Lawyers and Legal Help FAQs

Lawyers & Legal Help - Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How do I complain about a lawyer?

A: The State Bar of California is in charge of complaints against lawyers and lawyer discipline.  The Attorney Discipline System takes complaints against lawyers from citizens and other sources, investigates those complaints, and prosecutes lawyers when allegations of unethical conduct by them appear to be justified. The website gives you more instructions on filing a complaint, complaint forms, and other information. You can also call:

1-800-843-9053 — Attorney Complaint Hotline
1-213-765-1200 (Calling from outside California)

The State Bar pamphlet What Can I Do If I Have a Problem With My Lawyer? has a lot more information about what to do if you are having problems with your lawyer.

Q: Where can I go on the Web to get help with a legal problem in another state?

A: Visit any of these sites to get help with a legal problem in another state, or contact the state bar in that state.

American Bar Association Consumer's Guide to Legal Help
This website can help you find information and free and low-cost legal help in many states.

LawHelp.org
This website can help you find legal help and resources in each state in the United States.

National Center for State Courts Pro Se Useful Court-Related Links
This website provides useful court-related links to self-help resources.

Q: How do I find out background on a lawyer in California?

A: The California State Bar website provides information on California lawyers and will tell you if a member has been disciplined or disbarred for misconduct. You can also find out where the lawyer went to school and when he or she was admitted to practice in this state.

There are other lawyer directories that you can find at your local law library and most public libraries.

Q: Can I fire my lawyer?

A: Yes, you have the right to fire your lawyer at any time. But, he or she usually will have the right to payment for any past work done for you.

Also, you have the right to change lawyers at any time but if you wait until you are close to trial, consider whether this would be good for you and your case. You may not be able to find another lawyer at such a late stage.  And a change can delay your case. 

And remember that representing yourself in a complicated case could hurt your case.

Q: What do I do when I fire my lawyer?

A: You have to fill out a Substitution of Attorney-Civil (Form MC-050). This form is required whenever someone changes who is acting as his or her attorney. If a lawyer is representing you, and you now want to represent yourself (or you want to change to a different lawyer), you need to complete this form. The Substitution of Attorney — Civil will remove one person as the attorney in the case and replace that person with someone else (you or your new lawyer if you have one).

If you are acting as your own attorney and then hire a lawyer, you will also need to fill out this form.

Follow these steps:

  1. Fill out the Substitution of Attorney-Civil (Form MC-050). Sign this form and have the lawyer that you are firing AND the new lawyer you are hiring sign it too. Then, make a copy for each side in the case, including yourself.
  2. Have someone 18 or older, NOT you, mail the other parties a copy of the Substitution of Attorney-Civil.  Make sure the person who does this for you, the “server,” does NOT mail the original. The original is for the court.
  3. Have the server fill out and sign the second page of the Substitution of Attorney-Civil (Form MC-050). This is the Proof of Service, telling the court you served all the other parties with the Substitution of Attorney. Make sure the server writes the names and addresses of all parties involved in the case.
  4. File the ORIGINAL of Form MC-050 (with the Proof of Service on page 2 filled out and signed) with the court. Take your copy to th curthoue as well and make sure it is stamped “Filed.”

Keep in mind that once you file a Substitution of Attorney telling the court that you no longer have a lawyer, you are representing yourself (unless you have a new lawyer that you have named on the form). The lawyer you had is no longer representing you and does not have a duty to help you with your case any longer.

You can hire a new lawyer later, or the same lawyer again, but that would require a new agreement with the lawyer, and you (or your new lawyer) will have to file a new Substitution of Attorney letting the court know you are represented again.

If you are changing lawyers, substituting out your lawyer for a new one, your new lawyer will most likely fill out and file the Substitution of Attorney form with the court.

Q: What should I know about getting legal help from a paralegal?

A: Paralegals, or legal document assistants, are a good resource for preparing the many forms needed in a family law case and other types of cases. BUT they have not been to law school. They are not qualified to give you legal advice and, by law, are not allowed to give you legal advice. They can only do what you tell them to do. They are not trained to spot potential problems. Click for information about how to find a legal document assistant in your community.

Q: What should I know about buying a prepaid legal services plan?

A: Prepaid legal services plans work in a variety of ways. Depending upon the plan, features may include some of the following:

  • Discounts on legal services through a network of attorneys;
  • Free legal services, such as the preparation of a property deed or simple will; and
  • Access to a database of legal forms and documents.

When you consider a plan, pay careful attention to what the plan does and does not cover. If you do not anticipate having legal needs in the coming year that will be covered by the plan, you should think carefully before purchasing a plan. Similarly, if you think that you might take advantage of a service under the plan, such as the preparation of a simple will, be aware that lawyers who accept the plan will likely try to sell you an upgraded service. In some cases, it will make sense to obtain the upgraded service, but there may not be any cost savings as a result of plan membership.

Also, if you find that you do not like the lawyer available through your plan, you may find that you are unable to change lawyers through the plan, or that there are no other lawyers in the area who participate in the plan. You may wish to inquire about the identities of local lawyers who accept a specific plan before making the decision to purchase the plan.

If you are purchasing a plan through an independent representative, instead of directly from the corporation that sponsors the plan (or through a group such as your employer, union, or credit union), you should pay special attention to the written language of the plan and compare this to any promises made by the representative. Plans that sell through multilevel marketing may refuse to take responsibility for any false promises made by an independent representative, who may well be primarily motivated by earning a commission rather than serving your best interests.

You may be eligible for a prepaid legal services plan through your employer, your union, or your credit union. If not, you may wish to look at plans endorsed by or sponsored by a reputable organization, such as the American Bar Association’s American Prepaid Legal Services Institute's listing of legal service plans. Your regional Better Business Bureau may also be able to provide you with consumer information about particular plans.

Help From Your Court - Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Will the family law facilitator, small claims legal advisor, or self-help center in my county help me with a case in another county?

A: Family law facilitators can help you with cases in other counties. But often they have to refer you to the facilitator in the other county because that facilitator will know more about how that local court works.

The same is usually true of the small claims legal advisor and the self-help center, but because these services vary so much from county to county, you may be better off going to the county were your case is.

Find the contact information for your court’s self-help programs.

Q: Can I get help from a court self-help program if I do not speak English well?

A: Ask for an interpreter. If your court's self-help services do not have an interpreter who can help you, bring someone to interpret for you. Do not use a child to interpret for you.

Q: What if I am disabled and can not travel to the courthouse to get help from a court self-help program?

A: You may e-mail, write, or telephone the program you need help from, like the family law facilitator, the small claims legal advisor, or the self-help center. This may take more time than going to the office for help. To help you, these programs may need copies of documents and other information from your case file, so be prepared for the process to take longer.

Find court resources to find the contact information for your court’s self-help programs.

Family Law Facilitators - Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How can I find the family law facilitator in my county?

A: Click to find the family law facilitator in your county.

Q: What is a family law facilitator?

A:  A family law facilitator is a lawyer with experience in family law who works for the superior court in your county to help parents and children involved in family law cases with child, spousal, and partner support problems.

Q: What does a family law facilitator do?

A: The family law facilitator gives you educational materials that explain how to:

  • Establish parentage; and
  • Get, change, or enforce child, spousal, or partner support orders.

The family law facilitator can also:

  • Give you the court forms you need;
  • Help you fill out your forms;
  • Help you figure out support amounts; and
  • Refer you to your local child support agency, family court services, and other community agencies that help parents and children.

The family law facilitator in your county may be able to help you in other ways, too. Contact your local family law facilitator to learn more.

Q: Is the family law facilitator my lawyer?

A:  The family law facilitator (or any court self-help attorney) is not your lawyer. He or she is an independent lawyer who can help parents or children who do not have their own lawyer. The family law facilitator helps you represent yourself in your case.

Both parties can get help from the same family law facilitator. Remember: You do not have attorney-client privilege. What you say to the family law facilitator is not confidential.

Q: Am I eligible to see the family law facilitator?

A: Anyone who does not have his or her own lawyer can see the family law facilitator. It does not matter how much money you make.

Q: What information do I need to show the family law facilitator?

A:  If possible, call your family law facilitator and ask what papers you should bring.

Be sure to take this information:

  • Your court case number(s), and
  • A copy of any orders or judgment in your case(s).

If you do not have your court documents, ask the court clerk for copies. They will charge you a copying fee (about 50 cents per page). The court clerk can also give you the court case number.

If you want help with child support, spousal support, partner support, or court fees, take:

  • Your pay stubs for the last 2 months (or bank statements showing direct deposit of your paycheck),
  • Proof of unemployment benefits,
  • Proof of income and expenses from self-employment, and
  • A copy of your most recent federal and state tax returns.

Q: Can I talk to the family law facilitator on the phone?

A:  Family law facilitators usually work in person with groups of people or in walk-in clinics. They need to see your case file and will probably have you read and sign a disclosure form before they can talk to you.

Click to see the disclosure form in Spanish.
Click to see the disclosure form in Chinese.
Click to see the disclosure form in Korean.
Click to see the disclosure form in Vietnamese.

But some family law facilitator's offices do provide help on the phone and have call-in hours where you can be helped by a live person. Contact your family law facilitator to find out what types of services they offer.

Q: Will the family law facilitator in my county help me with a case in another county?

A: Family law facilitators can help you with cases in other counties. But often they have to refer you to the facilitator in the other county because that facilitator will know more about how that court works.

Q: What if I am disabled and can't travel to my family law facilitator's office?

A:  You may try to write or telephone the family law facilitator. This may take more time than going to the facilitator's office for help. The family law facilitator may need copies of documents and other information from your case file.

Q: What if I am in jail or prison and can't travel to a family law facilitator's office?
Q: What if I don't speak English?

A:  Ask for an interpreter. If your family law facilitator does not have an interpreter who can help you, bring someone to interpret for you. Do not use a child to interpret for you.

To be prepared for how the family law facilitator can help you, read the disclosure form.

Click to see the disclosure form in Spanish.
Click to see the disclosure form in Chinese.
Click to see the disclosure form in Korean.
Click to see the disclosure form in Vietnamese.

Finding a Lawyer - Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Do I need a lawyer?

A: It depends on your case. It is always a good idea to at least talk to a lawyer about your case. Some cases are simple enough that you may be able to handle your particular case without a lawyer as long as you do your homework, get help when needed, and are good at following rules and procedures.

But there are many cases that are very complicated and, without a lawyer, you could hurt or even lose your case, no matter how strong it is and how right you think you are.

Q: Are there any cases that require that I have a lawyer?

A: Yes. A party in a lawsuit must generally be represented by a lawyer when the case is outside small claims court AND that party:

  • Is a corporation, a limited liability company, or an unincorporated association;
  • Is a trustee, a probate fiduciary, a personal representative, or a guardian ad litem; or
  • Is some other type of fiduciary like a conservator or guardian in certain situations.

Get legal advice if you think you may be in one of these situations to find out for sure whether you can represent yourself or must be represented by a lawyer.

Q: Why do I need a lawyer for a malpractice case?

A: If you are suing for medical malpractice or some other type of professional negligence, the law says you need to prove that the doctor or other professional breached (broke) the duty of care owed to you and that you suffered damages as a direct and proximate cause of the breach. These legal requirements are very hard to prove, and you will need expert witnesses to do it.
 
Expert witness fees are very expensive. They can often cost several thousand dollars per day. The expert witness fees must be paid for consulting, which includes reviewing records, examining a patient, and discussing findings with the lawyer, as well as for depositions and for trial. Lawyers who represent plaintiffs on a contingency basis (meaning the lawyer only gets paid if you win) usually hire the experts for the case. Without a lawyer to advance these costs, you may find yourself unable to afford the experts you need to prove your case.

 

In addition, to be able to use an expert witness, you must establish that the witness has the necessary educational background and training, professional experience, and sufficient familiarity with the facts and evidence in the case to qualify as an “expert.” Trained and experienced lawyers are needed to establish the foundation to have the court declare a witness an “expert.”

Q: Why do I need a lawyer in a construction defect case?

A: Construction defect cases often depend on expert witnesses to prove or disprove the allegations of the complaint. This may not be true of a small case in which the property owner hired a handyman or contractor to perform a single job on the property and 1 person performed all the work. For example, if you hired a roofing contractor to install a new roof, and the new roof leaked, you may be able to sue the roofing contractor without a lawyer or expert witnesses because you may be able to prove on your own that (1) you hired the contractor to install a new roof, (2) you paid the contractor, (3) the roof leaked, and (4) the leaks caused damage.
 
But if you had several people working on your house (like an architect, a structural engineer, and a general contractor who, in turn, hired subcontractors and purchased supplies from different suppliers), proving who is at fault when something goes wrong becomes very difficult, and you would probably need an expert witnesses to determine fault and explain it to the court.
 
Also, construction experts are expensive, especially if you need many experts in different specialties. Expert costs for these types of cases can run in the tens of thousands of dollars. Some lawyers will take construction defect cases on a contingency basis, but most charge by the hour. You may be able to hire a lawyer on a limited-scope basis, to help you with certain parts of the case, while you handle other parts on your own.

For information on limited-scope lawyers, read the section on limited-scope representation.

Q: Why do I need a lawyer in a case involving competing title to real estate?

A: Real estate cases that allege someone committed fraud, like cases in which there is competing title to real property, are usually too complicated for a person without a lot of legal training and experience. Also, even if you win, if you make a mistake in writing up the final order (in civil cases, the court generally does not prepare orders, it is up to the parties to do it), the title insurance company may not insure title, in effect preventing you, as the property owner, from selling or refinancing.

Q: Why do I need a lawyer in a case involving wrongful termination or employment discrimination?

A: If you are suing your employer for employment discrimination or wrongful termination, you most likely will need a lawyer. Proving these cases is complicated and the employer’s lawyers usually fight these cases vigorously. To win this type of case, you must have a lawyer skilled in direct and cross-examination of witnesses and the rules of evidence.

Q: Why do I need a lawyer for administrative writs and appeals?

A: Cases appealing a final decision by an administrative agency or hearing officer are extremely complicated and limited in the type of review the court can make. A lawyer can tell you if you have a sufficient basis in the record for an appeal and discuss other options with you.

Limited-Scope Representation - Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What happens if I later need more services from the limited-scope lawyer?

A: New issues frequently come up in legal matters. That means that you may find you need more assistance from the lawyer than you originally expected. If you use limited scope, you can always go back to the lawyer and ask for more assistance. Your lawyer will already be familiar with you and your case because of his or her prior involvement. This will be much more efficient than trying to find another lawyer to help you and then educate him or her about your case. Remember, you are paying for your lawyer’s time, so it is very inefficient to keep paying new lawyers to learn about your legal issues.

Q: What if I decide I want the lawyer to handle the entire case?

A: After going to court on your own, even with good coaching from a lawyer, you may decide that you would rather have the lawyer take over the whole case. Because you pay any lawyer for time, it is more efficient to return to the lawyer who already knows you and your legal issues, rather than paying a new lawyer to get up to speed.

Q: What if my spouse has a lawyer and I have a coach?

A: Many people decide that they would rather represent themselves, even if the other side has a lawyer. Your coach, or limited-scope lawyer, can prepare you for what to expect in court, can advise you of your legal rights and the most effective way to protect them, and outline possible negotiation strategies for you. Your lawyer can also negotiate for you to try to settle the case outside of court, even though you intend to represent yourself in court if the negotiations fail.

Q: I have a child support case. Is limited scope a good idea for me?

A: In deciding if you can hire a limited-scope lawyer for a child support case and whether you will be able to handle the rest of the case on your own, consider:

  • Is the income of both of you easy to determine (as in a W-2, paystub or some other available document)?
  • How likely is it that there is additional income from other sources that must be discovered or evaluated?
  • How difficult is it going to be to get the information necessary to prove the additional income?
  • Will you need to subpoena records or take depositions?
  • Is it likely that an outside party will have to go over records to find missing income? Does this need to be a lawyer? A paralegal? An accountant?
  • Is spousal or partner support going to be in dispute? If you agree it will be paid, do you agree on the amount? Do you agree on the duration?

If, in thinking about these questions you realize there may be a lot of complications in your case, limited-scope representation may not be right. But talk to a lawyer to make sure.

Q: I have a child custody case. Is limited scope a good idea for me?

A: In deciding if you can hire a limited-scope lawyer for a child custody case and whether you will be able to handle the rest of the case on your own, consider:

  • Is there a dispute about custody of your children? Visitation or time-share? Where they go to school? To church?
  • Is the disagreement likely to be resolved by mediation?
  • Is a formal evaluation likely to be required?
  • Is it likely that you will have a contested trial?
  • What kinds of witnesses or evidence are likely to be presented by your side? By the other parent's?
  • Does 1 of you want to take the children and move away?
  • Are there contentions that 1 of you is an unfit parent?
  • Does either side allege domestic violence against the other parent or the children?

If, in thinking about these questions you realize there may be a lot of complications in your case, limited-scope representation may not be right. But talk to a lawyer to make sure.

Q: I have a case involving property. Is limited scope a good idea for me?

A: In deciding if you can hire a limited-scope lawyer for a case involving property and whether you will be able to handle the rest of the case on your own, consider:

  • What kinds of property do you have to divide:
    • Real property (land and buildings),
    • Personal property (furniture, appliances, etc.),
    • Employee benefits (pensions, 401(k) plans, IRA accounts),
    • Stocks and bonds,
    • Business interests, or
    • Other types of property.
  • Are there any special problems with any of these items or property?
  • Was any of the property inherited?
  • For each kinds of property, what witnesses or documentary evidence will be required to present your case and what is the best way to develop it?
  • Do you suspect your spouse/partner of hiding assets? How do you propose to find them?
  • Is there a premarital agreement that impacts division of property or support rights?
  • Is the date of separation in dispute?
  • Is there inherited property that has been invested in any part of the marital estate/cpmmunity?
  • Is there a history of domestic violence?

If, in thinking about these questions you realize there may be a lot of complications in your case, limited-scope representation may not be right. But talk to a lawyer to make sure.

Q: Why shouldn’t I just keep coming back to the lawyer referral service for a new referral each time a question comes up?

A: That usually violates the referral service rules and is really not in your best interests. If you keep consulting with different lawyers on your case, you have to introduce each new lawyer to all that has happened before. This means that you waste time getting the lawyer up to speed on your legal matter. It also increases the risk that you forget to tell the lawyer some fact from the past that is important to your current situation. You are much better off consulting with the same lawyer over a period of time as new questions come up, so he or she is familiar with you and with what has happened earlier in the case.

Q: I called a lawyer to find out whether her office does "unbundling" and she had never heard of this. Don't all lawyers do limited-scope representation?

A: No. Some do not do this, and in some counties it is unusual. You can contact your local lawyer referral service to find out where you can find a lawyer who will provide unbundled services. When you do speak with a lawyer and you want limited representation, make sure that you are clear about what you want; that you do not want to hire the lawyer to handle the entire case.

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