When you have a consumer dispute it can be very frustrating and you may start to think about finding legal help. Sometimes it's hard to find a lawyer to handle the problem, simply because it may not be cost-efficient. However, there may be several ways to solve your problem, including hiring a lawyer. Review your options and choose the best solution for your situation.
Consumer Agencies and Organizations
There are several government agencies and organizations that help consumers solve many kinds of business disputes, such as consumer fraud, billing errors and warranty issues.
Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
Short of hiring a lawyer, you may be able to avoid the courthouse by filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. There's an online complaint form available. The FTC has authority to enforce several key consumer protection laws and offers many resources to educate and protect consumers.
Your State Attorney General's Office
If state laws apply, you can file a complaint with your state's Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division. Part of the job of a state attorney general is to enforce state consumer protection laws. This office investigates consumer claims, and lawsuits or even criminal charges can result. Your state's Attorney General's Office web site is also a good source for consumer research where you may find information on a specific business or fraud reports.
You can also file complaints with your local Better Business Bureau or municipal agencies, which will sometimes work at negotiating a compromise.
Other community-based resources include:
- A local consumers' union
- Public agencies besides the Attorney General's Office, such as vehicle fraud agencies or those regulating lending institutions
- Government-funded legal services providers that take consumer cases and charge sliding-scale or reduced legal fees based on income
Small Claims Court
If alternate methods for solving your problem still aren't working, small claims court may be an option. Each state has small claims courts to handle cases where the amount at stake is small, often $5,000 or less. Consumer issues are common in small claims court, and the legal process is geared towards the layperson. When you file a small claims case, you usually must represent yourself. Depending on court rules, defendants may hire lawyers to represent them. You may find that a business is motivated to settle your dispute once you file a case because it's easier than going to court.
Hiring a Lawyer
Hiring a lawyer may be your best option, for example, if your problem is complex, or there's a higher dollar value at stake. You might join with other consumers with the same problem for cost efficiency, or maybe your case is right for a class action lawsuit. You can search for a lawyer on Lawyers.com and get the help you need.
You'll want to find out everything you can about the lawyers and then do some initial screening to whittle down your list to three or four prospective candidates:
- Look at the biographies and web sites for the lawyers and their law firms. Do they appear to have expertise in the area of law that you need? Do they have any information on their web sites that's helpful to you? Does the lawyer belong to any legal associations that cater to consumer issues?
- Look for a list of representative clients. Are they the types of clients that you would want your lawyer representing? Has the lawyer represented other consumers similar to yourself?
- Search the internet under the name of the lawyer and his or her law firm. Can you find any articles, FAQs or other informational pieces the lawyer has written that give you a level of comfort?
- Ask people you know for references
- Contact your state bar association or go to its web site to find out if the lawyer is in good standing, or is active in consumer law groups
- Check out the yellow pages of your telephone directory. Does the lawyer advertise? If so, do you find the ad compelling? Helpful? Tasteful?
- Consider any special needs you have, such as an attorney who speaks a language other than English
- Having a lawyer who is involved in a chamber of commerce or other local organizations may also be a good sign, depending on your legal needs
When you speak with or meet a lawyer you may hire, ask several more questions before making your decision. The lawyer's office should be in a convenient location. Ask about conflicts of interest; a lawyer can't represent an opposing party. Ask for references and check them out. Review the lawyer's fee arrangement, which could include a retainer, hourly fees or a contingent fee structure. Feel confident about starting on finding a solution to your consumer problem.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Could my problem be the basis for a class action lawsuit?
- I tried some self-help methods, such as filing a complaint with a consumers' union, so can I still file a lawsuit?
- I have a fraud claim and the Attorney General has an ongoing investigation against the business. Can I file a lawsuit against the business on my own?