Do I Need a Lawyer?

My grandmother lived in the same small South Dakota town since the end of World War II and died at the age of 92 in 2013. My mother was tasked with administering her estate. Even I assumed the process would be relatively easy. My grandmother had a small amount of assets and had a will. Wrong! South Dakota required the personal representative of the estate (i.e. the “executor”) to hire an attorney. When another family member died in late 2016, a brief inquiry by his personal representative revealed that the law in South Dakota remains unchanged. To administer even a small estate there, you have to hire a lawyer. Then, the attorney files all the estate paperwork. Being told you have to hire a lawyer while you are already heartsick grieving the loss of your loved one does not make for a positive attorney-client experience. I love many things about South Dakota. Not this. It amounts to what David Rolfe calls, “a full employment act for lawyers.”  When Colorado attorneys are sworn in, they take an oath:

I DO SOLEMNLY SWEAR by the Everliving God (OR AFFIRM) that:    

I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Colorado;  I will maintain the respect due to Courts and judicial officers;  I will employ only such means as are consistent with truth and honor;  I will treat all persons whom I encounter through my practice of law with fairness, courtesy, respect and honesty; I will use my knowledge of the law for the betterment of society and the improvement of the legal system; I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed; I will at all times faithfully and diligently adhere to the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct.

One can only imagine the devastating effect it would have on parties to family law cases, who for personal reasons need a divorce (which can only be done through the Court system), or who need help from the Court to get child support, decision making, and parenting time orders to be told by the Court Clerk, “No, you can’t file this yourself, go get a lawyer.”

Fortunately, Colorado does not require any person to have a lawyer, except in very limited situations (for example a non-attorney conservator or guardian cannot proceed pro se in a divorce action and a trustee cannot proceed pro se on behalf of a trust).  If you live in Colorado and you’re asking Google, “Do I need a lawyer?” the answer is most likely “No.”

Our Colorado State Court Website has an expansive list of forms and instructions for litigants who want to pursue their legal matter themselves, be it probate, civil, or family law matters. Our bar association is working diligently to expand access to justice, and our local courthouses have Self-Help Centers staffed by a “Sherlock” (Self-Represented Litigant Coordinators) as well as pro se clinics where volunteer attorneys help guide self-represented parties through the legal system.  Generally, in these settings self-represented parties can get guidance on how to proceed through the legal system and forms to use, but not actual legal advice. If you are thinking, “but wait, I want legal advice,” there is good news.  Colorado allows for attorney services to be “unbundled” so that even if you do not want an attorney for full representation and prefer to represent yourself, there is a mechanism whereby you can obtain legal advice from an attorney. Self-help centers often will have a list of attorneys who offer this type of service. You will have to pay for this service but you can control and limit the cost. Our website has an article which describes these services in more depth.

There are certainly some cases in which full representation is the best way to go. The reasons are varied, but not all cases lend themselves to self-representation. If you are concerned that your case falls into that category, conferring with a lawyer is probably a good idea. Many lawyers charge for consultation, but it can be money well spent. You will get a wealth of information, advice and guidance for a set fee. Additionally, some attorneys offer free consultation or will waive the fee in certain circumstances. If you mention this article, for example, our office waives the consultation fee and we offer free one-hour consultation for potential unbundled services clients. For more information, visit our website.

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