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Beat the high cost of lawyers -- Page 2

For the cost of the copying, self-represented people can obtain all the necessary paperwork to file with the court in a particular case. If someone comes into the self-service center and wants to file a petition for divorce, there's a series of documents that they can look at to see which ones best fit their needs, says Albrecht.

"The people who make use of the self-service center run the gamut from very low income to middle-plus income, with education from elementary school through college," she says. "The service is for everybody. We even have lawyers come in to check documents to be sure even they are providing the judges with everything they need to go forward in a case."

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Self-help centers are available in most jurisdictions and the trend is picking up momentum as many counties and states seek to meet the needs of the self-represented.

Check with your local courthouse to find out if there's a self-help center in your area.

Costs: Fees are usually nominal and represent the cost to the centers of photocopying forms. Prices for forms and instructions range from $1 to $10.

3. Court sponsored Internet services
"Many courts have developed Web sites and are increasingly tailoring assistance to pro se litigants through Internet technology," says Madelynn Herman, a knowledge management analyst with the National Center for State Courts.

People can download forms and instructions, as well as computer programs designed to help them fill out the forms. Many court systems offer online access to court records, e-filing systems that are designated for the self-represented litigant, and even videos to orient pro se litigants to the court process or how to fill out forms.

These services are generally free of charge.

4. Unbundled legal services
"Unbundled is when the lawyer and the client examine the different elements of legal services and 'partner' to perform the services," explains Will Hornsby, staff counsel for the American Bar Association's division for legal services.

Consider all the tasks that a lawyer performs as part of representation. They include counseling, drafting or document preparation, investigation/discovery, negotiations and advocacy/litigation. Instead of providing most, if not all, of these tasks, the lawyer who unbundles services may provide only some of these tasks leaving the rest of the work to the client.

"The client will do some work and the lawyer will do some work. The overall cost to the individual would be lower than full representation," adds Hornsby.

Lawyers may be retained for advice, to review documents or to discuss strategy and have the client go to court on his or her own. The lawyer might go to court for a limited purpose such as obtaining a restraining order, leaving the client to represent herself in a divorce.

"A good example of unbundled services is in the creation of a small business. An individual will go to a lawyer and get a checklist of tasks that need to be done. The client will decide with the lawyer who will do what. Maybe the client will fill out all the forms and the lawyer will review and correct them or the client will do the filing and the footwork.

"With unbundling, the client is more involved in the process and empowered to make decisions about his or her outcome and consequences," says Hornsby.

There is no specific place to go to find a list of attorneys who are willing to share a legal job and reduce expenses through unbundling. Ask the attorney before contracting for their service.

5. Senior-citizen discounts
President Johnson signed a bill in 1965 creating the Older Americans Act.

In 1992, Title VII was added to "protect and enhance the basic rights and benefits of older people," recognizing that many of the legal needs of the older population were going unmet.

Federal money was provided to local legal services organizations to provide legal assistance to those over citizens over 60 without regard to their ability to pay.

One such program in Palm Beach County, Fla., is the Elder Law Project that is run by the county's Legal Aid Society.

"Last year we served over 1,500 over-60 citizens of our county," says Bonnie Cohen, senior paralegal of the project. "Many clients were counseled through our elder hotline, others were provided advocacy and litigation was pursued on their behalf."

Typically, the Elder Law Project will handle some divorce cases (where there aren't too many assets), custody cases, adoptions, emergency guardianships, Social Security and Medicare, HMO and insurance, advance directives such as durable powers of attorney and the appointment of health care surrogates, says Cohen.

Representation is free of charge. To find an elder law program near you, contact your local Legal Aid or Legal Service organization or go to the government's Agency on Aging.

-- Posted: July 6, 2004



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