I just got sued. Do I have to hire a lawyer?
Do you really need a lawyer? With a few exceptions discussed below, the question really should be: Is it worth it to hire a lawyer? Navigating the legal system can be time-consuming and confusing. You are almost always better off with a trained guide.
Do You Have a Choice?
If you are an individual, you can appear without a lawyer. But that means you will be forced to navigate the court system on your own, which can be difficult and intimidating. Before you consider that path, you should evaluate how much money is at stake and what the consequences will be of an adverse judgment against you.
If you have been charged with a crime, the government will appoint a lawyer to represent you if you cannot afford to hire one. It is hard to conceive of a situation where you would want to appear without a lawyer in a criminal matter, so the choice is use the appointed lawyer (if you qualify) or hire one.
If the lawsuit is against your company, then the company has to have a lawyer; a non-lawyer cannot represent a business in court in New York even if he or she is the owner.
Evaluating the Cost of Hiring a Lawyer
Lawyers, particularly good, experienced lawyers, are not cheap. And they are particularly expensive in New York City, where we are located. Is it worth all that money to hire a lawyer? And what kind? Is it worth the extra money to hire a firm that specializes in business disputes?
As with all things, it depends. Here are some considerations:
How much is at stake? It makes little sense to spend more on a lawyer than a case is worth, unless you are concerned about setting a bad precedent that will cost you more later. Sometimes the question of setting a bad precedent can be very important. Something new lawyers at our firm used to do was represent a large corporate client in small claims court because the client wanted to enforce particular provisions in its service contracts. Even though we did many things to keep costs low, it almost always cost the client more to have us defend a suit than was at stake in the suit. But it was worth it to the client because it wanted to avoid setting a bad precedent regarding its contracts.
How complicated is the case? Sometimes (but less often than you would expect) business disputes are simple and straightforward and they do not require a firm like ours defend. More often, in our experience, it is false economy to hire a lawyer without the necessary experience to handle a complicated case.
Does the case involve an area involving special skills? Sometimes you need a lawyer with special skills or experience. I do not do matrimonial litigation. If people ask me about such representations, I refer them to lawyers I trust who specialize in matrimonial law. Better to not hire a lawyer who will learn on the job on your case (unless another issue, such as cost, leads you to this conclusion).
Of course, not every case involves specialized skills. For example, we typically do not represent debtors in consumer bankruptcy: that is a niche practice. On the other hand, we routinely represent creditors in bankruptcy proceedings, particularly those involving businesses, because the issues are not that different from those we encounter in regular commercial litigation. Similarly, we do not prosecute patents (that is, prepare applications to the US Patent Office to obtain a patent); that is a specialized practice. However, we litigate intellectual property licensing disputes, because those are, at their essence, contract disputes, a matter with which we have extensive experience.
Deciding whether to hire a lawyer and which lawyer to hire are hard decisions to make. We have extensive experience advising clients on this question, including, when appropriate, referring them to lawyers who can more suitably represent them.