Do-it-yourself lawyers win some and lose some District courts see most cases


Michael O'Malley still thinks he had a good case.

But this time, he has hired a lawyer to appeal the $75,000 judgment lodged against him, rather than represent himself.

The 46-year-old Crownsville contractor agreed to pay $68,500 for a power boat in 1987. But he said the 32-foot Bayliner was such a lemon that he only got about 12 hours' use of it over the next five years. So he sued Bayliner Marine Corp. for $1.4 million in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, alleging breach of contract.

The day the boat was delivered, the motor wouldn't start, he said. The battery constantly shorted out, the body was rusted, the hatch was broken and it leaked.

Provident Bank, also a defendant to Mr. O'Malley's suit, counter-sued for the money it lent him to buy the boat.

After a year researching his case in libraries, badgering attorneys, law librarians and courthouse clerks, Mr. O'Malley was hit Aug. 16 with the $75,000 judgment, ordering him to pay Provident. He got nothing from Bayliner, but he learned a hard lesson about acting as his own attorney.

"My advice is don't do it," he said.

In representing himself, Mr. O'Malley says he was motivated by his pocketbook and by the same frustration and cynicism about lawyers apparently shared by much of the public.

A poll by the National Law Journal and the West Publishing Co. this summer found that 73 percent of the 815 people surveyed think there are too many lawyers, up from 55 percent in 1986. The number of people who said lawyers were less honest than most people increased from 17 percent to 31 percent.

Despite the cynicism, the number of people representing themselves in Maryland's courts has remained about the same over the years, say judges, lawyers, court administrators and legal observers.

"With all the ads on television and all the lawyer and trial shows on TV, people seem to be pretty aware of their rights and what they might face when they go into court," said Janet S. Eveleth, a spokeswoman for the 16,000-member Maryland State Bar Association.

For those who represent themselves, the results are as varied as the cases involved.

While Mr. O'Malley faces a $75,000 judgment, William Coe, who represented himself in Howard County District court, walked away with a $25 fine. He had faced a $250 fine.

Mr. Coe was charged with possession of illegal fireworks after he set them off during a party he held June 26 to celebrate his new home on Whetstone Road in Columbia.

He later said he decided against hiring a lawyer after talking to friends and relatives, including his father-in-law, who is an attorney.

"The main thing was incarceration. I knew I wasn't facing any jail time," he said.

Experts say not everyone who goes into court needs a lawyer, but as a rule, the more money in dispute or the more likely chance there is for incarceration, the more one is necessary.

"There are issues a lawyer could raise that a client just wouldn't think of," said Anne Benaroya, an assistant public defender in Baltimore County.

She said if the police arrest someone for drunken driving, an experienced attorney might ask about the accuracy of the testing device used to measure blood alcohol content, or whether the officer had "probable cause" to suspect a crime when the driver was stopped, a requirement for a legal arrest.

But for minor traffic charges, for small claims filed by one neighbor against another and for contract disputes where the results may be obvious, lawyers aren't always necessary, according to legal experts.

"In some cases, a lawyer just isn't going to be much help," said Anne Arundel County District Judge Donald K. Lowman.

It is in Maryland's district courts, which handle small claims, misdemeanors, landlord-tenant disputes and property repossession cases, that most of the self-representation goes on.

No pattern

Attorneys say there is no rhyme or reason as to who hires a lawyer and who represents himself.

"Some people who have minor traffic violations will come in with an attorney. Other people facing felony theft convictions and serious jail time won't. It's really a matter of perception by the defendant," said Greg Smouse, an assistant state's attorney in Howard County who has prosecuted District Court cases for two years.

To appear in a criminal or minor civil dispute, a private attorney can charge anywhere from $500 to $2,000. So if a defendant faces only a small fine, hiring a lawyer makes little sense.

Money was a major consideration for John Lambert, an out-of-work truck driver from Baltimore.

Mr. Lambert appeared in District Court in Glen Burnie last month because Maryland National Bank wanted to repossess the 26-foot Walcraft Nova powerboat he had purchased for $48,000 in 1988.

Judge Lowman granted the bank authority to repossess the boat after a Maryland National lawyer presented financial records proving Mr. Lambert had missed six of his $500 monthly payments.

It didn't matter that Mr. Lambert had gotten sick and lost his job, or that he had invested $40,000 in the boat over the past five years.

"I don't think a lawyer would've helped me at all," he said.


Judge Lowman agreed. He said each case is different, but that in cases where a defendant has breached a loan agreement by failing to make payments, a lawyer wouldn't help much.

"You feel sorry for these people, but there's nothing you can do, and probably nothing any lawyer could do for them," he said.

But Mr. O'Malley said that in his contract dispute with Bayliner, a lawyer would have known when to file pretrial motions, when to object to Bayliner's claims about performing its part of the agreement and what issues to raise at trial.

Jerry Stansfield, a spokesman for Bayliner, said that the boat sold to Mr. O'Malley was a quality product, that the company agreed to service it at its Salisbury factory when Mr. O'Malley complained and that Mr. O'Malley was more eager to litigate than negotiate.

"The court found that Bayliner had fulfilled its obligations to Mr. O'Malley, and our position is that the court's finding was consistent and fair, given all that we did for him," Mr. Stansfield said.

But Mr. O'Malley says he lost because he was outgunned.

In trying to represent himself, he acknowledges, he probably had a fool for a client.

"What I learned is that the deck is stacked against you, and my advice is if you're going to go into that Circuit Court arena, get a lawyer," he said.

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