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Beat the high cost of lawyers

When Amy S. wanted to file for a divorce, she couldn't afford the $200 an hour legal fee one family law attorney had quoted her. With the assistance of the self-help center in her local courthouse, she purchased a packet of "Dissolution of Marriage with Dependent Children" forms and decided to represent herself.

"At first it was a very scary idea," says Amy. "Luckily, my husband and I had come to an agreement on most of the issues between us, and neither one of us felt we could afford to hire an attorney."

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"I filled out all the forms with the help of the paralegal at the Self Help Center in the Palm Beach County courthouse. She told me exactly which forms had to be filed first, explained how the process works and went over the papers to be sure everything was filled in correctly.

"I paid the $273.50 filing fee and the $20.37 sheriff's fee to have my husband served with the divorce papers. We went to the court-ordered mediation where we worked out child support and visitation. The mediator wrote up the agreement. I filed that with the court and requested a final hearing."

"I can't say it was easy, I had to do all the legwork, but I am satisfied with the outcome and saved a lot of money in lawyer fees."

Billable hours add up
Amy is not alone. It's expensive to hire a lawyer. The median hourly billing rate for law firm partners is $250 an hour and a little less for associates, $170 an hour, according to the Altman Weil 2003 Survey of Law Firm Economics. Rates vary by region, with the highest hourly rates for partners and associates reported in the Middle Atlantic region.

Many people either can't afford the expense or want to handle some legal issues on their own. Whether it's in family law, small claims, bankruptcy, real estate or a landlord-tenant dispute, there are an increasing number of alternatives to the high cost of hiring a lawyer.

Here's a sampling of alternative services you might try when you are faced with a problem that requires legal assistance.

1. Mediation
2. Self help or self service centers
3. Court sponsored Internet services
4. Unbundled legal services
5. Senior citizen discounts
6. Lawyer referral service
7. Legal hotlines and 'elawyering'
8. Legal Aid Societies
9. Prepaid legal services plan

1. Mediation
Mediation is a voluntary and typically confidential process in which a neutral third-party facilitator helps people discuss difficult issues and negotiate an agreement.

The parties create their own solutions. The mediator has no decision-making power over the outcome.

Increasingly people are being encouraged to try mediation to resolve almost any dispute, says Gregory Firestone, Ph.D., director of the University of South Florida Conflict Resolution Collaborative.

According to the National Center for State Courts, 16 states require some form of mandatory mediation, 16 more have voluntary or discretionary use of mediation in cases involving divorce, child custody, small claims and landlord-tenant disputes.

"Mediation, when successful, is usually far less expensive and takes less time than litigation," says Firestone, who has been a family mediator for more than 20 years.

"The parties can maintain greater control of their lives and make their own decisions. This is especially true in family cases where parties can custom-tailor solutions to meet the needs of their own families.

"In many cases, mediation also serves to reduce the conflict between parties in comparison to litigation," he says.

"Agreements made by the people involved usually work better than those imposed by the courts. And, the mediated agreements are usually confidential, whereas what goes on in a courtroom is typically not," Firestone adds.

Costs: The costs of mediation vary widely, depending on the complexity of the case and the experience and training of the mediator. Mediators come from a variety of professions including law, social work, psychology, ministry and others. Most private mediator fees range between $100 and $300 per hour. Some courts offer mediation services at a reduced cost.

2. Self help or self service centers
A self-help or self-service center is a court-sponsored center designed to help individuals who have decided to represent themselves (pro se) without the assistance of an attorney.

These centers generally offer forms and instructions for filing family court petitions, such as divorce, modification of child support or custody, motions, complaints and responses for eviction and ejectment, as well as offer notary services and referrals to other court services.

In 1992, Maricopa County, Ariz., opened the first self-service center in the nation to assist litigants who were representing themselves, setting the model for other jurisdictions.

"We discovered that there were a significant proportion of people who were representing themselves in our courts," says Judge Rebecca Albrecht, who set up the Maricopa County project.

"It was a problem for the courts because self-represented people didn't understand the procedures and would come to hearings unprepared, expecting that we would guide them through the system, and we expected them to do what lawyers did."

"We wanted to find a way for the system to work for everybody," she says.

-- Posted: July 6, 2004



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