Where has Verbeck Law been in California?

I often talk about how you want a firm with broad experience, but I know everyone says that, so I thought I’d put a graphic together to show which counties in California Verbeck Law has done legal work in. Often the key to a good outcome in a case is adaptability, and learning the unwritten rules of a new court quickly and efficiently is one of the unique things we offer. Unfortunately, a lot of firms get stuck in one county, or even just one court, and if your case gets complicated, they’re lost. In California, and in Oregon for that matter, local rules, traditions, and processes matter a lot, and even if your case doesn’t span more than one county, it very well may span more than one court.

For example, suppose you inherited a share in a home from a relative, and you want to rent out one of the rooms, and leave your share of the whole property to your kids. This is a fine idea in Riverside County, assuming the other owners are on board and you have the money to litigate minor tenant problems occasionally, and to cover house maintenance costs. It’s dead-easy to get done in Tulare County, and a flat-out bad idea in Alameda, particularly in Berkeley or Oakland. We know because we’ve been there, and as a bonus, we can tell you where the restrooms are in whichever courthouse we end up in.

Last but not least, Verbeck Law has also handled cases that were based in California, but had clients abroad. As of this writing, we’ve handled cases for clients in the UK, Romania, Austria, India, and more, and of course Alex practiced in multiple counties in Oregon. Did you know that, to get a legal document recognized in most foreign countries, you need a second stamp from the office of the apostille in Sacramento? That office has a months-long turnaround by mail, but a minutes-long turnaround in person. Wherever you are, get a firm that’s been there.

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Have a lawyer negotiate your buy-out

A lot of the people who contact me are tenants in or around the Bay Area, and are tenants whose landlord is offering them some kind of buy-out. These people often want to check in about what’s ‘reasonable’ or ‘fair’ in their circumstances, and having done a bunch of these, I thought a blog on evaluating buy-outs would be helpful.

First, everyone’s situation is a little different. The best way to start is to ask why your landlord wants you out. To do construction? To increase the rent by getting a new tenant? The answer to this question will determine which rules your landlord has to obey, and changes your bargaining position considerably.

Second, remember that this is a business transaction. Tenants often get fixated on the notion that the landlord owns the property and can get it back, which honestly is only kind of true. In Berkeley, for example, Owner Move-In evictions are very hard to do right, and the liability from messing them up is immense. In SF, a buy-out negotiated before a tenant saw the Rent Board’s information form on buy-outs is completely voidable by the tenant. The place where you live might be owned by someone else, but it’s your home, and the law says that you can’t be easily tossed out.

Last, location, location, location. In very rough terms, around the East Bay, buy-outs go from most to least expensive in this order: SF, Berkeley, Oakland, and, surprisingly, Richmond. However, the last tenant to negotiate a buy-out when the owner is planning renovations has a much stronger hand than the first, and of course the real estate market here changes quickly.

So, one of the benefits of getting a lawyer to help you with this is that you won’t have to try to learn all the rules and comparisons yourself. We have taken these cases on contingency at times, meaning that you don’t pay up front, but we get a percentage of the final settlement. We can and have gotten people tens of thousands of dollars more than they expected, and I like to think we’ve often managed to avoid long, painful, and expensive legal battles by pushing hard, early, for a settlement.

If you’re a tenant being offered a buy-out, seriously consider sending us some info for a quote, and see how much we can help you.

Motorcycles and the Law

This blog post discusses some of the legal concerns specific to motorcycles, in California. Laws are similar in Oregon, but lane splitting isn't legal there, so not all of this applies. 

As the sun comes out in the Bay, more and more people are recovering their motorcycle from a dusty garage and hitting the pavement again. I personally ride my bike just about everywhere, and thought it might be handy to go over some of the legal concerns that are specific to bikes. This post covers what to do in an accident, how to deal with legally uninformed authority figures, and finishes with a discussion of some of the over-documentation that can help you in the event of a legal dispute. 

1. Accidents

This is probably the obvious one. The difference between car accidents and motorcycle accidents is that you're more likely to be injured on a bike, and the rules are thus harder to follow. In my legal opinion, it's a good idea to think it over now, that it might be easier to do in the moment. First, stabilize. Make sure you're not bleeding, and if you even kinda think it might be helpful, get medical help on the way. A lot of injuries form biking take a bit to show up, due to the adrenal dump of crashing. If you can't call for an ambulance yourself, point at someone nearby, and say in a clear voice, "You, call 911." Do not assume bystanders will call for emergency help. I'm not going to go over full triage here, but if there's any risk to your neck, shut up and wait until the EMTs show up. 

Second, of course, don't admit blame or talk about the accident much. This is harder when some jackass just rode you down and could have killed you. It's easy, as a lawyer, to grab things said out of context and to use them to screw up someone's claim for damages later. Exchange insurance info if you're not too badly injured to do so, but don't let the other party goad you into discussion. If police show up, lawyer up. Talking to the cops when you're in an altered state, whether from injury or adrenaline, is a bad idea. There's no way for you to know whether the officer you're talking to hates motorcyclists, or hates people with your particular characteristics, or is actually the godfather of the cager's son. Say that you want to talk to your attorney before talking about the accident, and then give us a call. 

Last, if you're able, document. You almost certainly have a smartphone, so grab pictures and maybe a walk-around video of your vehicle and theirs. This prevents you having to rely on accident write-ups by busy and indifferent responders, and gives us something to work with. Don't send said documentation to the other party, obviously. 

2. The Man

The laws on motorcycles are actually surprisingly tricky. Generally, California law treats motorcycles as weird cars, but the state laws are often modified by local ordinance, and reviewing some basic rules for interacting with authorities is a good idea for bikers particularly, given the stigma that attaches to motorcycles in some people's minds. For example, if you get pulled over, don't argue, and don't volunteer information. This is important for everyone, but particularly bikers. Your time to argue with a cop's version of the facts is at court, not on the side of a freeway, and you don't want to talk yourself into more serious charges. I could give you a whole volume of stories on people who tried to get out of a speeding ticket and ended up in prison for other crimes that they essentially admitted to in the process. 

Second, for less dire authorities, particularly parking attendants of all sorts, remember that a bike parked is incredibly vulnerable, and that being technically in the right won't repair your handlebars. What I generally do when someone tells me I can't park there, and they're obviously wrong, is to request information from them, and then park somewhere else. So, if a bouncer or someone tells you to move your bike, try to get their name and position with the establishment, and complain that way. Don't piss someone off and then leave your expensive and fragile mode of transport alone and undefended. 

3. Over-Document

For a bike, the apparent value can fluctuate a lot of time, and making a civil claim after an accident can depend a lot on minor factors that aren't easy to document after the fact. You probably take a bunch of pictures of your bike anyway, because having and riding a motorcycle is cool. Include some photos of whatever minor damage you've got, as well as clear pictures of major areas that aren't damaged. Make a note of maintenance, particularly maintenance you do yourself. Last, just bear in mind where some of the more expensive gear or parts came from. This is actually fairly easy, since most people in my experience either buy from a local shop or Revzilla. It really streamlines insurance claims to have documentation of how much that helmet cost when you bought it, and it's nice to be able to show that the aftermarket parts made your bike worth more, not less, despite what an adjuster thinks. 

Last but not least, of course, if you're getting into a bike-related dispute that threatens to end up in court, fill out our instant quote form and get an opinion. Insurance companies are not always your friend, and it's hard to tell when the person who hit you is going to discover a serious medical problem mysteriously caused by the wreck. It's like the decision to wear your gloves; better safe than sorry. 

Legal Options for the Disowned, Part 1

I get a depressingly large number of cases from people who have been thrown out by their biological parents, or who are fleeing a cult, or who otherwise don't want or can't afford contact with certain biological relatives. This is very difficult from a legal perspective; for example, many laws and most healthcare systems work from the default assumption that the people best able to make decisions for someone incapacitated are blood relatives. Depending on the severity of your situation, there are several steps that we can help you take to change these defaults, and to ensure that your legal situation more closely mirrors your life. 

1. Restraining Orders

Get 'em before you need 'em. Restraining orders are for people who've been harmed or threatened with harm by a lover, partner, family member, or similar. A granted order generally will mean that the restrained person is forbidden from contacting you, coming near you, and so on. They vary a bit from one circumstance to the next, but they're enforceable by the police, which is a huge advantage. 

In the states in which I'm licensed, California and Oregon, you can get a full-force restraining order for violence from a relative, or credible threats of same. It can be a bit harder for relatives who are too geographically distant to really pose much of a threat, or when the acts of violence were long ago, but an experienced firm like ours can generally get around these challenges with expert drafting. A granted restraining order nearly always prevents abusive contact with the protected party, and is a great option if your biological family is or has been violent or threatening towards you. 

2. Medical proxies and powers of attorney

As above, a lot of states will assume that the best person to make decisions for you if you're incapacitated is a blood relative, often a parent. This is bad news for anyone who's been disowned, of course, and is extremely bad news for people who'e come into conflict with their biological family due to sexuality or identification issues. The best way to prevent absent, abusive, or otherwise difficult biological relatives from gaining a remarkable amount of power over you when you're incapacitated is to have a medical proxy and power of attorney form ready to go before anything drastic happens. This way your designated family can make decisions for you when you can't make them yourself. 

A medical proxy, permitted in the family or probate codes in many states, allows you to designate in advance someone to make medical decisions for you if you're incapacitated. These are very specific documents, and unfortunately most hospitals won't accept a form that's almost good enough, due to the fear of liability after the fact. We recommend having an experienced firm draft these, so you can get a fully correct copy on file with your medical providers. I would strongly recommend having a medical proxy set up for people who are trans and are in conflict with their family as a result. 

Powers of attorney are a little more general, and potentially incredibly powerful. A power of attorney, in this case, grants someone the power to make medical and financial decisions for you when you're incapacitated, or in other circumstances you define. This can be crucial if, for example, you're incapacitated in a place your medical insurance doesn't cover, or if you have a condition or identification that requires continuing treatment. With a PoA, you can designate someone to make these decisions for you, though they're not a complete replacement for medical proxy designations, above. You can do these yourself, kinda, but in my experience it really pays to have an attorney go over the documents with you and explain the powers in detail. PoAs are very powerful, and you should be sure you understand the power you're granting. Additionally, it's very helpful to use a law firm's experience in getting everything signed, notarized, and distributed correctly. 

3. Stalking orders

These are actually more useful than you'd think. California leads the nation, in my opinion, in privacy protections, largely because a lot of famous people live here and help write the laws. Accordingly, there are a lot of laws you can use to get a legal wall between you and family members who won't stop contacting you after repeated requests. A stalking order prevents contact, including contact via social media, and it catches a lot of the manipulative things family members often do, like sending gifts. 

The standards are a little tricky, but what we generally do is do a letter of representation from us to said family members, followed by a careful collection of direct or indirect attempts by family members to contact a client who's asked them repeatedly not to. 

Stalking orders are civil, but it's extremely helpful to have a firm like ours handle them, because in California, there are criminal statutes as well. This is handled in more detail in the next post for the disowned, but sometimes you can use the power of the state to get family members out of your life, by having an attorney who can spoon-feed info to the local district attorney. Frankly, I haven't found most DAs to be super excited about pursuing these sorts of orders, but they will if we can make it very simple and fast. I've gotten this to work in Oregon on the very rare occasion, and honestly only because I went to law school with some people who are in the DA's office there now. 

In any event, I hope this post is a useful exploration of some options for people who've been disowned or abused by their family, and who are trying to minimize or stop contact. Being disowned is a heart-wrenching thing, but a firm like ours can at least make it a little easier. 

Representing Yourself in California

There are a lot of glib remarks about self-representation, but most of them haven't been updated for the modern age. This post attempts to detail when and to what degree it makes sense to represent yourself, under California's laws and procedures. 

Never List 

You should never represent yourself in a criminal matter. If you can afford it, lawyer up. If you can't, use a public defender. The criminal law system is cruel, capricious, and far too complicated for a non-attorney to really understand. To be clear, even if you know the statutes, you won't know the unwritten rules, of which there are a ton, and you won't have the same opportunities for a deal and discovery that lawyers have. This is not a risk worth taking. 

Similarly, probate is very tricky for the layperson, and if there's any sort of estate, you will probably save money paying a lawyer to do it. Same issue as above: the system is badly over-full and under-funded, and the streamlining opportunities are generally only extended to attorneys. In my opinion, creating a will or similar based off an online form without understanding the actual process of probate is not much different than doing nothing, or writing your intentions down on a bar napkin. 

Some cases are per se complicated, and should never be filed without a lawyer. Briefly, class actions, anything that the court puts on the Complex Litigation docket, malpractice, suing a government unit, or similar. These often call for a speciality firm. 

Maybe List 

Family law is the big one here. There's no opportunity for appointed counsel, and all of the required forms are on the Judicial Council website. However, if you can afford it, having a lawyer can speed things up a lot. Each jurisdiction I work in has slightly different procedures to approve something like a divorce, even though they all claim to be using the same forms and following the same rules. Custody without counsel is ugly, and of course if you're having the sort of custody fight that might result in criminal charges, lawyer up yesterday. 

But. If you're owed child support, the local Department of Child Support (called different things in different places) will help out essentially for free, and this is a good option for a lot of people. If you're owed a lot of child support, consider sending us a note and seeing if it's something we'd do on contingency. 

Landlord/Tenant is a bit more complicated. If you're in SF, Berkeley, Oakland, or Richmond, you have very strong protections as a tenant, and if you're a landlord, the law is strongly against you. As a tenant, there is often free legal help available, assuming that you manage to file an answer when served with a complaint. If you're a landlord in one of these cities, in my opinion and experience, just get a lawyer. Doing an eviction by yourself is designed to be nearly impossible, and there are a lot of lawyers with big nice pretty houses that were paid for by landlords trying to do evictions themselves in cities with rent control. 

If you're a tenant, we have several tiers available for legal help. We can help you draft the answer, the most important document, or can do coaching ahead of a hearing, or handle the whole case. I think all are good values, but at the same time, a lot of the groups who do free legal help for tenants do a fine job. Notably, they're really easy to find and sign up with in Alameda and SF counties; not so much in Contra Costa, and not at all in some of the more rural counties like Calaveras or San Joaquin. 

Go For It

Small claims is the obvious venue here. Small claims in California (and Oregon) covers claims for less than $10,000, though that gets a little more complicated where you've filed more than a couple claims recently. Most people don't, and you can't bring a lawyer into small claims anyway. I personally think our small claims coaching is a good investment, but honestly, most people who do this don't use a lawyer, and they do alright. Just make sure you read the instructions carefully. 


I hope this helps to explain a bit of where and why a lawyer is worth your money. If you're unsure about your case, shoot us an email, and we'll do a free consult to straighten things out for you. 

Marvin claims: The Ultimate Hybrid Law

So-called Marvin claims are badly misunderstood. Briefly, most, cough, civilized states don't have common-law marriage. This means that even if two people are living together like spouses, and/or call themselves spouses, have joint checking accounts, and so on, neither California nor Oregon will consider those two people married. Even if they've been together for decades and all their friends think they're married, if there was never a legal marriage, they are not, at law, married. They can not get a divorce, in which they'd split up their stuff. 

But! Every state in the nation will, in fact must, recognize a valid out-of-state marriage. (This was a little dicey before Obergefell, but now it's true generally.) So the first thing your counsel should do, IMHO, is check where you and the other person took vacations. You might not need a Marvin claim at all; you might actually already be married. Some states, mostly in middle of the country, still have common-law marriage, and sometimes the residency criteria and others are amazingly loose. If you are legally married in one state because of a common-law marriage, you are married everywhere in the US, and you need a divorce. 

Failing that, some lay-people know or think they know about what are called Marvin claims in California. The name refers to a specific case, and what Marvin actually says is this: The fact that a couple was a romantic couple doesn't disqualify either party from making claims against the other on the basis of contract, partnership, promissory estoppel, whatever. What this means is that you can make the same claims against a common-law spouse that you'd be able to make against anyone else. 

Marvin allows for claims that roughly, kinda, parallel common disputes in divorces, but they're heard in civil, not family court. For example, if a married couple ran a hot dog business together, California would presume that the assets of the business were community property (usually, it's complicated), and there'd be a presumption that the value of the business would be split. If the parties were romantic partners but not married, then one party could make a claim for half the value of the business, based on what's called common-law partnership. These are business partnerships, not related to marriage or domestic partnerships. So, it's a more indirect claim in the same direction. 

Marvin claims are thus a bundle of weird civil claims, that often kinda parallel the inquiries you'd expect in a divorce. However, I find there's often other elements, that give rise to greater complexity. To take an easy example, suppose Alice and Bill have a house they've both lived in for decades. They fight, Bill gets hauled off by the local cops and slapped with a restraining order. But only Bill's name is on the deed for the house, and so he files an eviction case against Alice. In most counties, evictions and Marvin claims are heard by different departments, usually in different courthouses, which usually don't talk to each other. So Alice should probably file an answer on the eviction, to avoid default, but also file a Marvin claim and ask that judge to issue an injunction preventing either party from trying to hide assets or dislodge each other via eviction or other filings. If Alice just files a Marvin claim, the judge in the eviction case may very well find her in default and order her out. Even once she's gotten the injunction, it still falls to Alice to take that injunction over to the eviction court. But, in most places, evictions are accelerated cases, and default is very difficult to recover from, so hopefully Alice's Marvin lawyer knows enough about eviction filings to be vigilant, and is able to appear in both places. 

Similarly, as happens in divorces fairly often too, many people do not understand the breadth of America's criminal provisions. Using the parties above, if Bill sneaks back to the house where his name is on the deed, to grab a toothbrush, he's in violation of a restraining order, which is criminal. Now there's yet another courthouse involved. Bill's counsel needs to know enough about criminal law to keep him out of that system above all else, without waiving his claims to stuff in the house. This is often accomplished with a civil stand-by, but be aware that if you use the same agency that did the arrest, you may get the same officer who arrested Bill earlier, and who will probably be able to find a violation of the restraining order somewhere. 

In Alameda county, Marvin claims are heard in the admin building in Oakland, evictions are in Hayward, along with disputed restraining orders, and criminal matters are in an entirely different courthouse, also in Oakland. Each courthouse has subtly different filing requirements, and all have various traps for the unwary. Hayward is also two hours from Oakland in bad traffic, and the RO and eviction dockets often have eighty or more cases a day to get through. 

It's hard to believe for anyone who's been through it, but divorces (and evictions) are relatively quick. I know, I know, they take forever, but go try to calendar a motion for the imposition of a constructive trust and you'll get a court date many months after, probably, mandatory mediation. There's a good analogy here to downhill winter sports. Divorce is a snowboard, which lets you get down the hill fairly well if you know what you're doing. Still best to follow the signs, of course, but you probably won't fall in a crevasse. Marvin is a couple of snowshoes and a broken hiking pole. There's a much greater chance you'll stumble, fall in a hole, or be unable to avoid the trees and rocks. A guide is useful for both, but in my experience, a Marvin claim without counsel is essentially certain to be an expensive failure. 

As always, salient points here are somewhat simplified, and nothing here constitutes legal advice. If you have or think you may have a Marvin claim to bring, fill out our instant quote fee, and we'll get you in for a consult. 


When Family Law Gets Ugly

People who've been through a family law case are probably laughing at the title, as family law is notorious for getting ugly, quickly. Many clients who come to me with what they think will be an uncontested divorce quickly learn otherwise, and of course anything with kids in it has a high potential for some vicious in-court testimony. 

However, there's ugly and then there's ugly. Verbeck Law's focus on hybrid law leads us into mare cases that involve things like restraining orders, criminal charges, and dependency cases. I find that most family law firms can more or less handle restraining orders, though it's clearly not a speciality, but a lot of firms will turn tail when required to attend a different courthouse or to deal with a fairly foreign set of rules. This can be pretty rough on the client, who may not be able to pay two firms, and who shouldn't take the chance of facing a criminal charge without knowing what the implications might be for other cases. 

Restraining orders I'll cover only briefly, as these are neither rare nor particularly ugly, comparatively. ROs are, in most counties, fairly easy to get granted, and can be a useful tactical tool for the unethical litigant. If a couple is fighting over a house, for example, one party can get a significant advantage by having the other party forcibly moved out under the terms of an RO, and similarly in a custody fight most courts will look askance at a potential parent with an RO against them. The crucial thing is to make sure that you can advise the client of the risk, familiarize them with the procedure, and make sure they know how not to make things worse. In the criminal law world, it's an old and boring story: Alice gets an RO against Bob, Bob gets dragged off, Alice later says it's fine for Bob to come over. Bob comes over, they fight, and then he's arrested and charged this time, for violating the RO. While an RO is in force, it needs to be obeyed, or the client loses nearly all their leverage. The other crucial thing is to contest the RO properly, to evaluate to see if a counter-RO makes sense, and to inform the family court before the other side brings it up. 

Criminal charges are a bit more complicated, due to the dramatic consequences. Most of the things that divorcing parties accuse the other party of are potentially felonies, and in a custody case, it's not terribly rare to see one party accuse the other of sexual offenses. This calls for some quick prioritization; no advantage in family law is worth a felony conviction, or any sort of sex crime charge. Counsel for such a party needs to make sure the client knows to shut up immediately upon arrest, and needs to know how to explain to the court why the client will not be participating in mediation or depos until the criminal charges are cleared up. Family law is often about justifying yourself, and hopefully it goes without saying that this is exactly the opposite of what you should do in criminal law. 

Dependency cases are complicated as well, and will be the topic of the next post. For now, I hope it's helpful ti have an outline of some of the concerns in family law, and more specific ideas of why you need a firm with broad experience. 

Elder Abuse Cases - Options and Cautions

Elder abuse is a difficult topic, since it sits astride a few areas of law. Frequently, elder abuse situations will involve a mix of criminal law, family law, and elder law, which is increasingly its own field. This blog post focuses on the sorts of cases that result in elder abuse restraining orders, but note that there are often also cases in other fields of law, or other courthouses, that will run in parallel. This post is probably more useful for attorneys than potential clients, but hopefully helpful for both. 

The standard for elder abuse is a little different than the standard for a standard restraining order. Elder abuse cases generally involve family members, and there's generally an allegation that someone, usually a child, has abused a person over 65 years of age. This abuse can take several forms; physical abuse is probably obvious, but financial abuse is common as well, in which someone has either threatened or tricked a relative into giving them money they're not entitled to. Notably, attorneys handling these sorts of cases should be aware that, often, acts which constitute financial abuse are also crimes, often mandatory minimum sentencing crimes. A client with a financial abuse claim should be advised that there's a chance of the state getting involved directly, with dire consequences for the other party. This is discussed further below. 

Otherwise, the process for elder abuse restraining orders is the same as for domestic violence restraining orders. A petition is filed, the order is usually granted, and the other party is served. I strongly recommend that elder abuse restraining orders be served by professional process servers, as I don't find that either family members or the local sheriffs are particularly reliable in this regard. Budget cuts in California have hit sheriffs as hard as everyone else, and often family members that are initially willing to serve documents will either change their minds or carry messages back and forth, thus violating the order almost immediately. 

In my experience, elder abuse orders are not difficult to defend, and the crucial thing is to have some sort of plan in place for what happens under the terms of the order after service and after hearing. For example, commonly a restrained party will have been living with the victim up until the events giving rise to the RO, and there will be property left in the house. Best practice, again in my opinion, is to have the client open a storage unit, move the property, and then transmit the storage unit info to the restrained party via counsel. If the client pays for, say, 6 months of time and won't be present at the unit after the initial move, then the restrained party has ample time to recover any belongings. Similarly, given the reluctance of many police departments to get involved in what they feel are family disputes, a client should be counseled about keeping copies of the order readily to handle, and how to record or document violations. 

The most difficult cases are those that have parallel criminal charges or probate issues. As above, the consequences of criminal charges can be extremely serious; when a child acting as caregiver writes a check to themselves on the parent's account without permission, they can be liable for at least 4 felonies per check, and often mandatory minimum sentencing laws will require 15 months or mer per charge. Counsel needs to be aware of this eventuality, and to know whether the court hearing the elder abuse case is likely to refer cases out to the DA. Counsel should also enquire about any extant wills or bequests, since the client may wish to amend them, or the terms of the documents may be incompatible with the terms of the elder abuse order. In all jurisdictions I'm aware of, probate is much, much slower than elder abuse court, and in most it's not even in the same courthouse. Nevertheless the cases are directly related. 

Elder abuse orders are a good example of why it's often a mistake to settle for a firm with a narrow field of practice. Someone who only does one aspect of elder law, like abuse orders, is probably not going to be fully aware of the full consequences of criminal charges, nor do most straight probate firms have a lot of experience with the sometimes very contentious nature of restraining order hearings. Further, at least in California, courts simply do not have the resources to do these hearings to the same standards as the law and rules of court require. Counsel for clients is therefore called upon to do a lot, and benefits greatly from knowledge of the local conditions in the relevant county. A broader experience will also lead to better advice about how to enforce an elder abuse order, how to deal with property, how to amend documents, and how to handle the predictable but volatile family fallout. 

If you have an elder abuse issue you'd like our help on, or if you're not sure whether or not your situation qualifies as elder abuse, please feel free to use our Instant Quote form to tell us about your case, and we'll get back to you as soon as we can. 

Nuisance Evictions: Not as easy as you think

Most big cities in and around the Bay or Los Angeles have some form of rent control, which usually includes a Just Cause Ordinance of some kind. This ordinance limits the reasons a landlord can evict a tenant, and anyone who is trying to deal with an eviction case should know that these ordinances are extremely controversial. The ordinance in Berkeley, for example, was originally passed in 1980, but it's been revised many, many times, both by court cases and by local initiative. These ordinances are usually fairly restrictive, and sometimes landlords believe that a nuisance eviction is a faster way through. 

A nuisance eviction is an eviction in which the landlord claims that the tenant is either 1. creating such a continuous and serious nuisance, in terms of noise or aggressive behavior or similar, that the neighboring tenants are seriously affected, and thus the landlord is justified in bringing an eviction, or: 2. the tenant is violating the law, and the landlord can therefore evict them quickly. 

In truth, in most big cities, nuisance evictions are not nearly as quick as they look. First, an eviction based on a tenant that's so noisy and disruptive that it's a huge problem to other tenants needs to be proved, and this is extremely hard to do, not for legal reasons, but for practical ones. To be able to go to trial, these tenants need to be subpoenaed to appear at trial, and trial essentially never happens when it's scheduled to happen. Severe resource shortages have led the courts to cut back essential staff, and as a result, you can expect at least one reset of trial, and more if the tenant is smart enough to request a jury trial. Getting two or three neighbors to attend multiple days of trial is often not realistic, particularly when you can count one at least one day being eaten up with last-minute settlement efforts. Consider also how tenants who've been dragged into court on someone else's case will think of the landlord in the future. 

Similarly, most Just Cause ordinances are written to be as protective for tenants as possible. Berkeley's ordinance, as written, seems to require written notice to cease a nuisance, even where the nuisance is illegal activity. We recently won a case for a tenant on this, and notably, this ordinance of Berkeley's is probably not really legal. State law probably preempts here, but as of the date of writing, the Appellate Court hasn't ruled on this. So, for the moment, you do have to serve (and prove) written notice to cease when evicting a tenant for illegal activity in Berkeley. A landlord could, possibly, win by bringing a case without written notice and then appealing, but again, this would take an incredible amount of time, and shockingly, would also require bringing your own court reporter. They're no longer provided by the court in Alameda, so currently judgments are, in practical terms, un-appealable. 

Thus, if you're thinking of bringing a case for nuisance eviction, it's crucial to hire a firm that's not only experienced in evictions, but flexible. Often, a nuisance case should be filed with separate, independent causes of action, such as material breach of lease terms, so that you can proceed on a back-up theory if, for example, a crucial witness doesn't make it to the third reschedule of trial. 

If you have a nuisance eviction case to bring or defend, consider contacting Verbeck Law for a quote, and an expert assessment of the hurdles your case will file in the current judicial climate. Eviction is a particularly fast-moving field, and as we often say, 20 years of doing evictions in San Francisco is worth exactly nothing if you're trying to bring an unconventional eviction case in Alameda. Get someone who knows the facts on the ground, particularly for hard things like nuisance. 

Verbeck Law has moved!

Verbeck Law has moved from our old address at 1900 Addison St., Suite 200, Berkeley, CA, to a new place: 2120 University Ave., 5th floor, Berkeley, CA, 94704! We're just up the street, but we're very happy with the new place, and invite clients or potential clients to come visit if you find yourself in Berkeley. 


These days, there are a lot of decent legal resources online, and there are a lot of legal actions that can be taken by people who aren't lawyers. Verbeck Law isn't one of the more traditional law firms that will tell you that you need a lawyer for everything; you don't. Having a lawyer do your case for you is the easiest option, true, and the safest, but at the same time we realize that it can be pretty expensive. This post is an attempt to help you decide what kind of case you may be able to handle, or at least get started, and when you should definitely talk to a lawyer. 

Common Cases That You Need A Lawyer For

1. Evictions, in any town or county with rent control. Many landlords aren't landlords full-time, and get the idea that they can probably handle an eviction alright without using a lawyer. This can be true in places like Martinez, which as of the date of this writing doesn't have rent control or many tenant protections. It's not true of Richmond, which just passed rent control, and it's definitely, definitely not true of high-volume places like Berkeley, Oakland, or San Francisco. The risk is not so much that you'll miss a rule and get your eviction case dismissed; the concern is that you'll get sued by the tenant after your case gets dismissed. There are a lot of very nice houses in Marin that were purchased using settlements from landlords who assumed they could handle something like an Owner Move-In by themselves. 

2. Divorces with Children. California has fairly liberal divorce laws, and sometimes a divorce between two people with no major assets can be handled by the parties involved. In our experience, a divorce with kids will generally get complicated very quickly, and paying a lawyer to help out early on is a lot cheaper than paying a lawyer to try to fix things once a case has gone bad. 

3. Hybrid cases. Lawyers think of law in terms of the broad categories. Divorce is family law, evictions are landlord/tenant, a tax-planning trust is part of trusts and estates. Hybrid cases draw from more than one type of law. Common examples are divorces with restraining orders, evictions based on illegal activity, or family fights over inherited assets. These cases should be brought to a firm that handles hybrid law, like Verbeck Law, and it's definitely a bad idea to try to handle them yourself. Often, your lawyer will have to know several fields of law and be familiar with more than one physical courthouse to handle a case like this. 

Cases You Can Start Yourself

1. Demands for money less than $10,000. In California, claims for damages under $10k are heard in small claims, and while we can certainly help you win a small claims case, we can't represent you in that court. If you're good at making yourself understood in writing, and if you can tell your story in a calm and coherent manner, you may not need any help to win a small claims case. 

2. Basic Leases. If someone is staying in your home or other property, you need a lease. Having a lawyer draft one just for your circumstance is the safest, but honestly, the AIA leases are pretty good, and the California Association of Realtors leases are fine too. Note that you should only use these for a simple tenancy. If the tenant is going to be running a home business, for example, talk to a lawyer. 

3. Basic start-up arrangement. If you and a friend have an idea for a product or app or similar, you can handle some of the initial setup yourself, as long as you write it down. If you're providing funding and your friend is doing the programming, write that down and sign it. It doesn't need to be fancy, but it does need to specify who does what. This is because, if you have a business together and don't make an agreement to the contrary, you're partners, which is about as strong a relationship as a civil union. 


We hope this is helpful in considering whether to check in with an attorney on your case. Please bear in mind that we do free consultations, and are always happy to talk about how we can provide affordable help. 

Ellis Act Evictions in Berkeley

The Ellis Act allows landlords in California to evict tenants from a housing unit in order to 'go out of business,' which means that the landlord intends to stop renting those units entirely. Many landlords find articles online about the Ellis Act and think that this will be a good way to avoid some of Berkeley's difficult tenant protections, but unfortunately, this is not the case. This post talks a little about why an Ellis Act eviction can be difficult, and why you need experienced help. 

The first thing to remember about evictions in Berkeley, or anywhere in Alameda or San Francisco counties, is that the landlord has to do everything right to secure an actual eviction. Close enough is not good enough anywhere by the Bay, and so eviction processes that have more steps are more dangerous. 

The second thing to remember is that messing up an eviction, including an Ellis Act eviction, can expose you to serious liability. There are law firms and lawyers who've made excellent livings suing landlords who tried to do complicated evictions themselves. 

So, turning to the actual process, the Berkeley Rent Board issues forms that you must use when giving a tenant notice of your intent to pursue an Ellis Act eviction. You should get these forms directly from the Rent Board, or from an experienced law firm, of course, because older versions that circulate online won't work. A form that's basically the same as the required form will get your case dismissed, even if all the other rules were followed. 

These forms also need to be filled out correctly and served on the tenants correctly, and there are strict timelines for when service needs to be complete and when deposits need to be paid to the Rent Board. It's best to have a sum set aside for this before you begin. At the time of writing, the sum due to a tenant subject to an Ellis Act eviction can vary from $5,000 to roughly $13,000, and failure to pay the right amount to the Rent Board at the right time will torpedo your case. We recommend placing enough money to cover the full sum for each tenant into trust with your lawyer, so that he or she can pay the sums immediately when they come due. 

Last but not least, you want to calendar exactly when you'll file for an unlawful detainer. Under Ellis, you have to give tenants a set period of time before moving to evict them, at least 120 days. Ideally, you should coordinate with your attorney to make sure that the complaint for eviction happens the day after the time limit for moving out runs. Evictions are a slow process, especially in places like Berkeley or Oakland, and the sooner you start, the sooner you'll finish. 

Bear in mind as well that even a successful Ellis Act eviction obliges you to let the original tenant know if you re-rent the property within the statutory limit, and this is where a lot of law firms make their money. The law will presume what's called bad faith on the part of a landlord if a property is re-rented quickly, or if both Berkeley and the tenant aren't alerted properly. 

Hopefully this post conveys some of the complexity of an Ellis Act eviction. The best route, and often the cheapest, is to hire an experienced firm like Verbeck Law to handle your tenant issues. Often, we can find a way to avoid using Ellis altogether, and can find another solution that's faster and easier. If you're thinking of getting started on an eviction, consider contacting us today. 

Cheap but important start-up legal documents

Start-ups are often organized on the back of a recycled paper napkin from a spanking new kava bar, and many times this level of organization works out. Start-ups are often made up of friends, and rely on mutual trust to keep going. However, sometimes businesses go bad, and a little investment up front can save a lot of angst and money down the road. 

The Business Agreement


This can be a very simple document, often only a few pages long. It sets out the goal of the business, who's part of it, and what everyone is probably going to do. A good firm, like ours, will also add in provisions for easy changes, since startups are fluid. We make sure everyone agrees, and our goal is always that everyone stays friends. 

The advantages of this document are multiple. First, it makes sure everyone's on the same page. Second, in the event of an argument, it can settle things without any litigation. This, and most importantly, it can provide a quick and easy way to split profits, or debts. 

To see the importance of this, imagine that your company gets $50 million in VC funds, and then a buy-out offer for $1 billion. Who can accept or reject that offer? How much would the guy who quit last month get? These problems can choose you hundreds of thousands of dollars if you don't have an agreement in place. 

The Business Entity


Simple but important. What's an S-Corp?  Which city do you want to get your business license in? How are investors protected? Most importantly, why are founder's shares important? 

A good firm will help you give the right business entity, and give you counseling on business structure. A great firm will make sure their advice fits the dynamic of your business. Verbeck Law will do all that for jess than the process if a decent used car. 


The Good Plan and the Bad Plan


The simplest and most important. Basically, what happens if you do really well? What happens if you go down in flames? More than anything else, creating these plans is a great exercise in making sure your team has considered the business aspects of their company. We serve as guides, experienced folk who've seen the lifestyle and can help you choose good paths. 

For help on any of these starting business documents, give us a ring or shoot us an email. A starting document from a firm that gets start-ups is both cheaper and better than a pile of documents from a firm that doesn't.  


Pre-nups: The right way and the wrong way

Prenuptial agreements, called premarital agreements in California and pre-nups by most everyone else, are a contentious topic. Some people think pre-nups are a sort of pre-divorce, and other people think they can decide everything that'll happen when a marriage ends, as long as they have a pre-nup. Neither is correct, but I'll discuss why below. 

What Pre-Nups can do

Here on the liberal West Coast, divorce is a fairly simple undertaking, and the state provides for a lot of what are called defaults in the process. This means that, unless the parties have agreed otherwise, the court will split assets down the middle, and order custody according to some set formulae. Generally, the spouse who takes care of the kids most of the time gets sole custody, and the other spouse gets every other weekend and one day during the week. 

What a pre-nup can do is change (most of) the defaults. You can specify which piece of property goes with whom, and the consequences of this can be immense. Imagine that Alice and Bill get married, with no pre-nup. Alice is a broke programmer, and Bill has a decent job in medicine. Then, Alice's start-up gets bought by Google for $4 billion. Bill divorces her the next day. How much of that money is Bill entitled to? If there's no pre-nup, Bill gets $2 billion. Kind of rough on Alice. 

A pre-nup can specify who gets what, for material things. Alice and Bill could have agreed that any windfall would go to the person who earned it, or they could have specified that, say, the marriage gets 50% and the person who earned it gets 50%. Then, Alice gets $2 billion, and $2 billion goes into the joint account. If Bill divorces her the next day, Alice will end up with $3 billion, and Bill with $1 billion. That seems at least a little more fair. 

A pre-nup can also deal with liabilities, and this is more important than a lot of people think. Two words: student loans. If you're married, you're on the hook for your spouse's student loans, and most student loans can't be escaped through bankruptcy. They are a bloated albatross strung along your neck, and maybe that's not what you want to sign up for when you tie the knot. A pre-nup can actually keep debts with the person who incurred them, which can be much better for the marriage as a whole, particularly if you're thinking about buying a car or a house some day. 

What Pre-Nups can't do

The one-word answer is Kids. Pre-nups can't decide child custody or child support, because those decisions are made in the best interest of the child, not the parent. Child support is set by formula in both Oregon and California, and it's very hard to get a court to shift away from that. You can, however, specify that you both want the kids to keep learning French, or to stay in a certain church, but honestly, these sorts of agreements are worth very little. Generally, one parent will get sole custody when a marriage ends, and that person's decisions will defeat most pre-nup statements about the children. There are better ways to handle these sorts of things, which we'll be glad to tell you about if you'd like. 

The other big thing that pre-nups can't do is punish a spouse for acts that bring the marriage to an end. Frankly it seems farcical to us that, in a country where half of all marriages end in divorce, some people spend time and money thinking up dramatic punishments for a spouse who strays at some time down the road. The courts evidently agree with us, because sections of a pre-nup that punish a spouse for adultery or converting to another religion or whatever are void. 

We hope it goes without saying that a pre-nup can't specify how many times per week the couple will have sex or who will do household chores. If you want a contract that specifies that, you need to move to a developing country. 

So what sort of pre-nup makes sense for you? We recommend dealing with the big disasters and the big windfalls, by which we mean deciding whether you're going to share huge losses and huge paydays. If there are pieces of property that aren't worth much but are very special to one spouse and not another, specify that those stay with the person who loves them most.

If you have pets you're really attached to, figure out what a custody arrangement will look like for them. Pets, under the law, are property, and things can get extremely ugly in divorce. A good pre-nup can take pets out of the equation entirely, so that you can spare them being caught in the middle. 

Last buy not least, a good pre-nup should reflect who you and your spouse-to-be are as people. If you can take care of some major worries, and provide for a little peace of mind, you can get back to focusing on making your relationship work. 

If you'd like to talk to us about a pre-nup before your wedding, please shoot us a line here. Our prices are low, and we're particularly good at handling touchy conversations, and leaving everyone feeling good. 

Getting an Ex Out of Your Life for Good

Lawyers, the saying goes, are never around when you need them. However, we're useful for a lot more than you'd think. In addition to testing the endurance of cheap suits, we can use the tools the law provides to help get an ex out of your life for good. The process will depend on the case, but the process breaks down into two parts: Breaking legal links, and breaking extra-legal links. 

Breaking Legal Links

Many people who've been divorced or separated from a long-term partner find themselves trapped in unpleasant or abusive interactions with an ex due to lingering legal obligations. The most obvious example is custody orders for shared children, but other common links are child support, spousal support, or unfinished property transfers from a judgment. One thing people often don't realize is that all of these can be revised. 

An experienced family law attorney will know how to identify the parts of a judgment that are causing problems, and will know good alternatives to replace them. For example, a lot of problems spring from a casual custody plan. This requires the two parties to talk to each other constantly, and leads them to discuss much more than just the children. This can be a way for an abusive ex-spouse to maintain control in a relationship, and of course it's bad for the kids to be in the middle of a contentious, long-running argument. A specific custody plan eliminates the need to communicate as frequently, and can specify how the parties will communicate in the future. At one stroke, a woman can go from weekly painful conversations with her ex to monthly text messages, and the revised judgment can even specify that the texts refer only to pending custody arrangements. Anyone with kids and an ex will appreciate the difference. 

Another common problem is outstanding obligations that aren't paid or haven't been completed. Child support is an easy one to fix, actually, because there are a lot more laws on the subject than there used to be. It's relatively easy to get someone's driver's license revoked if they're not paying child support, and anyone not running their child support through county services should definitely start. Setting up a formal, impersonal, enforceable child support scheme will greatly cut down on the irate conversations and excuses that are so common in child support. Missed payments from spousal support or due to a property settlement are actually not terribly difficult to handle either, and it's easier than you might think to get a judgment modified to order these new arrangements. 

Replacing judgment terms with new and better agreements will end a lot of arguments, and will also give you a much stronger position to fall back on, which is discussed below. 

Breaking Extra-legal Links

There is a lot more that goes into getting someone out of your life, of course. An ex who's still devoted to interfering in your life will find indirect ways to contact you, or show up unexpectedly at your work or at personal events. This is always unnerving and sometimes terrifying, particularly if the relationship was abusive, and the methods above don't always do enough on their own to discourage people like that. 

Fortunately, there are stronger measures available. In my experience, women particularly don't think they'd ever qualify for, for example, a restraining order, but it's often a great response to continued abusive behavior. Similarly, modern stalking statutes are great tools to get someone out of your life. Many people, particularly women, think that police hate coming to domestic disputes and won't arrive in time to help, and are therefore hesitant to get the law involved. Unfortunately it's true that cops almost uniformly hate domestics, but violations of a restraining order or a stalking order are an entirely different matter. Having a court order in your hand makes it much easier for the police to determine who's at fault, and the consequences are much more significant than a night in the cells to cool down. Instead of coming out to try to mediate a fight, a cop comes out to seize a specific person, and to convey them to jail. You can see why this would be a lot more attractive for a police officer. 

Another useful tool is a filing for contempt. Contempt of court, in simple terms, is refusing to obey a court order, and it can be punished with fines and jail time. The trick here is good drafting; if your judgment specifies that the parties will only contact each other about the children, and you get a text from your ex about whether you're seeing anyone new, that's not just rude and invasive, that's contempt. If your ex was ordered to pay child support, and started working under the table to avoid child support payments, that's contempt too. You may feel like no one can force your ex to do what he or she is supposed to, but take it from us: there are ways. The court might not be eager to get involved in your personal life, but they are very keen to see their own orders obeyed. You and your lawyer can use this to keep an ex away. 

Last but not least, there are things you can do to help you get rid of an ex that don't require a lawyer's help at all, but which your lawyer should know about. In my opinion, everyone who does family law should understand the basic facts about domestic violence, and should be able to recognize the pattern when they see it. A good lawyer should also be familiar with community resources, as well as some common ways to help a victim build support. 

In my case, I worked in public defense for a long time, and have done family law across many different demographics. In my experience, most victims of abusive or controlling relationships feel like there's nothing they can do, and it takes a sensitive and compassionate lawyer to get across that there are things you can do, and that there is help available. If you're struggling with an ex who won't get out of your life, consider emailing us for a consult, or consider looking around for some of the resources near you. This isn't something that anyone has to do alone. 

Law and Untraditional Families

Anyone who's been watching the news lately will appreciate that the legal status of non-traditional families is changing. The increasing legality of gay marriage has changed a lot of traditional family law practice, and this sea change heralds an increasing acceptance of other non-traditional family structures, too. Though do be cautious, because the inevitable backlash against social progress can express itself in unpredictable ways. In this post I talk about some of the implications of current and pending law for people in family structures that differ from the norm. 

1. Gay Marriage Issues

First and most obviously, in an increasing number of states, gay couples can get married on the same terms as straight couples. Many gay couples are learning how broad a relationship marriage really is, and unfortunately many are running into problems with organizations that take a stand against gay marriage for whatever reason. Health care providers are particularly pernicious, because they often have a religious charter and can be trenchant in their refusal to provide a gay spouse the rights and privileges extended to a straight spouse.

Happily there are laws that speak to this sort of discrimination, and the position of Verbeck Law at present is that gay couples shouldn't be shy to lawyer up when faced with discrimination in an important field like health care. It costs less than you'd think, and often hospitals are more frightened of lawyers than they are of gay marriage. Both state and federal laws prohibit discrimination in health care, and often providers get away with it simply because no one thinks they can challenge it. You may even have some success here in states in which gay marriage isn't recognized, simply due to the strong aversion healthcare providers have to litigation and poor publicity. 

The second area affected by increasing access to marriage is the expansion of all the laws that extend benefits or apply restrictions to married couples. Married couples are essentially one legal unit in many areas of law, and previously it was extremely challenging to set up all these relationships for a gay couple. Now it's easy, and it can be hard to grasp the full implications. Gay spouses are also business partners, fiduciaries, and health care designates in most places, and for the first time many gay couples are coming to wonder what will happen to their IRA when they tie the knot. Negotiating these questions can be tricky, and we recommend an attorney who's abreast of current legislative trends and who knows how to route around prejudiced organizations. 

2. Other Non-traditional Families: Poly et al. 


There are also ramifications for other non-traditional families. My generation uses the term 'poly' to refer to romantic or sexual relationships that involve more than two people, and increasingly it's common for children to be raised in these households. (See on this subject the work of Dr. Elizabeth Sheff) Arguably this is the historical norm, but regardless, the custody laws and medical proxy laws are written for one or two person relationships. Accordingly, poly parents can still face significant legal hurdles and discrimination. 

Custody is the most common problem poly families face. An ex-spouse may not understand how sex and relationships happen, and may object strenuously to children growing up in that environment. It can be difficult to explain the difference between a mature poly household and a dissolute party house, and again, the law isn't really set up to evaluate these sorts of relationships. 

Frankly I would strongly suggest that anyone with this sort of relationship and children who are subject to a custody judgment find a lawyer familiar with poly pronto, but I know that's not always feasible. There are, however, steps you can take that will help your case, should it come to court, and which will save your eventual lawyer a lot of time. One of the best is to set down the child-raising parameters in writing, as simply as you can, in a letter or email to the children's other parent. Most poly groups never go to the trouble to set down obvious things like the simple fact that no one is having sex in front of the children, but doing so goes a long way towards establishing parenting bona fides. A letter confirming this will make sure the other parent knows, and you can prove they know. 

Similarly, you should have some sort of written record of who is actually providing parenting. Ideally, people in the household should know that there is a potential custody issue, and should be prepared to explain their parenting role in court, should it come to that. Short of that, you should communicate with the other parent, in writing, about who's taking care of the children when. Hopefully it's obvious that these people should be, as the saying goes, of good moral standing. If someone is helping raise your kids, ask about prior convictions. Poly families start at a disadvantage in court, and handling things like past convictions or outstanding child support is a lot more challenging. 

Notably, if you find some past convictions, consider contacting us about expungement

Last but not least, bear in mind that a poly schema is not normal, and think on occasion about how to best explain it to people in more traditional relationships. In my experience, poly folk tend to stick together, and it can be hard to remember what a strange beast it is. With some forethought, and with some legal help, you can present your family as the loving environment it is, and convince a court to leave custody rights in place. 

Buy your law like you buy your groceries.

Shopping for groceries in America is an amazing experience, probably unparalleled in the history of the world for the amount of choice and control it offers a consumer. Specialty markets will gladly tell you exactly where a piece of produce comes from and what's been done to it since the seed germinated. Discount stores will tell you their exact price for a specific piece of food, in big numbers. People who want to pay a premium for organic or single-origin or bio-dynamic can, and people who just need a gigantic pallet of snack foods to feed to a high school soccer team can find the absolute best price. The advent of the internet, of course, has expanded our reach even further. 

However, most people still shop for law the old-fashioned way, by buying a mysterious black box that a personable (or not) professional assures them contains what they need. Nor is the price obvious: One of the most common billing complaints with attorneys is that the final bill was much higher than the client was expecting. Very few attorneys advertise on the basis of price, and honestly you're well-advised not to go with most of those that do. Elite firms trumpet their exclusivity to justify their prices, but what is it, exactly, that they're so much better at? If you're buying an avocado from Whole Foods you get to know all the charming reasons it costs $12, you're not just required to pay that much because the store owner says so. 

So, Verbeck Law and sites like us exist to help you do a little legal grocery shopping. Do you know exactly what you need? Then you should be shopping on the basis of price. We may have a quote up already that covers our fee to produce the thing you're looking for: check here to be sure. If we don't already have it up, contact us and we'll give you a price. You may not know what you need yet, in which case you're looking for a knowledgeable person to show you some options. If you were buying coffee, you'd expect to see maybe three beans and an explanation of what makes each special, along with a price tag. At Verbeck Law, we'll show you a few different ways to handle your case, and give you quotes for each. No guessing, no extra bills later.

Would you buy coffee out of the back of a Honda Civic? Do you think it would be better coffee if you bought it out of a BMW? Worse out of a Ford with a broken axle? That's essentially what you're doing when you're shopping for a lawyer. It's a mystery product, and it costs some mystery amount, to be determined several months from now. Sometimes you just need to wake up, and the office coffee maker is fine. Sometimes it's worth it to go expensive, but you definitely want to know what you're getting. 

At Verbeck Law, we feel like better-educated clients are better clients, and we're not afraid to compare prices or services with other firms. We'll give you a price up front, and we encourage you to shop it around. See if you can find any other firm that will often take cases to trial without an additional fee. See if any other lawyer will guarantee you a real, final figure for handling a civil matter. We're confident that we're the nice, well-lit, and reasonably priced supermarket in your neighborhood. Most everyone else is selling coffee out of their trunk, and so we think if you look around, you'll like us even better. 

What all law has in common

It can often seem like law is a collection of different specialities that never talk to each other. Ask a family law attorney what the possible consequences are when a spouse accuses you of drug use, and he probably won't have anything to say about criminal charges. Similarly, asking your start-up attorney about an impending divorce might get you a referral or just a blank look, even though divorces can drastically effect privately-held companies with little outside investment. 

To a degree this is warranted. Different fields of law each involve specialized knowledge, and it can take time to learn. A great example is Intellectual Property law, known in the trade as IP. IP is a relatively young field, and it generates reams of new rules, laws, and decisions every week. It's a lot to keep up on, and for a start-up, IP is everything. Similarly, family law can get extremely complex when you have, for example, an untraditional family that got together in a state that, say, doesn't recognize gay marriage, or a foreign country. 

However, in our opinion, most firms oversell the virtues of specialization. It is important to know how a certain field works, and we have the knowledge and experience to do that, but most law suits actually have a lot in common, and those common elements are what occupy most lawyers, most of the time. 

These common factors are probably easy to guess. Negotiation is a huge part of any case that's being run properly, and negotiating retention of code based on open-source gem files is actually pretty similar to negotiating child support increases, or a plea bargain, or a discretionary expungement. In technical terms we call these issues isomorphic, but in common parlance, we say that they're all pretty much the same. Of course most lawyers avoid the common parlance, so that this won't be obvious. 

A related skill is reading people and knowing when to flex or when to fight. Consider an eviction case: some tenants are willing to agree to a move-out date that the court can enforce, but some are devoted to fighting to the very end. If you get a firm that always wants to negotiate, or always fights, you'll waste a lot of time and money. Getting a firm that knows how to tell the difference saves everyone a lot of grief, and honestly, it's not that hard. We try to make a point of hiring lawyers who've done customer service work in the past, because anyone who's waited tables knows how to spot someone who's a little upset about a small issue, as opposed to someone spoiling for a fight. This isn't a complicated skill, and we're not sure why so many lawyers seem to lose it during law school. 

Last but certainly not least, no lawyer will be effective unless she knows exactly what her client's goals are, and how much time and money the client is willing to spend to get there. This seems basic, but ask around. Many people who've had lawyers before feel like their lawyer never really listened to them, and didn't know what they wanted. We find this especially common in family law, and it's distressing. Your lawyer needs to be someone you trust, and someone who understands exactly what you're trying to get. Otherwise how can she help you get it? 

We realize these fit into the fuzzy category of 'people skills,' but we think that there's no reason to be soft about these. In our opinion, they're critical legal skills, and a lawyer who doesn't have them can be easily spotted. There's no reason to settle for someone who can't put their legal knowledge to use for you, and your results will almost always be better with a lawyer smart enough to use the right strategy. Particularly if you've had bad experiences with a lawyer before, we urge you to give us a shot, and see if we can impress you. 


The Emergency Lawyer

Lawyers, like plumbers, seem abundant when you don't particularly need one. When a pipe breaks, or when a friend or relation is suddenly in jail, it can be hard to find the professional you need quickly. Lawyers are generally set up to take cases that have court dates months down the road, and often don't answer the phone after noon on a Friday anyway. This despite the fact that Friday evenings is the most popular time to get arrested. 

In any event, emergency representation is one of the things we offer to people who need a lawyer right now, and don't have the time (or maybe the money) to retain one in the traditional fashion. An Emergency Representation package gets you 4 hours of legal work at a set rate, and during those four hours we'll do everything we can to help solve your problem. This is useful if someone is suddenly in jail, of course, since we can contact the jail to see about release, ascertain the charges, and sometimes even get a bail reduction hearing set before the retainer's up. Having no lawyer during the beginning stages of a criminal law case is extremely dangerous, because that's when people tend to lose their cases. A lawyer in this crucial period protects your rights, tries to get you out of jail, and can save your case. 

But it's also a useful service in other fields, like family law. If your former spouse or partner files for temporary emergency custody, for example, getting 4 hours of legal help right now can make the resultant hearing much, much easier. In fact, if retained early enough, one of our lawyers can represent you at the initial hearing, sometimes resolving the case in hours instead of weeks. It's also extremely helpful to have an attorney to draft and present something like an application for a restraining order; we know how to convince the court to give you the protection you need.

If you can't afford an attorney's help generally, you will get the best value out of hiring an attorney for the very beginning of your case, when time matters and the court hasn't heard your story yet. A lot of law is a long, intense conversation about what happened in the first few hours of a case, or what happened at one crucial moment. Having an attorney for those hours and those moments can make all the difference in the world. 


Deciding whether to accept an offer

Every case involves some element of negotiation. 

Regardless of the case, or even the field of law, there will come a point at which you have the option to settle, or keep fighting. In family law, there's always an offer that covers custody and financials, in evictions there's usually an offer to move out in X months, with or without a payment, and in criminal law it's the ever-present plea bargain. Start-up law, actually, involves a lot of offers of settlement, though they're not always obvious to the non-lawyer. This post addresses some of the factors you should consider in deciding whether or not to accept a given offer, regardless of what kind of case you have. 

Do the math first. 

Most cases involve a lot of raw emotion, and it can be very difficult to see past that when a settlement offer comes in. You will probably feel insulted, because a settlement offer never contains everything you think you should get. I advise clients to actually sit down and do a quick calculation: How much will it cost you to keep fighting, versus how much do you lose in the settlement? Often having a case finished with is worth it, and if you do elect to keep fighting, you want to know about how much that's going to cost. 

For example, in a landlord/tenant case, an offer of settlement from the tenant might ask for 3 months to move out, and a payment of $500. The landlord should calculate what three months' rent for the property comes to, and get an estimate for the lawyer time involved in actually going to trial. Most eviction firms, we find, attract clients with low rates to get started and then ask for literally thousands of dollars to cover a simple residential eviction trial. If your legal costs are going to be that high, then you'd be well advised to take the offer, even if you strongly dislike the client. 

Notably, this is an area where I feel Verbeck Law does a much better job than many firms. Our flat-fee structures allow us to give you a final number, not a low-ball estimate, and so you can make the decision without worrying about a large, surprising bill later.The above question is a lot easier to resolve if you know that your case will cost $800, start to finish, with no giant surcharge for trial. 

Ask if you can do better. 

This is where your attorney's specialized knowledge and experience can help you. How strong is the other party's case, really? How strong is their negotiating position? A counter-offer is generally a good idea, and an attorney with excellent negotiating skills can more than pay for her services here. Consider a divorce case with a house and a retirement account in play. An offer of 1/2 the house and 1/3 of the account might come to a million five, and a counter-offer might be 1/2 of both. If this is accepted, the attorney has just saved you a few hundred thousand dollars. An attorney who isn't good at negotiation may not be able to improve your offer, and this can cost you a lot more than the attorney's fee. 

Make sure it can be enforced. 

This is a big one that's often overlooked. Some 'deals' aren't worth much until they're written down, and in some cases, not even then. For example, in start-up law, a deal in which your company retains a star programmer can be very exciting, but remember, the court can't order someone to perform a services contract if they don't want to. If your programmer gets mad and bails, you can't force him or her to keep working for you, and there are a lot of difficulties in proving damages in this sort of case. Your lawyer should address with you what happens if the other party doesn't abide by their agreement. There are also often ways to make deals more enforceable, and to shorten the amount of time you'll need to enforce a deal that isn't kept. 

At Verbeck Law, we approach all negotiations with vigor, and we feel like negotiation skills are just as important as legal skill. Most likely, you won't spend most of your case time in court, you'll spend it arguing with the other party. Knowing what to look for, and what to ask for, can save you a lot of time and money. We hope that you'll think of running your matter by us, a firm that actively practices excellent negotiation, but whoever you go with, keep these tips in mind.