A significant portion of the legal fees (about $35 billion) Americans pay every year could be saved, claims Representing Yourself author Kenneth Lasson. Some things he says you can do without a lawyer:

* Draw up simple contracts.

* Write landlord-tenant agreements (leases).

* Buy or sell a house.

* Get an amicable divorce.

* File for adoption or guardianship.

* Create a power-of-attorney relationship.

* Change names.

* Write and probate (prove) simple wills.

If you do need a lawyer:

* Shop around. Ask friends for the names of lawyers who have helped them. Check with public-interest groups in your area of concern. Ask your local bar association for referrals.

* Talk to prospective lawyers; call two or three. Do they have experience with your kind of problem? Do they think you need a lawyer? Do they charge for the initial interview? What are their fees? How regularly do they bill? Will they provide a written agreement describing their charges and what they will do for you?

* If you are not satisfied with their answers, call other lawyers.

In dealing with lawyers, says HALT executive director Matt Valencic:

Don't be intimidated. "The lawyer is offering services to help with this or that aspect of your life, but you're the boss."

Get it in writing. "Lawyers always tell you to get it in writing but they're a little more difficult when it comes to getting something in writing with themselves."

"The law, despite all the hocus-pocus and gobbledygook that's involved with it," says Valencic, "is really about daily life and your personal and business affairs. You have the biggest stake in them and know the most about the facts."