Imagine being a lawyer like those on "L.A. Law" or "Boston Legal," where opposing counsel quakes when you walk into the courtroom.
How great would it feel to crush your opponent and win your case?
Most of us don't have the funds or legal know-how to pull off a dramatic courtroom exchange like those on TV. But there is always small-claims court.
Small claims court was established to provide equal public access to the courts. This addition to the judicial system in the 1960s ensured that everyone would be able to have their day in court to solve modest monetary or property disputes.
In my many years of business, I have used the small-claims court numerous times. I have gone up against banks, architects, distribution companies and many others that I felt treated me unfairly.
Small claims court is a great tool for the underdog, allowing people to take on other individuals, large companies and anyone in between without having deep pockets.
The idea of taking someone to court may seem overwhelming, but the court system really has tried to break down the process to make it as simple as possible, says Denver County Court Magistrate Alan Bucholtz. He penned a municipal brochure called "Small Claims Handbook: A Guide for Non Lawyers." It walks citizens through the filing process including which forms to fill out and how to serve the defendant.
One of the biggest mistakes people typically make? "Not carefully reading printed documents and not reading the handbook," Bucholtz says.
It's also key to realize that once you file against someone in small-claims court, those people can in turn countersue you. In my experience, many people use this as a scare tactic with hopes that you will back down from your claim. But if you are prepared for this, you needn't be swayed. Judges see defendants try this tactic daily.
On the chance that you are liable for some part of the issue, you should know that there is a possibility the counterclaim will win out. And if this happens, you could walk away having to pay a settlement instead of receiving one.
The idea of going to small-claims court can seem exciting and gratifying. But also know this: Winning may not necessarily require going before a judge. I have settled half of my small claims without having to step in an actual courtroom because many people try to settle with their opponent long before their court date. While that doesn't always work, it is definitely worth a try.
If you can't settle before your court date, you also can try again just before stepping in front of the judge. Simply ask to chat with the defendant outside the courtroom with hopes of finding a middle ground. This is a good idea for several reasons. First, most judges will ask if you have tried to settle before coming to court. Being able to say that you approached the defendant in a reasonable fashion will make you look good.
Second, you never know what's going to happen when you're in front of a judge or magistrate. You may think you have a solid case, but you could still easily lose.
And third, you may deserve everything you're asking for, but it's better to get at least part of your settlement as opposed to nothing at all. If you can settle for most of the money you wanted and/or get your property back, to me that still qualifies as a win.
Considering a small claim?
Contact the Better Business Bureau before you file to see if they can help you with your case.
• Do your research. One of Denver's top attorneys, Victor Sulzer, recommends "Google-ing" Colorado law on any legal topic you have questions about. For example, "If you are going to court over a security deposit, you have to know your rights under the law."
• Go to a small-claims hearing a few days before your own court date to get an idea of what you're in for. You might even see a good idea or tactic that you could use for your own case.
• Always show up 30 minutes before your scheduled time.
• When filing, keep all your paperwork including proof of when you have served the defendant with your claim.
• Make sure you dress appropriately; T-shirts, shorts, tank tops, hats and tennis shoes are unacceptable court attire.
• Bring all case documents to court and make sure you have made at least three duplicates of each one — the court will request an extra copy for its files.
• When someone is writing you a letter regarding your case, make sure you get it notarized. Un-notarized letters are usually not accepted or hold very little weight in the courtroom.
• Any photographs or items that could help prove your case need to be brought to court with you, i.e. photos of damage from a car accident, e-mails, bills and statements.
• Be sure you talk with any relevant witnesses to the case beforehand. Go over exactly what they are going to say to avoid having their testimony accidentally hurt your case.
• Facts will win the case. Opinions and conjecture will only lead to a defeat.
Aaron LaPedis is a Denver-area art and collectibles dealer, and the author of "The Garage Sale Millionaire." For more information on the book, visit thegaragesalemillionaire.com. Do you have a question for the Aaron? E-mail it to