In every state, there is a version of small claims court. These courts go by different names, such as conciliation court and the people’s court (not the TV show). The vast majority of the litigants in these cases are unrepresented and many of them would benefit by being represented. People who can’t or shouldn’t hire an attorney can still benefit by meeting an attorney to help prepare them for court.
Why Take Small Claims Cases?
For many lawyers, representing clients in small claims court is not financially feasible. Your time is simply too valuable. But advising small claims litigants can be a good way to both increase your monthly income and start developing some courtroom skills if you are just starting out solo. Aaron Hall, a Minneapolis attorney, worked on small claims court cases regularly when he first started out as an attorney “working out of [his] basement.”
It’s a great way for new attorneys to cut their teeth on some basic courtroom experience. Rules of evidence can be relaxed, so concerns about objecting perfectly are minimized. It’s more a skill of thinking objectively.
Some lawyers work with small claims clients because some of their other work naturally ends up in small claims cases. Douglas Simmons, a lawyer in North Carolina, initially started doing small claims court work because “it tied into eviction cases he was doing for landlords.”
Florida attorney Brent Gordon notes that unlike most litigation, especially in full-representation cases, “it’s more likely to go to trial, which means civil litigation experience. Even if the cases are abbreviated, you get to see all stages of litigation.”
Small claims work won’t be the type of practice that lends itself to long-term career building, but it can certainly help with the monthly budget. Charging a modest amount like $250 to prep clients for small claims court can quickly lead to an extra couple thousand dollars per month. This can be the key for some solo practitioners staying afloat, especially when first starting out.
And, unlike most areas of the law, it is not a significant investment to become fairly well-versed in your state’s small claims court.
What Should Your Fee Be?
There are a few ways you can charge for small claims court work. Full representation might mean a bill of $1–3,000. Helping to draft the complaint or meeting with a client to prepare them for court could be a flat hourly fee of $200 or more. Small claims court claim limits vary from state to state. Some are as low as $2,500 (Kentucky and Rhode Island) but others go as high as $25,000 in Tennessee. The claim limits in your state will affect the amount you can charge.
Some areas of law, like landlord/tenant law, lend themselves to small claims court cases. But if that isn’t the case with your practice, there are other ways to get small claims clients. First, you can advertise on Craigslist. You can let attorney referral services (like the one your bar association has) know to should list you as a small claims court option. You should make it obvious on your website that you will take small claims cases. There are very few attorneys who advertise their services to small claims clients. You are not guaranteed a monopoly by mentioning this on your website, but it won’t be you against 15,000 other personal injury attorneys, either.
Gordon, who says that roughly 15–20% of his practice is small-claims court, actually lists a menu of his options (consultation, document preparation, and full-representation). He relies on email intake as an efficient way of making initial case assessments.
Know the Local Rules
A paying client will obviously expect you have basic understanding of the rules governing small claims court. The most basic is knowing your state’s monetary cap for filing a case. You should also know the filing fee for your state (or county or city). Other critical things to determine include whether the client either needs an attorney (which they might if they are a corporation or an LLC), and whether an attorney can represent a pro se litigant. Some states won’t allow an attorney while others require the attorney to apply to appear prior to the hearing.
Understanding the appeals process after a small claims decision is something many pro se clients will also expect you to know. Some small claims courts will require a formal pre-trial settlement attempt or mediation. Others might simply encourage the two sides to “go in the hall” right before the case is heard to see if a last-minute settlement is a possibility.
Know the Basics
Full representation is complicated, but probably something most lawyers are familiar with. Preparing a client to represent themselves pro se is quite different. There are many pieces of information that can help a client maximize their chances in court.
When and Where
Showing up on time is absolutely critical. In most cases, if the person doesn’t show up on time they automatically lose. Knowing how long it takes to get through a metal detector (if there is one) and how and where to park are all tiny pieces of information that make a pro se party less nervous going into court.
You know not to bring food and drink to court, but to a pro se client, this may be news. A cell phone would ideally never be brought into court (left in the car, for example). If a client insists on bringing it, they should actually turn it off, not simply turn the ringer to vibrate or turn the volume down.
Pro se clients frequently ask about what they should wear. They may want to know if they will be standing at a podium or sitting at a table during the hearing. Questions about witnesses are common as well. Keep in mind the basic rule that a witness (or any form of evidence) is only useful if it is proving your client’s claim or disproving opposing claims.
Strengthening Your Client’s Case
“Most hearings are 10 or 15 minutes,” according to Simmons. Help your client by coaching them on how effectively use their time.
“The client will want to talk about 99 things, but the case will probably turn on only 3 of them,” Hall said. “Offering to meet with a client for an hour consultation, sorting through evidence … most importantly you tell them, ‘here is what I would not focus on.’”
In a case that lasts only 10 to 15 minutes, the client should also lead with their strongest argument, not look for a “big finish” to their case. A judge may cut off the parties at some point even if they haven’t shown all their evidence or made all of their points.
Clients should bring three copies of any evidence they want to show the judge. One for the opposing party, one for themselves, and one for the judge. If there is a key part of the contract, it’s generally fine to mark it (with tape or a post-it note) so it’s easy for the judge to find.
The parties don’t typically cross-examine each other. Instead, all conversation goes through the judge. There may be an opening statement from each party (although this is not always guaranteed), but after that, the judge asks questions and the parties answer. The client should try to answer questions directly and honestly. Interrupting, whether it’s the other side or the judge, is not advised.
With a really nervous clients, one way to minimize their concerns is to tell them to simply go watch another calendar before their case is heard. These are public forums. If your client is worried about public speaking, tell them to look around the room as a case is being heard. Despite being in the same courtroom, almost everyone there will be preparing for their own case. They might be looking through their own materials or sort of gazing in the distance.
Is It Worthwhile for a Client to Work with You?
In some cases, the answer is simply no. If their claim is for $50, it makes no sense to hire you for any reasonable fee. But if the claim is in the thousands, hiring an attorney for full representation in small claims court or even hiring one for a consultation may be the best decision a pro se litigant will make in their case.
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