Take Your Head Out of the Sand

Ms. Faye Riva Cohen
May 9, 2013 — 893 views  

I have been driven to distraction this week talking to some potential clients about their issues, especially those who have been sued, and need to mount a defense in a certain period of time. I don’t think any professionals have to face the recurrent issue of people who think they can be their own lawyers in a complicated legal matter. People who wouldn’t dream of performing surgery on themselves, designing a house, preparing a complicated tax return, etc., think nothing of determining that they don’t need a lawyer to represent them, or convincing themselves that they can’t afford a lawyer.  They think that when they are involved in a lawsuit the court system will be protective of their interests, and warm and cuddly to them. What usually happens is that they decide, after they have botched up a case beyond repair, or they have even lost the case, they should now seek a lawyer. At that point in time it will be difficult, if not impossible to find a lawyer, it may be impossible for a lawyer to assist, and if they do find a lawyer, the charges will often be considerably more than they would have had to pay initially.

Here are two examples involving real estate:

1)      A lady called me because she wanted to transfer her deceased mother’s house to her and her sister. She was referred to me by a service that she receives through her work, giving her a discount toward fees. She concluded that call by saying that she couldn’t afford a lawyer, so she was returning to get free legal services for a second time. First of all, she isn’t entitled to free legal services unless she is earning a very low amount, so she may not have been truthful the first time she sought the services. Second, the advice she received from the free legal services was minimal and directed her to the courthouse, where she received incomplete information from clerks, not lawyers. At this point in time she has not advertised the estate, she has not received a real estate appraisal, she has not secured a lien and judgment search, and who knows what else. Also, even if she gets a non-lawyer to draft a deed for her, the considerations of what happens if she or her sister die, leaving the other as partners with surviving spouse and children, will likely not be considered. Did I want to pull my hair out after speaking with her? Yes I did. Did she heed my advice that if she did not take the time and pay for having things done correctly now, the expense of what certainly will be a disaster in the making in the future, will be many times what she pays for a lawyer. No.

2)      A lady called me because years ago she had a real estate agent (not a lawyer-- who needs lawyers?) draft a deed which made her and some friends co-owners of a property which had a house and a carriage house on it. The carriage house people were to try and have the property rezoned and divided, which they never did. Now, many years later, the carriage house people are moving to another house and have filed an action in court, called partition, asking the judge to divide the property. The lady who called me was spending her time trying to get an equity loan for the property so that she could pay these people off in an amount she thinks they would take. She blew me off when I told her that she could not get a loan as a lawsuit was in progress involving the property. She said she had to decide what to do and then called me back to state that she couldn’t afford a lawyer, unless I wanted to take the case on a contingency fee or percentage basis. A percentage of what? She thinks the property is worth half a million dollars, and she is at risk of having to move, and losing quite a bit of money if there is a dispute on the value of the property. She thinks she is going to waltz into court and tell the judge what she wants to do when the other party has a lawyer, and a judge will agree with her. No way!

So please, people, the legal system is often terribly complicated, and should be practiced by lawyers. Do not try and navigate the legal system on your own, especially if you have already been sued as a defendant.

Ms. Faye Riva Cohen

Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen, P.C.

I am Faye Riva Cohen, Esquire and am a Philadelphia attorney who has been practicing law since 1974. I am the president and managing attorney of both the Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen, P.C. and Legal Research, Inc.