IF YOUR DISPUTE with another company appears to be headed for court, you need to know some basics about the judicial system. Perhaps you can handle the matter yourself in small claims court. If the case is more serious, you'll need to hire a lawyer. Either way, it helps to know what to expect once you enter the legal process.
Small claims: A dispute over an amount under $2,500 can be heard in in small claims. The structure of that court allows for a relaxation of the rules of evidence. This means you don't need to be a Perry Mason to represent yourself. (However, having an assistant like Della Street would help any business person). To start the process, call the local District Court where your dispute began.
Small claims is the place for the "do-it-yourselfers," though it is your choice to hire a lawyer or go it alone. If you decide to argue your own case, first make a truthful analysis of your presentation skills. You must provide a clear account of the facts so your case will make sense to the judge. The entire procedure is designed to resolve cases in a reasonably short time without great expense. A judge will decide the case; there are no juries in small claims.
Occasionally people hire lawyers to represent them even for a small case. But, at $75 to $300 an hour, the legal fees can completely offset any benefits from winning.
Going to court: You have three years to file for a court date, from the date you were wronged by the other party or company. From your local District Court, obtain a document called an "Application for a Statement of Claim," which is fairly easy to complete. This is returned to the District Court with the required fees: $15 to file the case, plus $10 for serving the defendant with a summons to appear in court.
Surprisingly, anyone can serve the summons -- except you. To make sure the defendant receives the summons well in advance of the trial date, you may want to hire a private serving-firm to deliver the summons. The cost is about $25. This may help you avoid a request by the defendant for a postponement due to a lack of time to prepare a defense.
The summons should be served on the company's resident agent; this is the person listed by the firm to represent the company for tax and legal notifications in Maryland. To find the name and address of a resident agent, contact the Maryland Department of Assessment and Taxation in Baltimore.
Hiring a lawyer: In many situations the case is more serious, and you will need an attorney. It's best to retain one at the earliest possible point in the dispute.
Stephen R. Tully, of the law firm Steen, Seigel, Tully & Furrer, advises against trying to pick an attorney from the phone book. ** A good place to start, he says, is the Maryland Lawyers Referral Service of the Maryland Bar Association in Baltimore. Call 1 (800) 492-1993. Another good way to begin is by asking your friends and associates for someone they recommend.
Once you've found someone, Tully says, the next step is an interview. The lawyer should give you the first hour free and should be able to estimate your chances of winning the case.
If you hire the lawyer, ask for a contract. Attorneys generally use easy-to-understand documents. The contract can be as short as one page and it will identify the nature of the work to be done, what it involves -- appearing in court, for example -- and the hourly fee.
You can request that the contract specify the estimated total cost and that you be notified if the law firm thinks the cost will exceed the estimate. Tully says that bankruptcy or criminal cases usually are handled for a fixed fee.
Frequently, half of the estimated fees are required as a retainer and the rest is paid just before the court hearing.
The lawyer will keep a time sheet for the work done which you may request to see. Keep in mind that you pay for time expended, not necessarily for the quality of the work done. Also, you do not pay for "results" because, in the contract stage, the outcome of the case is impossible to predict.
Hearing the case: Cases which exceed $10,000 are heard in Circuit Court while those involving $10,000 or less go to District Court.
If you win your case, the judgment does not become final for 30 days. During this period the defendant can appeal. If there is no appeal, and the defendant later fails to pay as required, your lawyer can press for court action to seize business property owned by the defendant, and thereby satisfy the debt.
The bottom line: Take Tully's advice: "Any time you take an expensive action, it doesn't hurt to get a second opinion." Consider this before you decide to do it yourself or get legal help. It is an important decision.
Patrick Rossello, president of the Business Consulting Group in Towson, is a member of a number of local advisory boards including the Baltimore Economic Development Corp. Send questions or suggested topics to him c/o The Evening Sun, Money at Work, 501 N. Calvert Street, Baltimore, Md. 21278.