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.
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.
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.