How do I practice law?
August 7, 2008 1:14 AM   Subscribe

How do I practice law...without a law degree? (WAY more inside...sorry)

I really need to elaborate:

I have a lot of time on my hands for the next 6-8 months. I'm talking lots! In the past when I had tons of time, I have:
*become a watchmaker (making an automatic watch from scratch)
*become a licensed pharmacist technician
*learned so much HR that I sat for the senior PHR test (and failed by 1 question...darn)

Thats just to show my dedication, and the amount of time I actually have on my hands.

So now another big bulk of time is coming up and I've been toying with the idea of practicing law. I'm not talking about working at a firm, having clients, or even advising people. Heck no. I'm talking about representing myself in court.

Over the past year (in Los Angeles County), I've encountered TONS of people who take advantage of consumers like me.

I had a landlord that took my rent and deposit but never paid the bank. They foreclosed the property, sold it, and told me to get the heck out.

I had my cable company charge me for equipment I returned (and had a receipt for). They stuck some debt collectors on me who swore at me, and harassed me on the phone. Seriously!

An airline at LAX refused to seat me because "all our seats are filled". The same supervisor seated the nice white lady who was after me in line though...too bad for them she's my wife.

My new landlord claims I am responsible for any costs incurred in replacing their 5 year old carpet because their washing machine broke and flooded the entire kitchen and leaked into the living room. What really sucks is that their maintenance crew had just "repaired" the washing machine the day before.

I was tackled by a security guard at a horrible horrible store that spreads sprawl everywhere (hint hint). When nothing was found on me (being tackled from behind TOTALLY stunned me and I consented to all sorts of garbage..."sure sure, you can search my pockets"). When nothing was found on me (I don't even know what they were looking for), the dude apologized by saying " looked like you were doing something terrorrists". Awesome. Thank you, have a nice day. you see that? And its not like I have a "kick me" sign on my back or something. Not at all. This happens to a LOT of people. They often feel they have no recourse...and thats that. End of story.

Anyways, I know a lot of these are small claims court things. Yeah, I can handle that. What about other stuff? It wouldn't be cost-effective to go to an attorney to handle some things.

How can I do this myself? The ONLY thing I know about law in LA County is how to file a small claims case on my own.

I KNOW a lot of these people would be willing to settle if I was able to send them a letter. Like an "intent to sue" letter or something. I know about the NOLO books, but they don't have a "I am suing you for tackling me in a store" letter.

Where do I get a set of attorney-type letters that I can customize to scare the bejeezus out of these bastards?

Where to best look up the law online (besides CAL state code)? Books? Library? Some super-duper website all lawyers use to talk about secret stuff?

I'm NOT looking for ANY kind of legal advice besides:

How can I best represent myself legally for all the wrongs that have been done against me?

Sure, money is ALWAYS nice...but better than money is knowledge. I don't want to feel as if I need to first find a lawyer who won't charge me $300 to listen to me, and then decide if my case is worth his time. I don't blame the attorneys. They are running a business. Ordinarily, they would assess a case by its potential revenue; if its not high dice. I understand and accept that.

The next time I'm tackled by some horrible company (figuratively and literally), I don't want to be stunned. I don't want to feel as if this is what happens and there's nothing I can do about it. I want to KNOW that they can't get away with this, and that I'm NOT a second class citizen. I want to be a citizen that knows his rights.

Including the right to represent myself in court.

ANY advice would be appreciated. ANY tips. Anything.

I know I've been kinda rambling. And this is what happens when I stay up till 1am, getting angry about this stuff...then writing it up in askmefi. Thanks guys are awesome.
posted by hal_c_on to Law & Government (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
He's in a different state (Massachusetts), but you ought to read Philip Greenspun's pages about his DIY litigation.

Philip took an auto dealer to court and did pretty well, and later took his startup's VCs to court, and again did pretty well.
posted by zippy at 1:55 AM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Where do I get a set of attorney-type letters that I can customize to scare the bejeezus out of these bastards?

If the company in question is large enough to have its own lawyers, the problem with this is that the letter will go straight to the lawyers, who will immediately realize they're dealing with a layperson and not be scared. (I work at a firm where we are occasionally in receipt of such letters.)

A lot of these problems you mention can be addressed simply by going up the chain of command: the airline, the store search, the cable company: IMO, to send an intent-to-sue letter right out of the gate would make you seem overly litigious and them less likely to want to work with you. Check out sites like the consumerist for ideas on how to deal with these things without resorting to threats of litigation.

The other thing is that people use lawyers because the law is complex. Aside from the legal basis for your claim itself, there are all of the jurisdictional and procedural requirements to contend with, and they are quite complicated. If you sue, which court are you going to sue in? Why? What do you do if they say your complaint wasn't properly served? That you haven't stated a claim for which relief can be granted? Etc. This is not to say that you can't figure this out - just that it takes most people three years of law school plus studying for the bar exam even to get most of it straight (which is why they won't let people practice law without having finished law school and passed the bar exam).

If you do find yourself in a situation where you feel you have an actionable claim, research that particular problem as extensively as you can. Most statutes are can be found online now, as well as leading cases. Law blogs may also be helpful. If you're concerned primarily with your rights as a consumer, your state attorney general may be able to help as well. Familiarize yourself with jurisdictional and procedural requirements: the Rules of Civil Procedure for your jurisdiction will probably be of assistance there. The closest thing I can think of to the "super duper website" you refer to are Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis, which are searchable databases of case law and statutes. They are generally subscription services, but I think they might also have a one-time pay-per-use fee as well. You want to have your legal issue as clearly defined as possible before you use these services to make the most of your time on them.

Ordinarily, they would assess a case by its potential revenue; if its not high dice

Actually, the assessment is based on whether the case has merit. Since most non-personal injury cases are not taken on contingency (i.e., the lawyer bills per hour rather than getting a cut of the money recovered) the lawyer will usually explain to the client what the possible outcomes may be, what the likely cost is, and let the potential client decide if it's worth it.

Finally, if you do find yourself corresponding with a company or law firm about an issue, make sure your correspondence is as succinct, professional, and grammatically correct as possible. (Read: don't ramble like you did here.) It will go a long way towards being taken seriously.

posted by AV at 3:01 AM on August 7, 2008

>Where do I get a set of attorney-type letters that I can customize to scare the bejeezus out of these bastards?

An attorney-type letter will only scare the bejeezus out of someone if it comes from a lawyer. And then not even very often.
posted by yclipse at 4:13 AM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

"An attorney-type letter will only scare the bejeezus out of someone if it comes from a lawyer. And then not even very often."

Which may be a benefit- the law and justice system generally doesn't care whether you are a lawyer, if you follow the rules and have the law/facts on your side.
posted by gjc at 4:39 AM on August 7, 2008

I think one of the hardest parts of this exercise will be not the actual appearing in court and arguing, but the exchange of correspondence beforehand. It's really hard to do this properly without compromising your case, especially when you're up against companies fully equipped with lawyers who are trying to trick you into screwing up by writing the wrong thing.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:41 AM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Please re-examine your assumption that lawsuits and litigation are the best ways to address the various indignities you have suffered. I'm not sure what you are after here, but it sounds like for most of those things you didn't really lose money, you just feel you were treated poorly and need an apology. Filing a lawsuit against someone is the best way to make sure that they will never apologize to you. Lawsuits are not about who was right or wrong; they are about who owes who money.

If you have 5-6 free months coming up, I can assure you that there are many better ways you can use that time to improve society. (And, by the way, 5-6 months isn't nearly enough time to take some of these cases from start to finish).

But, just so that I can't be accused of not answering your question, check out the various books from Nolo Press, including Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court.
posted by profwhat at 5:32 AM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Since you're in southern California, you're near a lot of law schools whose libraries you can use. Frequently you can even get free Lexis/Westlaw access if you go to the library and use their computers, but at the very least most of them are open to the public (at least at certain hours) and you can use their collections. There are form books of all varieties with sample letters you can adapt for your needs -- they should have print copies as well as access to them on the online services.
posted by katemonster at 5:45 AM on August 7, 2008

"Which may be a benefit- the law and justice system generally doesn't care whether you are a lawyer, if you follow the rules and have the law/facts on your side."

It also doesn't care about your timeline or budget. This is only a "benefit" if you really want to go to court.

Threatening to sue is a lot like threatening to kill someone -- it only has the desired effect if you are perceived to have the willingness and capacity to do it successfully.
posted by toomuchpete at 5:51 AM on August 7, 2008

To answer your question directly, find a law library. Law schools have 'em, as do many major court districts. You can usually find a helpful law librarian that will point you in the direction of some treatises; they're sort of what your high school physics book is to physics. They show the basics.

I agree with the others that a lawsuit likely isn't the best approach in many of your situations. Outside of small claims court, if you want to file a civil suit you'll have to start paying filing fees, which can add up quickly. The consumerist route might be the best way to go in most of this. That said, scary "i'm going to sue" letters will be scarier for those that don't have lawyers on retainer, so maybe scary for your private landlord, but not for an airline.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:04 AM on August 7, 2008

In line with some of the other replies so far: it seems to me like maybe the answer here isn't becoming suddenly more litigious after the fact, and hoping that that changes things in some nebulous way; maybe your extended break would be better spent on some social engineering. Lots of the time people treat each other shabbily because they pick up on subtle cues which lead them to (often false) assumptions about the other person.

I'm really not trying to be a dick here, but have you considered that people are responding to the fact that you are, say, over 30 and dressed like a teenage stoner, or shifty-eyed and wearing baggy clothes with deep pockets, or whatever? Again, seriously, I'm not trying to be mean or make fun, this could be completely non-applicable, and I don't think anything about a person's physical appearance should make them fair game for store-tackling.
posted by paisley henosis at 7:26 AM on August 7, 2008

There's been a nice movement lately to get legal information online. If you are interested in learning more about the law, I would suggest sites like Justia, which now has all appellate decisions from 1950, and a good deal of district court decisions. If you look around the site itself, it also seems to have some legal practice guides, though I have no first-hand experience with those and can't vouch for their quality.

That said, please don't waste 8 months of your life on this. Law is complicated, and it's naive to think that by doing some self-studying for a short period of time will qualify you to go toe-to-toe with actual experienced attorneys - and, since the majority of your nemeses seem to be companies and corporations, that is exactly who you would be going up against.

Finally, there is something to be said about the fact that in all your various interactions, the only constant variable is you. Also notable is the fact that per your question, all of these issues happened in the course of just one one year ("Over the past year . . ."). Although I am of course not saying that you are to blame for these events, this is a highly atypical streak, and it may be worthwhile to examine the circumstances around each event that led to its escalation.
posted by detune at 8:36 AM on August 7, 2008

Okay, law librarian here, and I'm chiming in not only because I've helped out a number of folks in your situation, but also because at least a few others here have suggested you come visit one of my colleagues out in sunny Southern California. Before you do, please know a few basic things.

Mis-filing or other errors in your service of notice can fatally damage even the most meritorious of claims. Since some of your claims allege fairly serious harm, the first thing you want to do is make sure that you bring your claims correctly. The court will not give you a break because you're acting pro se, and the sad reality is that most courts, as a matter of practice, tend view pro se patrons in the worst possible light, because some of them do clog up dockets that are already hella-busy (as the kids out in Cali say) . . .

The good news is that there is a great public law library for you to use, and it's not necessarily at UCLA (or any other public law school: private law schools have NO DUTY to let you onto their grounds). The Los Angeles County Law Library is probably where you want to go, assuming, of course, that you live in the same jurisdiction where you site your complaints. You'll want to go here, and not to a law school, because despite what some other folks have said, law schools generally are not able to provide members of the public with access to Lexis or Westlaw, due to the (very expensive) licenses that law schools purchase from these vendors to allow faculty and student access. LACLL, however, apparently does offer the public access to these databases, at least their page on electronic resources seems to suggest.

You'll also want to pay very close attention to this caveat, lifted from their services page: they will "not perform legal research [for you], and [they will take] great care to avoid the unauthorized practice of law. . . . [They] will neither give legal opinions or advice nor will [they] comment upon or explain the meaning of a text." What this means is simple: you should call them up, ask them when they're open, and ask them for directions. But you should actually go there to begin your research.

Since you're familiar with the NOLO materials, they may be a good place to start. Ask the librarians where to find a California law written for the layperson. (I'm not in Cali, so I don't really know what the title of this item, if it exists, might be, but LACLL will.) They may direct you to this item that the local law library association has put together: Locating the Law. This handbook for non-law librarians should be very helpful to you as you approach this daunting task.

And it seems to me that what you really want, or what you'll likely need, is not a guide to writing letters per se ('cos I don't think you'll find such a beast, at least, not one likely to prove any use), but you will need access to legal forms, and you'll need to read the local court rules very very carefully. Ask at the library to look at the forms books, and ask for the court rules. Do NOT ask them which form to use, because you'll only annoy the librarians (and caution! Law librarians will bite!): many of us consider telling patrons which form to use for a particular purpose to be actual legal advice, and that's not what we dole out (that's what you pay a lawyer for, after all, and many of us are not licensed or barred in our jurisdictions [by choice, if you can believe that!], so we're not allowed to offer advice).

When you visit the library to start your research, I'm sure you'll be polite and friendly to the reference librarians, but don't be too friendly. Folks who do stuff like offer to go get us a cup of coffee are often trying to pull some kind of scam, in my experience: it doesn't seem to me that you're 'that guy,' but I'd hate for a colleague to think that you might be 'that guy.'

Furthermore, DON'T recite your facts, your situation, or other aspects of your story: again, that's just NOT what we answer. We may (or may not) be able to direct you to a legal clinic, often run out of a law school, if that's what you need (and assuming that the clinic will have an opening in their docket, which is highly unlikely). But all of the details you've gone into above about the wrongs you've suffered are really for your lawyer, for any clinical representation you may find, or for the court. The law librarian can't do a thing for you on those counts, and unless s/he asks you for more facts, please don't volunteer them, as they don't help us help you.

Finally, please consider the sound advice that profwhat and AV, among others, offer above. They aren't yanking your chain, and they raise some points that you will be well-served to consider. Because, unfortunately, gjc's comment above is simply not on-point. The reality of the practice of law is that it is predicated upon information asymmetries, and it often favors those parties who can afford to leverage these asymmetries to their advantage. Justice, sadly enough, is not something that the court is capable of guaranteeing, being yet another fallible human institution.

You can easily spend six months pursuing these claims. You could plausibly spend six years pursuing these claims. But is that really the highest and best use of your time? If so, then more power to you. But just make absolutely sure that it is.
posted by deejay jaydee at 9:02 AM on August 7, 2008 [10 favorites]

I hate my previous post in this thread.

I wasn't trying to call you a slob, even though it must seem like that was my goal. I was trying to wrap my head around why these things might be happening, because it really seems to be more than just run-of-the-mill people dicking with you.

But that isn't what I posted, and I'm sorry about that. Good luck with all this, if these things are in some kind of tight time frame, I would be losing my mind, personally.
posted by paisley henosis at 7:25 PM on August 7, 2008

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