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Small claims court can pose a conundrum for attorneys. In many states, lawyers are not allowed to represent clients in small claims -- a ban that's meant to keep things simple when small amounts are in controversy.
But if a litigant asks for help with a small claims case, you don't have to turn her away, the Out-House General Counsel blog suggests. Even states that don't allow lawyers in small claims courtrooms do allow parties to consult lawyers outside of court to help prepare their cases.
If you find yourself in the role of a small claims consultant, here are four general areas you'll want to discuss with the party:
1. Who's going to court?
A party who's named in a lawsuit must show up to small claims court. But if the party is a business, that business must send an employee, officer, or director to represent the company.
Keep in mind, in states where attorneys are not allowed in small claims court, whoever appears for the company cannot be the company's in-house counsel, and cannot have been hired solely to represent the corporation in the small claims matter.
A party to a small claims case must collect legal documents, exhibits, and anything else she may need for court. That's where your experience as an attorney can help, as you can suggest the best ways to stay organized.
3. Keeping up appearances.
You know courtroom demeanor is important, but a party to a small claims suit may not fully appreciate that. Remind her to act professionally at all times, and to be courteous to the opposing party, the judge, and the other key players in the courtroom.
It may also be a good idea to remind the litigant to be honest at all times, and to resist temptations to exaggerate or pad her case.
Small claims cases are similar to complex cases because a party cannot control the outcome, the Out-House General Counsel blog advises. It's important to remind the litigant that a settlement between the parties, perhaps through the use of a mediator, may be an option to consider. Settlements may also result in immediate payment, whereas a small claims judgment may result in problems with collection.
For more resources about small claims, you can direct the litigant to FindLaw's consumer website, which provides a good introduction to small claims court.