By: LISA R. WILSON

Due to the financial meltdown felt by millions of Americans across this country, the number of people acting as their own lawyers is on the rise. In the past, less complicated cases such as uncontested divorces or small claims were often filed by parties serving as their own attorney. But in this tough economy, even those tied up in child custody cases, complex lawsuits and complicated bankruptcies are representing themselves as well. "It's not just that poor people can't afford lawyers. This is really a middle-class phenomenon," said Sue Talia, a judge from Danville, California.

The result of this legal trend is causing court systems to clog with filings from people unfamiliar with the legal process. Sadly, some of these pro se litigants, as they are being called, are making mistakes with expensive and permanent consequences. "Courts are absolutely inundated with people who do not understand the procedures," said Talia. "It is a disaster for high-volume courts, because an inordinate amount of their clerks' time is spent trying to make sure that the procedures are correctly followed."

Luckily, there is self-help Web sites (such as LawInfo) and desks at court offices that offer standard legal forms for such things as simple divorces. The American Bar Association is encouraging all states to set up such self-help desks and adopt standardized forms to help cut legal costs. Also, volunteer lawyers are available in some states to give legal advice to those who cannot afford legal counsel. Further, a majority of states promote a growing legal trend known as "unbundling," in which an attorney handles just part of a contract, lawsuit or other litigation for a small fee, rather than taking on an entire case.

Despite these tough economic times, however, there are situations where hiring a lawyer is not only imperative for your case, but critical to your fundamental freedom, such as fighting a criminal charge. Matters like this leave no room for penny-pinching. For more information, contact a qualified attorney in your area today for an initial (and usually free) consultation to discuss the specifics of your case.

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