You Have the Right to an Attorney … and the Need for One

In the judicial system, acting as your own attorney is called “in propria persona,” normally abbreviated “in pro per.” It’s a common joke among lawyers that “pro per” is Latin for idiot.

Everyone who’s watched Miami Vice, ¬†CSI or Blue Bloods knows the Miranda warning, which includes the words “You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” In criminal cases, thanks to Gideon vs. Wainwright, defendants have the right to an attorney to advise them and represent them. But the law handles many matters beyond crime: wills, divorces, civil rights, class action suits, small claims cases, intellectual property, water rights, libel, slander, etc. In such matters, a lawyer’s guidance is crucial, yet one is not provided at public cost to plaintiff or defendant. Doing without a lawyer in civil or probate matters is a clear case of “penny wise, pound foolish.” As Robert Louis Stevenson said in Kidnapped, “they talk a great deal of charity and generosity; but in this disputable state of life, I often think the happiest consequences seem to flow when a gentleman consults his lawyer, and takes all the law allows him.”

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It’s true hiring a lawyer is expensive, but not hiring one is more expensive. Getting quality online legal advice can also be confusing, but looking at reviews helps. Hiring a lawyer is like hiring a travel agent. Yes, you can make your own arrangements, but would you want to be like the tourist who was told she would need a visa to go overseas and showed up at the airport with her Visa credit card? (She was not allowed to board the airplane, and her ticket was not refunded. A competent travel agent would have made sure she had all the necessary paperwork, as well as travel insurance.)

In the late 1940s, Pauli Murray was asked to prepare a pamphlet on which acts of segregation and discrimination were embedded in law and which were merely custom. Her “pamphlet” wound up being a book over 700 pages long, States’ Laws on Race and Color. Thurgood Marshall called States’ Laws “the Bible for civil rights lawyers.” (He also used an earlier paper she had written arguing that separate but equal was inherently unequal as the basis of rown vs. Board, although he did not bother to inform her that his case was based on her writings until years after the fact.) Without this guide, carefully examining state laws, local ordinances, and related court cases, the battle for racial equality would have taken much longer.