Determining Whether You Need Legal Representation

Attorneys are not always necessary to resolve disputes! If you understand the law that applies to your dispute and it is one that can be litigated in a small claims court, you probably do not need a lawyer.

If your small claims court case involves a claim for the return or retention of a security deposit in a residential rental agreement, neither party may be represented by an attorney. Also, attorney’s fees cannot be recovered against the losing party in Small Claims Court.


Ask friends and family for referrals. Ask if they were satisfied with the attorney’s services.

Call the Hawaii Lawyer Referral & Information Service (LRIS) at 537-9140. LRIS is sponsored by the Hawaii State Bar Association and is comprised of attorney members in over 25 fields of law. No charge is made for those who call for referrals. (Neighbor island callers may call collect).

Consult the Yellow Pages in the phone book.

Consult Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory. This directory can be found in the public library and contains a roster of all members of the legal bar in the country. The directory gives brief backgrounds of the lawyers and describes the legal areas in which each law firm practices.

Try to find an attorney whose area of concentration is within the subject area of your dispute. For instance, it is unlikely that a corporate or patent attorney will be interested in taking on a landlord-tenant/security deposit dispute.

Find out if there is fee for the initial visit. Depending on the nature of your complaint, some attorneys charge for the first visit. Others offer it as a professional courtesy. You may want to ask whether they will validate for parking costs.

Ask what the fee is for the services performed. Some attorneys charge a flat fee for a specific job. It is likely you will be asked to pay a fee at an hourly rate. “How to Choose and Use a Lawyer,” published by the American Bar Association, and distributed by the Hawaii Bar Association provides a good description of the four principal methods for compensating a lawyer – retainer; contingent fee; specific job and hourly rate.

Ask what the “costs” are for the attorney’s services. Even with contingency fees which advertise that you need not pay fees if you do not recover, you may still have to pay the “costs” associated with your case.

Try to determine how many hours of fees you will be assessed for the work to be done, given various alternatives for dispute resolution (e.g. telephone conference, demand letter, lawsuit, trial arbitration).

Ask about the attorney’s experience in handling your type of dispute.

Ask the attorney to assess:

  • the law applicable to your dispute
  • your chances of succeeding based on the law and/or the facts
  • whether the dispute is one that would best be resolved in small claims court
  • whether and how negotiation for settlement of your dispute can be accomplished
  • whether your claim would benefit by going through a mediation or arbitration service
  • any privacy concerns you or your family may have
  • the likelihood of settling the matter prior to filing a complaint/going to trial
  • the likelihood of prevailing if the matter goes to trial
  • the likelihood of collecting on the judgment if you win
  • the risks if you do not prevail

Ask the attorney to estimate:

  • the time it will take to have your case resolved
  • the expenses involved in resolving your dispute (Expenses should vary given the time and effort expended. Ask for a breakdown for different stages in the dispute resolution process, e.g., before filing a complaint, after filing a complaint, through discovery, preparing for trial, through trial, after judgment, if there is an appeal)
  • the time you will need to spend in resolving the case
  • the amount of money you will be asked to deposit with the attorney as a retainer fee

Be sure you are provided with an agreement for services in writing.

The agreement should include:

  • the hourly rate or fee
  • the services to be performed
  • your duty of cooperation
  • the amount that you will owe if you fire the attorney prior to the completion of the case
  • any conflicts of interest that the attorney may have in representing you and whether you agree to waive such conflicts

Ask your attorney to keep you informed of the progress of your case.

Request copies of all letters and documents prepared on your behalf.

Do not sign anything unless you understand what you are signing.