Q: Do I really need to hire an attorney?
A: Clarence Darrow is widely regarded as one of the most capable and accomplished trial lawyers in our nation’s history. When he was charged with a crime in California, one of the first things Darrow did was hire a lawyer. He understood the adage that “a man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client.” Darrow was acquitted. While there are exceptions to every rule, most people are likely to find themselves at a disadvantage when they attempt to navigate legal situations without the assistance of legal counsel. This is especially true with respect to matters involving active litigation (both civil and criminal), but it also applies to a variety of other contexts (such as reviewing or preparing leases and other contracts) where the experience and trained eye of a legal professional can help you avoid mistakes that can result in costly and time-consuming litigation later on.
Q: How long will my case take?
A: There is no “one size fits all” answer to this question. With respect to matters pending in court, the length of time before any case is resolved (whether at trial, by settlement, or otherwise) will depend on a variety of factors, including:
- The particular court in which the case is pending. The Small Claims Division of state court, which handles summary ejectment (i.e., eviction) and other civil disputes in which the amount at stake is $5,000 or less, is designed to resolve cases within a matter of weeks. More significant matters filed in the Superior Court Division of state court or in federal court may take as long as a year, or more, to reach trial.
- The parties’ willingness to settle. The vast majority of civil cases filed in North Carolina and across the United States – over 90 percent – are resolved by some means other than a courtroom trial. Most often, this occurs through a settlement reached by the parties and their attorneys. How soon – or late – in the litigation process this takes place depends on each side’s willingness to compromise.
- Appeals. In those cases that do get resolved by trial or by court rulings, the losing party typically has a right to appeal. The appeals process – while an important right and a protection against incorrect outcomes – will further delay the ultimate resolution of a contested legal matter.
Q: Attorneys’ fees, court costs, and other expenses – how much will this cost?
A: We offer clients a variety of fee arrangements that vary based upon the nature and complexity of the particular matter that we are asked to handle. Certain types of matters, such as the preparation of estate plans and minor traffic law infractions, are typically handled on a fixed fee basis. Other kinds of cases, including most civil litigation matters, normally are undertaken based on an hourly fee. Still other kinds of cases – including but not limited to personal injury matters – may be handled on the basis of a contingent fee arrangement. Regardless of the particular kind of legal need you may have and the fee arrangement that is most suited to it, we understand that hiring an attorney is an important investment, and we treat it that way.
Q: What are “mediation” and “arbitration?”
A: Mediation is an informal and confidential way for people to resolve disputes with the help of a neutral third party – a “mediator” – who is trained to help people discuss their differences. The mediator (who often is an attorney or a retired judge) has no power to decide or rule on the dispute. Instead, the mediator’s goal is to help the parties themselves find the common ground necessary to reach a settlement. Most civil actions filed in the Superior Court Division of state court or in federal court in North Carolina are subject to court-ordered mediation, which means that the parties are required to attend, pay for, and participate in good faith in a mediation conference with a mediator and the opposing party (and usually their counsel).
Like mediation, arbitration is not a formal judicial proceeding. Yet, while the goal of mediation is for the parties to reach common ground, arbitration is similar to a court proceeding in that it involves the hearing and determination of the dispute by a neutral third party called an “arbitrator.” The arbitrator is selected by the parties to review the case and impose a decision that is legally binding on both sides. Arbitration is less formal than court proceedings, and it likewise may be more flexible, quicker, and less costly than traditional judicial processes. In some instances, arbitration is required by law or court rules. Most often, however, it is the result of the parties’ own choice, usually in the form of a provision in a contract entered into by the parties. (Many people do not realize that the “fine print” contained in agreements they regularly sign for a host of goods and services often includes provisions mandating the use arbitration instead of traditional court proceedings to resolve disputes that may arise between the parties.)