Attorney Steve Lau answers frequently asked questions

Do I need a lawyer, or can I do it myself?

If you have the knowledge and skills to represent yourself in court, you have the right to do so. I liken it to car repair. If you know how to fix a broken transmission, or replace the clutch with a new one, then you can do it. Or, if your roof leaks and needs fixing, nothing prevents you from buying the tar and gravel, getting up on your roof, and doing it yourself.

Bear in mind, though, that the court does not give non-lawyers any "breaks." You may be a layperson, but if you choose to represent yourself in any civil lawsuit or criminal case, you are responsible for knowing ALL Federal and State rules of civil law and procedure, the rules of evidence, and local rules. You also need to know how to write legal motions and briefs to the court in their proper form, and be aware of the filing deadlines for all court papers. On top of all this, you need to know how to present admissible evidence and conduct yourself inside a courtroom just as a lawyer would.

Unfortunately, I have seen too many people with good cases lose — because their lack of knowledge and legal experience allowed their adversaries to take advantage of them. I have often met with folks seeking professional representation after "going it alone," only to discover that they have made irreversible mistakes that cannot be corrected even by an attorney.

With very few exceptions, there is real wisdom in the phrase, "A person who represents himself in court has a fool for a client." This holds true even for "minor" matters.

I have been stopped and arrested by the police. What do I do now?

Do not resist, as this will usually cause additional charges to be brought against you (such as resisting arrest). Ask the arresting officer what charge you are being arrested for. Other than that, keep silent, as anything you say can and will be brought against you in court. Remember that the police excel in persuading people to let their guard down and then start talking.

If you are taken into custody, you will be allowed to post bail to gain your release.

I may have a lawsuit against an individual, the government or a business. When should I see an attorney?

Immediately. There are specific timeframes during which a person is allowed to file a lawsuit. These vary depending on the type of suit (i.e. car accident, breach of oral contract, etc.) and who is going to be sued (an individual or government entity, etc.). Even if you have a good claim, you will lose your right to sue if the lawsuit is filed too late.

I am about to make a business deal with a friend. Should I have a written contract or just do an oral "handshake" deal?

For the protection of everyone involved, it is always better to put an agreement in writing. In California, oral contracts are just as legal and binding as written contracts. However, it is much more difficult to prove the existence of an oral contract—and its terms and conditions — in court, as memories fade with passing time. A written contract memorializes exactly what has been agreed to, and therefore helps preserve a business or social relationship from "loss of memory" and subsequent litigation. Keep in mind that, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

I work for an employer who has not paid me for overtime or has not allowed me to take any rest breaks. Is this legal?

With some exceptions, it is illegal in California for an employer to not pay overtime compensation or to prevent an employee from taking rest breaks.