One common question is when a lawyer is really needed versus when someone can/should handle a matter on their own (perhaps with online resources or borrowing a friend’s document).
Yes, we lawyers know that legal services not cheap (but we did go through three years of law school and suffer through the bar exam to acquire our expertise). If a legal need arises unexpectedly or isn’t in your budget, it can be tempting to try to save money by not hiring a lawyer. Sometimes that works better than others.
What about a traffic ticket? If it is a simple speeding ticket after a pretty clean record, in NC, you can usually successfully seek a reduction in court yourself. Having a lawyer is a convenience so you don’t have to miss work and wait in court. On the other hand, if you have a more serious ticket, if you have a record, or if you are a young driver, a lawyer can give you important advice about your choices, and help implement the best one.
What about a divorce? In NC, if you and your spouse have been separated over a year and you are absolutely sure that there are no issues of property, debts, or spousal support, then a do-it-yourself divorce is likely fine. In those cases, a lawyer is a convenience to save you time and effort. However, without particular wording included, in NC the divorce judgment cuts off the right to have the court deal with property, debt, and spousal support. I have seen the after-effects of a DIY divorce where a party learns too late that they could have had their spouse’s retirement benefits divided or could have claimed alimony, but lost those rights by not having a lawyer prepare the divorce judgment. Retirement plans and cash value life insurance are the most commonly overlooked assets in DIY separations and divorces. I am sometimes asked to try to “fix” a signed DIY separation agreement that didn’t include everything it should have or was ambiguous about important details. Sometimes there is a remedy, but this is usually more expensive than if a lawyer had prepared the agreement originally. However, sometimes the person is stuck with the unhappy results of their own work, and no change is possible. I sometimes see DIY separation agreements that clients think are valid but aren’t, because the person didn’t realize that NC requires signatures on these agreements to be notarized.
Online resources market to small business owners for incorporations, LLCs, and contracts. The same is true for wills for individuals. The risk is that, without talking with a NC attorney in detail, you don’t always know what you don’t know. In these matters, you aren’t paying a lawyer to be your typist; you are paying a lawyer to ask questions or to offer alternatives you would not have known about otherwise. Particularly when preparing wills or business contracts, clients frequently tell me that I’ve raised important questions or options that they did not know about even if they have read online or library resources.
Also, it is worth considering how bad the worst-case scenario is. If a small, short-term purchasing contract goes badly, it may be easy enough to deal with another supplier next time. On the other hand, if you have a faulty incorporation and someone sues your business, you may see a judge pierce the corporate veil, meaning the claimant can go after your personal assets. With a poorly drafted will or separation agreement, the legal fees involved in litigating it or trying to straighten it out can dwarf the cost to have had a lawyer prepare the document properly – and some problems cannot be fixed after the fact.
If you are an executor of a small estate where you are the sole beneficiary, handling it yourself may work out fine. However, if you are not the only beneficiary and you do something wrong, you may have liability to the other heirs; you may not be comfortable with that risk.
Copying a friend’s documents is the most dangerous way to think you are getting “help.” Your friend’s situation may have been different from yours in ways that you don’t realize. Using an online resource that is not state-specific to North Carolina comes in second. Differences in state laws matter. Also, the quality of online resources varies greatly. The problems are not always apparent when you look at the document you plan to use.
Online resources can help you ask your lawyer better questions. Think of it like this. WebMD will help me ask my doctor better questions, but I won’t be using WebMD to diagnose myself.
It is appropriate to ask a lawyer about fees before deciding whether to hire the lawyer, and to ask about fees for an initial consultation before scheduling your appointment. At our office, we offer a no-charge first appointment to prospective clients who are new to our firm. That way we can discuss what you need and what it will cost before you make any decisions.
Kim K. Steffan is an attorney with Steffan & Associates, P.C. in Hillsborough, NC. She can be reached at 919-732-7300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was last updated in January 2020.