The balance of attorney and client is shifting. Increasingly, individuals are attempting to represent themselves in the courtroom. The reason is financial; they either want to save money, or they simply cannot afford to hire legal representation. In an effort to assist these individuals, legal services are holding free clinics where volunteer attorneys give limited general advice.
Beth Luna is a family law attorney with 11 years of experience. Throughout her legal career she has provided legal help to people unable to afford an attorney. In addition to running a solo law practice, Luna volunteers a portion of her time for Nevada Legal Services. Luna says there are many risks for people who represent themselves. One of those risks is that people don’t understand what they’re entitled to and what their rights are. She sees cases where a person gave up their rights to all the marriage assets. She’s seen many cases recently where the court rejected agreements involving child support payments. “People don’t get the relief they are entitled to. You should have an attorney to know what your rights are. When you don’t hire an attorney, paperwork may be missing. Terminology may be missing that can protect you in a future issue. You could be missing assets. I saw one case where a party withheld an asset and it wasn’t discovered till later. Doing your own divorce is like doing your own heart surgery. Why take on something that you don’t have an education for?”
People representing themselves need to be prepared. Luna says they should go to the free clinics available in Reno, visit the American Bar Association’s website for online information, and read local attorneys’ blogs for information. Luna says: “Self representation is growing because of the economy and financial strain contributing to divorces. Educate yourself. Consult with an attorney to get information about your rights. An attorney can help you know whether you should handle your case by yourself or not.” Luna does say that if there are no assets in a marriage, then it is okay for someone to represent themselves in court. They should still familiarize themselves with court processes and get help in filling out the paperwork.
Attorney Brenoch Wirthlin is with the law firm of Woodburn and Wedge. He is in his fifth year of practicing law, specializing in bankruptcy. Wirthlin is another volunteer with Nevada Legal Services. “I have done a little bit of family law because there is so much family law in the pro bono area. There are so many different levels of rules and statutes, the average person, who doesn’t practice law, would have no reason to know them.”
Attorneys volunteering at the clinic must be cautious in what they tell people. Once a month, Wirthlin volunteers at a free legal clinic, answering general questions and directing someone to an issue or a statute they should look at. “Attorneys sell their time and advice. You could get into a dangerous situation—create a pseudo attorney/client relationship and liability issues. Most attorneys won’t do anything unless the person pays a consulting fee. When I do the clinics I try to only give general advice.”
Wirthlin says people should make it a point to be careful when they represent themselves. “When you file bankruptcy, it affects your life. It can affect how you do things, how much money you receive. A judge can’t treat someone different if they are representing themselves. They’re held to the same standards as an attorney would be.”
For Dan Bonneville it is an honor to volunteer his time to help others. “I grew up in poverty in a small town,” he says. Bonneville was a chemical engineer whose job was outsourced to China. Seeing the warning signs, Bonneville began attending law school at night. He has been practicing for a little over two years. He volunteers at the clinics takes on 3 pro bono cases a month—two for NSL and one for WLS.
Bonneville says: “The people I see through them [NLS and WLS] are the same as a cross section of most clients. They’ve gone through their 401K, their savings, and their retirement. They were making $200-$300,000 two or three years ago. They come from all different backgrounds and all different educations.” Bonneville hears a lot of myths involving bankruptcy. One is that a person can write off all of their medical bills once in their life. Another is that one can keep their car without making payments on it—that the car loan is unsecured. Perhaps the saddest myth, Bonneville says, is that trustees will come and look at everything. “Trustees do not do that—only if there’s evidence of fraud.”
If someone is going to represent themselves in court, Bonneville advises to take time, try to be absolutely transparent, and don’t try to hide anything with asset value. “Don’t transfer, pay, or sell anything to a family member within two years before a bankruptcy. If you sell something to a family member, get it back in your name and turn it over to a trustee. It happens so often—‘I gave this ’54’ truck to my brother so I can buy it back someday’. Absolutely don’t lie to the trustee–don’t even think about lying to the trustees. That’s the value of having an attorney. They can look at the whole picture and tell you if you should wait two years.”