Whether or not you decide to use a lawyer, legal-reform advocates say, the best consumer is an educated one. James C. Turner, executive director of HALT, a nonprofit legal-reform public-interest group, encourages consumers to browse the Internet and read self-help books.

"Get smart before you even go looking for help," he said. Even if you hire a lawyer, he added, "you can't just throw up your hands. You have to be involved and responsible."

Legal reform advocates say good places to start your research include:

Nolo.com: The Web site of the 30-year-old Berkeley, Calif.-based Nolo Press is known for self-help legal books, software programs and online information. The site offers legal glossaries and nuts-and-bolts articles on wills and estate planning, retirement, small business, landlords and tenants, divorce and child custody, taxes, bankruptcy and more.

Findlaw.com: This site helps legal professionals with case-law citations, but it also has sections for businesses and individuals. The Get Help Now section under each subject heading leads to downloadable forms, which in their complexity will send many consumers directly to the searchable database of lawyers.

Lawyers.com: The focus here is to help you find a lawyer, but click on Research Legal Topics and information about topics from bankruptcy to wills and probate is yours.