By: Peter J. Lamont, Esq. - New Jersey Business Attorney & Host of UTLRadio.com
Today I want to talk about something that has come up recently. A number of phone calls have come in and it's been from pro se litigants, people that are representing themselves in a lawsuit. One of the questions that has been very popular is, is it possible to handle a portion of my lawsuit by myself and then try to get an attorney to come in and maybe appear at a court conference or help me with settlement negotiations? Is that something that can be done?
When you're representing yourself there are certain things that you find easier than others. One of the things that I always think is more difficult for a pro se litigant to do is to appear in court or to negotiate a settlement on their own behalf. It's particularly difficult to negotiate your own settlement because there's really no buffer. If the other side is saying to you, "Will you take this?" you can't go back and say, "Hold on, let me talk to my client." I guess you can but you'd probably have multiple personality disorder. That's not going to work. Having an attorney help you negotiate a settlement, that's really beneficial.
To answer the question, is it something that you can do? Can you bring an attorney in later on in the case to help you with particular sections of the case or tasks? The answer is yes, but let me make you aware of one thing. When an attorney comes into a case they have to submit papers to the court to let the court know that they're going to be formally or officially representing you. In doing so they become attorney of record for that case. Basically what that means is now they're obligated to handle your case, your matter, in a professional manner, in a way that an attorney should represent a client. They can't just show up for a negotiation or show up in court and then say, "I'm done," without a formal understanding between you and them of what the expectations and limitations are.
When you're going to retain an attorney for a limited-scope task you have to make sure that you're very clear with the attorney. You have to say to him or her, "I want to hire you to do this." That way they can give you a limited retainer and they can explain to you, "Here's what's going to happen. My representation of you will terminate at this point." If they become attorney of record in a case you might have to substitute them as council back to yourself and that's something that you're going to have to work out with the attorney before you or they agree to help you with your case.
Another thing that people often overlook is the idea of ghosting, a lawyer who might help you write or review legal documents on the back end, where they're not necessarily attorney of record. They're just helping you with some of your demands and maybe your complaint, maybe a motion. Maybe they're helping you with some research, but your name goes on the paper. They're not formally representing you in court. That's something else that can be done.
I think it's a good question and it's good knowledge to have because a lot of times I think a pro se litigant says, "I tried to get a lawyer at the beginning of the case. They were too expensive. They weren't interested in my case," and then they give up. They say, "I couldn't get one for the beginning of the case. Why would somebody come in now?" I just want to let you know that hiring a lawyer later on in the case to help you with particulars in that case is something that you can do. You just have to find the right attorney.
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