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Frequently Asked Questions

What are "civil court cases"?

In the broadest terms, civil court cases are all court cases that do not involve a violation of criminal law. When one has been injured, financially or physically, he files his lawsuit, or "action," in civil court. One can bring any such type of claim in a civil court, including, for example, claims for injuries stemming from breach of an agreement, dishonesty, fraud, unlawful acts, defective construction, wrongful termination, breach of a lease, property damage, etc. A civil case plaintiff may obtain both compensatory and punitive damages.

Civil court cases are brought in either the Small Claims, Limited, or Unlimited division of a California Superior Court. Some civil cases can also be brought in federal courts. If his damages are less than $5,000.00, the injured person may file his lawsuit in Small Claims Court, in which case he cannot use an attorney. And, costs in Small Claims Court are much lower than they are in the other divisions of the Superior Court. If the damages are between $5,000.00 and $25,000.00, the injured person is required to file his action in the Limited Jurisdiction division of the Superior Court. Cases worth more than $25,000.00 are filed in either the Unlimited Jurisdiction division of the Superior Court or in federal court.

Does it make sense for me to hire a lawyer?

If you have a legal problem, or a problem that a court of law would address, one of the first issues to consider is whether you would benefit by retaining an attorney. The answer is different in each case, and it depends on a number of factors.

The first issue to consider in determining whether to retain a lawyer is whether you have a claim, or whether someone else has a claim against you. If you have a claim for money (whether it's based on a debt, or damages caused by another person for which compensation would be just) then you should evaluate whether there's a possibility of recovery without an attorney. Will the debtor voluntarily pay, or does the debtor have to be compelled to pay by a court or by the threat of litigation hanging over his head? If there is a potential for recovery without an attorney, then you may ultimately net more money by resolving the issue on your own, depending on how much you are owed. However, if more than $5,000 is involved, and you don't think you can get substantially all of the money on your own, you may wish to contact an attorney to find out how much you could expect to spend in legal fees. If less than $5,000 is involved, you might try to recover your money in Small Claims Court instead of contacting an attorney.

Any time that you believe the person who owes you money may "counterclaim" against you, you should contact an attorney if informal negotiations break down, unless the amount at issue is certainly below $5,000. A potential counterlcaim for $5,000 turns a matter in which your claim is $5,000 into a $10,000 matter. When that type of money is involved, it often makes sense to get an evaluation from an attorney as to your rights and the strengths of the respective claims.

If someone else has a claim against you, the first issue to evaluate is whether you owe the money. If you know that you do, you can save attorneys' fees by negotiating a resolution on your own. However, an attorney might be able to inform you of valid defenses of which you were previously unaware, even if you believe that you owe the money. For example, a "statute of limitations" bars the prosecution of claims if not made within a certain period of time. If a significant amount of money is involved, it usually makes sense to retain an attorney regardless. Attorneys can often negotiate more favorable resolutions or a payout over time.

If the claim against you is less than $5,000, you should try to resolve the matter without an attorney. However, if you are actually sued in any court (whether it's Small Claims or higher level court), you may want to talk to an attorney about potential defenses. Even a Small Claims Court judgment will adversely affect your credit rating, so you should present every defense available to you.

If I retain an attorney to help me collect money someone owes me, how long should I expect to wait before getting any recovery?

Most creditors turn to an attorney after their own efforts to recover hit a dead end. In many cases, a letter from an attorney is enough to shake up an obstinate debtor and cause him to immediately pay at least part of his debt. If the debtor doesn't pay in response to the "demand letter," then the only recourse may be to file a legal action, or a lawsuit. Almost all collection cases are set for trial within a year of filing, and over 95% of cases either settle or otherwise get resolved before trial within that year. If your case settles, you should expect some payment at that time, unless the debtor has no money. If the case goes to trial, you can usually expect payment soon after a favorable verdict if the debtor has insurance. If not, you will have to initiate judgment enforcement efforts to get some payment, in which case you will get payment sooner or later depending on the amount of money the judgment debtor has.

I've been named as a defendant in a lawsuit. What happens if a judgment is entered against me?

A plaintiff can get a judgment either by default (if, for example, you fail to respond to the Complaint within the requisite time period), stipulation (your agreement), or trial decision. The "judgment" itself is no more than a judge's decision on a piece of paper, but it can have serious negative consequences. First, the person who obtained the judgment against you has the right to use the judicial system to compel you, the judgment debtor, to give up money or property to satisfy the judgment. Although there are significant protections for judgment debtors, the process is uncomfortable, to say the least. Further, even a small judgment negatively affects your credit. And, a judgment will often stay on your credit record for up to seven years. Although you can always get a judgment removed by filing a bankruptcy proceeding, in general, you should do everything within your financial means to avoid entry of a judgment against you.

What is "lawyer-client confidence," or the "attorney-client privilege?"

Simply stated, an attorney cannot ethically divulge any information or communication made to him in confidence. The rationale for this rule, called the "attorney-client privilege," is that clients or prospective clients will likely be more open in their communications with attorneys if they know that the attorney will not divulge potentially harmful information.

How much does it cost to hire an attorney?

Experienced attorneys in the San Francisco Bay Area generally charge anywhere from $175 an hour to nearly $1,000 an hour. The attorneys at Redenbacher & Brown, LLP, may charge anywhere from $150 an hour to $290 an hour. However, the fee might be reduced in some cases if the attorney is willing to take the case on a full or part contingency basis. Attorneys will often take personal injury, collection, or wrongful termination cases on a contingency basis. The firm's partners will frequently provide an initial free consultation, at which they will discuss fees. Each partner also does reduced fee work for specific clients, depending on the situation.

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