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Do I need a lawyer?

I’m aware of most of my professional limitations.

When cases come in, I’m able to determine quickly whether it is something I can handle on my own, whether I need to associate with someone else, or whether it’s something I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Probably 98 percent of my cases are limited to a specific practice area. We handle tort cases, including automobile negligence, medical malpractice and product liability.

But, that 2 percent is usually because something comes in the door that is really fascinating, or because I worry that the client won’t be able to find someone to help in what I feel is a meritorious case. There is one other reason that I take cases outside of my usual rubric:  it’s personal.

About a year ago, I wrote about legal self-help. Well, I have another problem, and filing a lawsuit may be the only way to solve it.

The gist is that we moved to Hampden last year. Our first water bill was extremely high, especially given that we had only been using water in the house for about a week or two. We paid the bill.

The next water bill was really high. We curtailed our water usage, checked for leaks and fixed a minor toilet leak. We had BG&E Home come out and install low-flow showerheads and faucets, and we paid the bill. The next bill was inexplicably even higher. We had a plumber come out, he inspected for unseen leaks, didn’t find any, and then he showed us how to read our meter.

As we compared the water meter to the water bill, something was clearly wrong — the city was charging us for our neighbor’s water usage. That’s a big deal — in our house for most of this time are two adults and one toddler. In our neighbor’s house are four adults.

I called the city every three weeks, and nothing ever happened. The first person I talked to said that they would have the meter inspected in 15 days with a report issued shortly thereafter. That never happened. The second person I talked to (about 25 days later) confirmed it never happened and said that the inspection time was really more of a goal than an actual deadline. She refused to let me talk to a supervisor. The third person we talked was very nice, and said she’d inform her supervisor, but we haven’t heard back.

Is it too much to ask for a little bit of service? We Baltimore City citizens do pay the highest property taxes in the state. Since that conversation, we got our new water bill. That means they’ve been out to the meter, but have continued to charge us for our neighbor’s water. I’m estimating that we’ve overpaid by about $800.

So, I drafted a lawsuit this weekend. I’ll send it to the city solicitor tomorrow, and give them seven days to solve the problem before I file the suit. It’s frustrating to have to waste this much time, and I feel for people who don’t have the same resources that I do when they have these problems.

When I get calls from people who have a small-claims case, or something most lawyers  would not take, I usually refer them to the District Court website. The courts have a terrific self-help section, describing what to do for criminal, traffic and housing issues. The section on small claims is really top-notch.  It describes how to fill out a complaint, how to serve it, understanding interest and the affidavit of judgment, and what happens if the defendant responds. It really is a model how-to guide to do-it-yourself lawyering.

So I urge other lawyers — when you get a call from someone with a seemingly legitimate claim that may be too small for you to deal with, spend a few minutes to recommend the court’s website and staff as a means for the caller to get a little self-help. Then, let the caller know they can call back for questions.

It’s a little thing that we can all do to help out.