Written by: Daniel Driggs | Best Company Editorial Team
Last Updated: February 24th, 2020
Trying to make sense of law documents and contracts can seem as difficult as learning a complicated foreign language. The fear of mounting legal costs, though, is something we all understand.
Fortunately, you have alternatives to using a law firm to address your legal needs. You can access legal documents and get answers and advice on legal questions without paying exorbitant lawyers’ fees by using a do-it-yourself approach or using an online service. In complex legal situations, however, using a lawyer may be the wisest course of action.
This guide will help you decide when you can be your own lawyer, when you can use an online legal service, and when you should call a lawyer.
Wills or trusts
Preparing a will or living trust is an important task that most people want to avoid thinking about. However, having a will or trust that is up to date and done correctly is a gift to your loved ones. It offers them clarity and can prevent arguments and rifts that can last for decades.
Do-it-yourself: Creating a will and trust yourself is a simple way to save money. You can read information online about how to create a will or trust or use free online templates. The only drawback is that, like all information on the internet, the quality of the templates varies widely.
Online legal services: Thousands of individuals have used online legal services to create effective wills or trusts. These inexpensive and helpful online platforms have hundreds of templates, examples, and ideas.
View the Best Online Legal Services for Wills and Trusts
Attorney: Estate planning attorneys can give great advice, prevent mistakes, keep documents safe, and act as witnesses. But if you’re planning on only creating a will and understand the risks, it is hundreds of dollars cheaper to using an online legal service or do-it-yourself.
People often try to settle car accidents or other personal injuries with insurance agents. If you are unhappy with the agent’s offer, or you feel like you were wronged, you can explore other options.
Do-it-yourself: Although handling the case yourself is possible, it is not recommended unless the incident is minor. If you have a minor slip and fall case at a major store and want to sue, often big chain lawyers will not want to waste resources fighting and will quickly settle to keep both parties happy. But if you are not happy with what they offer you, speaking to a lawyer is the best option.
Online legal services: Online legal services are unavailable to help in this matter.
Attorney: Almost all people use an attorney in this situation. Most attorneys will not charge a cent unless you win, and they will work hard to settle the case quickly. They also have access to needed resources to fight. Often insurance companies will try to drag out cases if they feel that the individual paying doesn't have the resources to sustain a long case.
View the Best Personal Injury Law Firms
Criminal cases can be overwhelming because you’re fighting multiple fights simultaneously. You’re fighting to be found not guilty, but you’re also fighting for a lighter sentence if found guilty.
Do-it-yourself: This option is not used very often, but in the following circumstances, it may be better to represent yourself:
- If you plead guilty and the sentence to your crime is fixed
- If you believe that your punishment is not severe enough to justify the expense of an attorney
- If you feel like your lawyer is not on your side and that you can do better without one
If you find yourself in one of these situations, representing yourself could have benefits. But in most cases, it would be better to use an attorney.
Online legal services: Although online legal services are not as useful in most cases, the access to an attorney feature that some of these companies offer can be useful in getting direction about how to better represent yourself.
Attorney: An attorney is the safest option for these cases. Criminal cases can be messy, and people who understand the law can protect you. They can shorten your jail sentence, lower the fees owed, and in the best case, help you completely go free. The odds of you winning increase dramatically with the help of an attorney, and the rates are usually lower in this type of law.
Small claims court
Small claims court cases consist of any settlement below $10,000. These cases usually last between 5-10 minutes and will be decided by a judge.
Do-it-yourself: The small claims court fee depends on the settlement and state. Your fee will generally be anywhere from $30-$100 dollars. Falen Cox and Joseph Hoelscher, both high performing attorneys, provide the following advice for winning small court cases:
- Do internet research. See if the law allows a person to be sued for the act or omission at issue. Not all bad behaviors are subject to a lawsuit. If you're the plaintiff, you'll want to know this before you spend money. If you're a defendant, you’ll want to include that in your answer to the lawsuit.
- Find the right forms. Most small claims courts will provide forms for issues they see regularly. Ask the clerks and check the website. If you use the court's paperwork, you're less likely to have a problem because of a technical deficiency.
- Include ALL of your claims in the paperwork. Say a contractor sues you for not paying your bill, but he damaged your property. If you don't counter sue for the damaged property, you might lose that claim and be prevented from even talking about it.
- Bring lots of evidence. You need copies of contracts or leases. Print out account statements to show payments. Take lots of pictures and don't forget older pictures to show before and after whatever happened. Print text messages, emails, etc. and put video or audio recordings onto something you can leave with the court, like a DVD. Make copies for the other guy, the judge, and yourself.
- Be respectful of the judge. Refer to him or her as "Your Honor" and say "Yes/No Sir/Ma'am" where appropriate.
Online legal services: These services can help you create documents or gain access to documents needed to help you win.
Attorney: Not only would it be pointless using a lawyer in most of these situations, but in some states, it is not legal to bring your attorney unless both parties agree to use an attorney.
Some individuals with disabilities or issues associated with aging are eligible to receive compensation. In some cases, the government has not paid these individuals what they are rightfully owed.
Some of the disabilities that can receive government aid include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Musculoskeletal problems
- Cardiovascular conditions
- Senses and speech issues
- Respiratory illnesses
- Neurological disorders
- Mental disorders
- Immune system disorders
- Sjogren’s syndrome
- Marfan syndrome
- Skin disorders
- Digestive tract problems
- Kidney disease
- Genitourinary issues
- Hematological disorders, hemolytic anemias, and disorders of bone marrow failure
Trying to receive compensation is tricky, but you can use different tactics to fight it yourself, use an online legal service, or hire a lawyer.
Do-it-yourself: Fighting this case for yourself is not recommended unless you have a lot of experience in court. These cases can be difficult because it is against the government, but the downside of using a lawyer is that you lose 25 percent of your backend. If you choose to go this route, do your research and prepare diligently. But just know, using a lawyer has the potential to get you more money for your case.
Online legal services: Online legal services often have access to lawyers who can give you legal advice about your specific case.
Attorney: The largest benefit to going through a law firm for disability cases is that most lawyers only charge you if you win. On top of this, the maximum fee a disability lawyer can charge is 25 percent and only up to $6,000 off the final backend. They also are known to get you more money for your case.
Disability lawyer Michael Liner recommends, “I don’t even believe lawyers who don’t specialize in these case are best to handle disability cases because they are so complex and unique — it is its own area of law altogether — so I can’t see how an individual applicant could equip themselves beyond maybe filing their initial application to handle the process after a common denial.”
And Lisa Witt, an experienced criminal defense attorney, emphasized another key benefit of using an attorney: “[If you] lose the first application battle, there will need to be an appeal. These appeals have deadlines and requirements that a law firm will know how to address.”
Patents and trademarks
Patents and trademarks are important for the structure of a company, but creating them can be extremely complex and confusing for the average person. Many people choose to save money by doing it themselves rather than pay thousands to a patent attorney, but is that the best option?
Do-it-yourself: Doing it yourself without using an online legal service is extremely difficult. Some law schools or colleges will allow public access to students to help you create a patent. The dean or a professor will then quickly review them and sign them off. Some schools offer this service for free to individuals. Unless you have practice writing patents or have access to someone who does, try one of the other options.
Online legal services: These services can help create a good patent and trademark without breaking the bank. These companies often have lawyers who can help you create intellectual property and give you direction to create these patents or trademarks paying only $39 a month instead of over $300 an hour to speak to an attorney.
Liza Ann Esqueda, a licensed attorney and owner of Northville Wills and Trusts, explains, “Registering a trademark can be a complicated and lengthy process which takes anywhere from 6-18 months on average. A zealous person can absolutely take on the task if they are trying to save some money. However, without extensive research, or advice from a trademark attorney, it will be an overwhelming process for a layman to take on.
Attorney: Patent attorneys are paid an average of $300. These prices are high but can be worth it if you have a complex idea or software.
Dr. Michael Ahmadshahi, a practicing attorney, says “When the invention is complex and requires knowledge of multi-disciplinary art, such as mechanical and electrical engineering art... A skilled patent attorney or patent agent has the requisite skill and knowledge to draft the claims so as to ensure that the patent is valid in light of the existing technology and to make it difficult for competitors to design around the patent.”
Non-profit, LLC, C-Corp, or S-Corp
Creating a corporation has never been easier. In some cases, people may want to use a lawyer, but most people should feel comfortable doing it themselves or using an online legal service.
Do-it-yourself: This is a great option for creating a non-profit, LLC, C-Corp, or S-Corp if you know what you are doing. If this is your first business, try using the help of an online legal service or an attorney.
Attorney James J. Hsui cautions, “A common mistake when founders go the DIY route or use an online service is that they believe forming a nonprofit corporation at the state level is equivalent to forming a 501(c)(3) organization, only to realize years after, when penalties have accrued, that the organization is not actually tax-exempt…”
He further warns, “Another common mistake 501(c)(3) founders make, which can carry even criminal penalties, is not registering with the state charities regulator to conduct activities and raise funds within states that need that kind of registration.”
Online legal services: Creating a business can be incredibly expensive, but many online legal advice companies have templates and documents and can give advice on how to create these companies legally.
Tanya Hobson-Williams, Principal of Hobson-Williams, P.C., adds, “Forming a corporation is one of the few times I would recommend downloading a form or DIY. That’s because the language used in creating a corporation is pretty standard.”
Attorney: Lawyers can be really expensive, and large companies often choose to use them, but creating a business has never been easier than right now.
Changing your name is so simple that a little time and a few dollars can get the job done.
Do-it-yourself: You can easily find the documents and directions for changing your name online.
Online legal services: If you want to make sure you do this right or lack the confidence to find all the documents, try using an online legal service.
Attorney: Name changes rarely require the services of an attorney. But according to Steven Fernandez, a certified Family Law Specialist, ”There are times when it is necessary to involve a lawyer. This is particularly true when one parent wants to change their child's last name after a divorce. Courts will be hesitant to approve the name change unless doing so is in the child's best interest.” In this case, using your family law attorney is best.
Divorce and family law
This is one of the messiest types of law, so unless you and your spouse can figure all of the issues out yourself, don’t do this step yourself. If the case is uncontested or doesn’t involve children, it may be cheaper to use an online legal service.
Do-it-yourself: If you choose to do this step yourself, you may need to go to the courthouse for needed documents. A divorce in which both people agree on the terms is called an uncontested divorce. According to Hossein Berenji, a divorce lawyer, the cost of an uncontested divorce without an attorney can be as little as a few hundred dollars.
Deanna Kloostra, a divorce coach, is an advocate for doing it yourself, even if it is messy. She created a website to help individuals fight these cases themselves.
Online legal services: If you need documents to quickly get divorced, these services are a great tool. You can access every document needed to finalize a divorce without paying the steep lawyer fee.
Attorney: Attorneys are great when things get messy. Your lawyer will have your back and make sure that you get custody issues resolved, paperwork done, child support in place, resources split, etc... In most cases, divorce and family law is done best with mediators.
Foreclosure and real estate law
Getting renters and signing leases sounds simple, but if done wrong can create big issues. Foreclosure law is also incredibly confusing and difficult to fight.
Do-it-yourself: A large part of real estate law is getting the right documents. If you have a background creating documents, or have found a free template online that has the credentials needed for generating a lease, then doing it yourself is not a bad option. If you are fighting a foreclosure case, then doing it yourself may not be the best option.
Online legal services: If you’re looking for simple documents to use to rent your basement, online legal services are very effective. The documents and licenses you will need to have a tenant sign a lease, do a background check, or sign a contract to have someone rent your home can all be found online with an online legal service.
If you are wondering whether you should fight a foreclosure case by yourself or with an online legal service, the simple answer is to consult a lawyer.
Attorney: Fighting to keep your home can be a difficult process. Consult with an attorney on how to best succeed in your case. These lawyers are much cheaper than the cost of losing your home.
Patricia Campbell, Chief Legal Manager of ProBono, advises, “A qualified foreclosure attorney would be able to review the original loan documents and disclosures to determine if there are any merits to contesting the underlying mortgage. Additionally, a qualified attorney would know how to navigate the short sale or loan modification process to determine if there is an opportunity for the borrower to retain the property with a reduced mortgage payment.”
Joseph Hoelscher, managing attorney at Hoelscher Gebbia Cepeda PLLC, explains, “Foreclosure law is heavily influenced by the banking industry and is not favorable to the consumer. Technical defects can ruin a case. Get an expert who makes sure you don't make technical mistakes and who will catch the mortgage lender or HOA when they do.
Immigration, green card, or work visa
Immigration is the most controversial topic in both politics and the law. According to Vishal Ghadia, a paralegal and owner of Immigration Paralegals.us, “[An] application for a Work Visa and Green Card through employment is required by law to be paid by the Employer. Also, it is not a single form process. It is a multi-part process that requires a lot of background work like Degree Evaluations, Equivalent Work Experience, Labor Condition Application (LCA), and much more.”
Do-it-yourself: Saving a few extra bucks to do it yourself would not be worth it. Immigration situations are serious, and paying the extra money to hire an attorney is important.
Online legal services: Online services can help with immigration or green cards, but getting a lawyer is almost always the best option.
Matthew Asir, CEO of The Legal Bullet, says “There are some services which use a “turbotax for law” or an “Uber for law” model and that way they’re able to offer low-cost legal services. However, immigration law is way too complex for such a basic model, especially right now when immigration law is under more scrutiny than ever under an administration concerned about border security and protecting American jobs.”
Asir advises using a service like his that not only has the documents and is cost-effective but also has access to lawyers who understand the complexities of immigration.
Attorney: Attorneys are your safest bet in this situation. Most people who immigrate do not have a lot of money and compared to other attorneys; immigration attorneys are relatively cheap.
Dr. Christopher W. Smithmyer, Executive Consultant at Brav Online Conflict Management, cautions, “The United States legal system is the most complicated legal apparatus in the world. With the political war going on about the immigration system, you will be navigating a minefield alone if you do not have an attorney to talk you through it.”
Although it is more expensive, using an attorney can ensure you get a green card or work visa. Safety and peace of mind is more important than trying to fight this yourself.
The tax season is among the most intense times for tax lawyers, accountants, and business owners. Simple mistakes can cost individuals thousands of dollars, while larger mistakes can cause legal issues with the IRS. Representing yourself or using an online legal service may not be the best option for fighting these cases.
Do-it-yourself: If you choose not to use a lawyer, make sure you have proof you haven’t broken the law. Dr. Smithmyer advises DIYers to keep evidence in case issues arise: “If you want to do your own taxes, use TurboTax or some other free online service… Make sure to use one with a guarantee; this will let you have someone in your court if there is a failure.”
Although fighting a tax issue yourself is risky, it is still possible if you have substantial records.
Online legal services: Online legal services do not provide a clear solution to this issue and would most likely refer you to an attorney.
Attorney: Tax relief companies are law firms that help individual with tax-related issues. These law firms are helpful for people fighting the IRS and ensure that they are correctly represented. Donald E. Peterson, a Florida trial attorney states, “If it's a dispute with the IRS or a matter requiring knowledge of the tax code, hire a tax attorney, experienced CPA, or enrolled agent to assist you.”
Dr. Smithmyer adds, “Tax law, like disability, is guarded by teams of lawyers who do it for a living. This means if you try to do it alone, you are going up against a giant machine designed to take your money. While it may cost more, use a lawyer to help yourself out.”
To make sure you are prepared to win your court case, use a tax relief company designed to get the best result for your situation.
View the Best Tax Relief Lawyers and Companies