which requires you to choose one who specializes in the area of law that regards your case.

Why? Consider this: just as you wouldn’t consult with an orthodontist if you had a broken leg, you don’t want to talk to a tax attorney if you have a patent dispute. Not sure what kind of case you have? Refer back to Step Two and make sure you know what you’re fighting about, so that you can make an informed decision regarding the attorney who will represent you. Do some research into an attorney’s background and ask plenty of questions during your initial consultation. After all, your attorney has to fight for you, so you’ll want to make sure he or she has the qualifications to do so.

Once you know what type of specialty you require, where do you start your search? How do you increase your chances of finding help that you can afford? The good news is that there are currently more than 600,000 lawyers practicing in the United States, many of who would be happy to take on your case for a percentage of the lawsuit’s proceeds or at a rate that you can reasonably afford. In fact, many people do not realize that the growth of legal service providers actually helps you to get more reasonably priced legal assistance.

In recent years, the attorney population has grown faster than the number of lawsuits, leading to a generation of highly capable legal service providers hungry for new clients — and ready to make a deal. These attorneys are not necessarily less talented than their big firm brethren; many solo practitioners and small law firms have outstanding reputations and tremendous experience, but have a lower overhead that allows them to charge a rate that normal guys might actually be able to afford.

But how do you find them? Even if you had the time, it is terribly frustrating to make a hundred calls to get in touch with five attorneys who might (might!) take the time to discuss your case with you. Luckily, netizens can access valuable Web-based resources that can make your search for a reasonably priced, effective attorney a relatively quick one. Just as you would "name your price" on Priceline, or post a "help wanted" query on Guru, sites such as LawOfficez now let you anonymously post your case and receive proposals from lawyers eager to take you on as a client… a price that won’t send you to a bankruptcy attorney as soon as your case has been resolved.

How does it really work? Sites like LawOfficez function much like eBay. After completing a brief registration form, clients anonymously post the basic elements of their case. Attorneys specializing in that area of the law receive an e-mail notifying them of the case and make a proposal spelling out the basics of their representation, such as fees, estimated hours, etc. The client can review the responses to their case, in addition to background information provided by the attorney regarding his/her experience, education, specialties and other pertinent information. The client then chooses a "winner" and both client and attorney receive contact information.

Legal marketplaces such as these are beginning to gain wider acceptance in the legal community. Much like online dating services, people who were initially reluctant to use a Web site in place of personal introductions now find that new online technologies can more quickly help them achieve their offline goals. In the case of online lawyer searches, online legal research and "Do-It-Yourself" services, one mouse click can go a long way towards resolving your disputes.

This article last updated on Sunday 10th October 2010
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