October 31, 2019 Practice Points

Small Claim Savvy: Should You Take the Case?

Be sure you and your client carefully weigh the pros and cons before you take on the matter.

By Kelsey Heino

Many new solo or small firm practitioners may feel compelled to take any case that walks through their door. Divorce? Sure! Probate action? Why not! DUI? I suppose! But what about a small claims matter? Is it worth it to you or your client to take on representation of a small claims case? Many states prohibit attorney representation in small claims, but for those jurisdictions which allow it, will the benefit outweigh the cost? Here are several questions to ask yourself and/or your client.

  • Does it belong? The first consideration is whether the case actually belongs in small claims court—does it fall within the jurisdictional limits? Is there a way to combine several claims so that the damages being sought are worth getting an attorney involved? Are there statutory remedies for the cause of action that may make small claims an inappropriate venue.
  • Alternate route. Has the client considered sending a demand letter or reaching out to the other party directly? Is it even worth filing the case? If the defendant is judgment proof, even going the low-cost route of small claims may not result in a positive outcome for the client.
  • Consider the client. This is where your intuition and people-reading skills come in handy. In order for a small claims case to make sense for both parties, you need to be able to keep costs low. If the client comes across as very needy or demanding, he or she will spend far more in legal fees than what is recoverable in small claims, which all too often leads to difficulties collecting your fee.
  • Small claim, small role. Small claims courts are intended to be user-friendly, so perhaps it makes sense for you to have a limited engagement. You could consider a flat fee arrangement whereby you’d look over the pleadings and help put together a game plan for the trial date. That way the client still gets his or her day in court (and performs better than without your help!), but you are not running up a high legal bill.

In short, don’t feel like you have to take that small claims case to help a friend, a potential client, or your bottom line. Often, these cases are best left to the client or by the wayside. Be sure to carefully weigh the pros and cons to you and your client before taking on a small claims matter.

Kelsey Heino is an employment and complex litigation attorney with Goosmann Law Firm in its Sioux City, Iowa, office.

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