As a criminal defense lawyer, I field this question, or some variation of it, on a daily basis: “Do I really need a lawyer?” The answer to this question varies drastically over different areas of the law, but in criminal matters the answer is often simple. The general rule of thumb is easy — the more serious the charge, the more certain I am you will need to hire representation to assist you through the process. If you are charged with a felony or DWI, the answer will always be that you need quality representation. The same is true with most misdemeanor crimes that can adversely affect your criminal record. Your criminal record has direct impact on professional and employment opportunities, school admission, getting an apartment, entering the military, getting insurance, and so on.
There are also less serious offenses that muddy the water a bit, but ultimately you will have to make a decision as to your immediate ability to hire quality legal assistance now or run the risk of having to pay substantially more down the road for an attorney to fix any fallout arising from mistakes made during the process of representing yourself. The reality is, it is ultimately cheaper to handle the matter correctly the first time than it is to clean up a mess after-the-fact. Keep in mind that many legal mistakes cannot be corrected. There are instances where no amount of money paid to an army of lawyers can remedy cases that have been mishandled. That becomes a necessary element of the cost-benefit analysis of deciding to hire an attorney: Can you afford *not* to hire an attorney?
As a criminal defense lawyer for 16+ years, I can tell you that most attorneys in this area are happy to field this question honestly and objectively. The consensus among most of the high quality attorneys in the area is that they are happy to answer basic legal questions for you in a brief preliminary conversation if you simply call. I think most criminal defense lawyers would rather field a simple question on the front end that may ultimately assist you in representing yourself on a minor case, rather than have to unload upon you the unfortunate news that your error in representing yourself is something that cannot be remedied or will cost you an exorbitant legal fee to do so. That conversation gets even more difficult when we have to explain the fee for us to handle the matter from the outset would have been a small fraction of the fee it will cost to fix the mistakes made going it alone.
For this reason, if you are pondering representing yourself on any legal matter it’s imperative that you at least reach out to an attorney. There are indeed times when you can use simple, free legal advice to handle a minor criminal or traffic matter on your own successfully. However, there are countless pitfalls out there that we readily hear and can very quickly correct the misinformation you may have received. Here are the most dangerous and common statements presented to us by the misinformed:
1) “My friend told me to get a PJC.”
2) “The police officer told me I can just pay this one off.”
3) “I paid that ticket off because it was in another state and it wouldn’t affect me here.”
4) “My cousin is a lawyer in another state and she told me how to handle it.”
5) “ I just didn’t have the money to talk to a local attorney.”
I will address this in opposite order. First, it costs nothing to pick up the phone and call an attorney. As stated, most of us will listen to your dilemma and your thoughts and either confirm your plan is sound or immediately advise you as to any misinformation you may have received. Keep in mind that misinformation comes from many sources. If you have not engaged a professional in that area of the law in that jurisdiction, any information you receive cannot be relied upon safely. Attorneys from other states, police officers, family members who have taken a criminal justice class in high school or college, or even well-meaning friends, are not obligated to constantly remain diligent about the nuances of North Carolina’s laws and how they might adversely affect you.
Even well meaning police officers and attorneys from other states or even other counties, can inadvertently miss something that will cause you great trouble should you follow their advice. Countless times I have had to charge large legal fees to reopen simple traffic cases wherein my clients relied to their detriment on bad legal advice received from police officers. This is not to say the police officer wasn’t well-intended when offering legal advice (something they should not do), to cited drivers; the reality is police officers are not attorneys and you cannot and should not rely on legal advice from non-attorneys. The same obviously goes for anyone else that wants to offer you advice on your legal problem and is not an attorney. Beware.
As for matters in other states, call an attorney here who will hopefully take a moment to share with you the potential local impact of your case in another jurisdiction. I will always take a minute to help you find quality legal assistance in that county or state. I believe most attorneys will do the same.
Ultimately, we will gladly listen to your situation and help you decide whether hiring an attorney is necessary. I do this for potential clients regularly. Most of us would rather develop a positive, long-term working relationship with you rather than squeezing a small fee from you on a matter you can handle alone. However, it is imperative that you always call an attorney to verify your plan is sound.
I will leave you with two last thoughts on the matter. The first is that when I get a traffic ticket in another county or state, I hire a lawyer. This is because I appreciate the value in having someone close to the area who knows well the best resolution I can receive given the facts of my case. I also am well aware of the potential fallout that can arise from the matter being mishandled by me having little knowledge of the processes and law in other jurisdictions. Lastly, there is a an old proverb that rings true most times:
“A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for his client.”
If you think you want to represent yourself, at least try not to be foolish about it. Call an attorney and make sure you are armed with the proper information to do so.
– James “Jayme” Jackson is a partner at Western Wake Law Group located in Cary, North Carolina. Jayme has 16+ years experience representing clients charged with crimes with a focus on DWIs. He is certified in Standardized Field Sobriety Training by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) and has almost entirely focused his practice on representing criminal defendants charged in the greater Wake County area. To learn more about Jayme and Western Wake Law Group visit their website.