How to Be Your Own Lawyer (Sometimes)


How to Be Your Own Lawyer (Sometimes), by Walter L. Kantrowitz, J.D., and Howard Eisenberg, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1979, 406 pp., $12.95.

It's easy nowadays to find a "how to" book on just about any topic. Law is no exception. But it is unusual indeed to find a manual genuinely helpful to a citizen struggling for self-sufficiency in the particularly entangled and esoteric arena of law and justice.

How to Be Your Own Lawyer (Sometimes), despite some obvious deficiencies, could be the best publication of its kind since the 1925 edition of Putnam's Handy Guide for the Layman, which was written in times when self-reliance was better understood. The authors claim that the reader will receive "quite a decent elementary legal education" and that the book will be valuable in "cutting legal bills" and "eliminating unnecessary visits to a lawyer." Thus their main objective is to focus on practical knowledge necessary to understand the law. As such, the work offers no gems of insight into the theory and logic of law. On the other hand, Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that "the life of law has not been logic: it has been experience." And a citizen's experience in grappling with our legal system should hold importance for theoreticians.

The authors, Walter L. Kantrowitz and Howard Eisenberg (a New York attorney and a professional writer), acknowledge that, given the current reality, many situations demand a lawyer's services. Thus the "sometimes" disclaimer in their title. They counsel against pro se (self-represented) status when "you are charged with a crime, caught in a lawsuit involving a substantial amount of money, or, if you are insecure." They counsel that certain personality characteristics are essential to a pro se effort, such as: "moderate intelligence, reasonable ability to articulate, determination, humor and a sense of perspective."

The book provides decent advice on legal matters with which the middle class must cope. But the authors' promise to give you everything you need to know about: going into business, bankruptcy, wills, probate and divorce, etc., plus how to bargain, prepare for court, and try a case, is a trifle presumptuous. Nevertheless, there is enough information and savvy to serve as a good launching pad into legal experience. And law students will find the book helpful during the adjustment period between law school theory and everyday practice.

Despite the authors' generally successful attempt to provide the book with an aura of completeness, there are several deficiencies. The worst problem is the lack of a glossary of legal terms—necessary for communication in legalese with natives of the legal community. Forms are provided for most of the transactions discussed in the book, but they are the old-fashioned variety, full of terms confusing to the average person. One would expect the authors to be up on the trend to simplify legal documents and to provide examples of forms reworded in the most up-to-date simplified terminology.

People today are inevitably confronted with complicated rules of procedure that relate directly to the complexity of our culture. Operating in the legal arena is certainly one of those complicated experiences in which the potential for pettiness is high because of the vast arsenal of laws and rules with which people can fight one another. The authors warn repeatedly that involvement in litigation may be more than most of us bargain for. They quote Lincoln: "Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser—in fees, expenses and waste of time."

For readers still anxious to pursue a lawsuit, How to Be Your Own Lawyer (Sometimes) will get you started with its presentation of substantive and procedural information about the law. At the very least, you will learn to make an effective threat to sue—often all it takes to begin the bargaining process toward a favorable compromise. In their attempt to be purely practical, however, the authors miss an excellent opportunity to encourage further public participation in the legal system and to foster pressure for overdue reform.