(May 26, 1997) -- HAVE YOU FILED for an arbitration hearing because a stockbroker did you wrong? Big losers can easily find lawyers to help, but not those who've been stripped of a "mere" $25,000 or less.

That could be half your savings, yet most lawyers say it's too small a case. Even if they win, they can't charge enough, after expenses, to make the effort worth their while.

So investors with small claims have to arbitrate alone. Sometimes you win, so you should always try.

But without a lawyer, your chances are greatly reduced, says Richard Ryder, editor of the Securities Arbitration Commentator in Maplewood, N.J., which tracks arbitration awards.

SAC surveyed some 5,000 arbitrations between July 1991 and June 1996 to see what happened to investors who represented themselves. Here's the result:

Those with claims of $10,000 or less are allowed to submit their cases entirely on paper. When they did, they won 11 percent less often than investors who had a lawyer's input. If they chose a live hearing, they won 33 percent less often. Their stockbroker's lawyer apparently chewed them up.

Claims of $10,000 to $25,000 are generally heard before a single arbitrator. When these investors went lawyerless, they were 12 percent less likely to win.

Even when they won, they received a proportionately smaller award than investors with lawyers got. On average, the arbitration panels awarded them about one-third less.

As a practical matter, that's not quite as bad as it sounds. Lawyers take one-third to 40 percent of what you recover, plus expenses. So a small-claims winner without a lawyer might net more money, even though the award isn't quite as big.

Arbitrators could award you lawyers' fees but usually don't.

Lawyers are worth their pay, however, if they raise the odds of winning your case, and the larger the loss, the better the chance a lawyer will win, Ryder says.

If you plan to represent yourself, hear this -- from a Massachusetts stockbroker and arbitrator who doesn't want to be identified.

"I've had investors and inexperienced lawyers come in and say, 'Here's my loss, I want my money back,' " he says. "But to win, they have to tell me what happened from Day 1, document it and show where the broker made the mistake."

To learn how to prove your case, get the free arbitration packet from the National Association of Securities Dealers (call 212-858-4400). Then hire a securities-arbitration lawyer to spend an hour, here and there, advising you on how to proceed.

You must get an expert. To help you find one, the NASD's packet directs you to the bar association in four major cities.

But curiously, it leaves out the best source of legal help: the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association (PIABA), whose 200 members specialize in this kind of work. For a reference, call PIABA at 1-888-621-7484.

Consulting fees run between $100 and $300 an hour.

You need three things to win.

First, you need proof. You're entitled to documents from the brokerage firm -- the history of your account, the firm's research on the securities in dispute, the broker's personnel file and the firm's compliance manuals, which may show that your broker wasn't following the rules.

Brokers typically stonewall these requests, especially if you don't have a lawyer to hammer them.

Second, you need fair-minded arbitrators or your case will be lost before it starts. Arbitrators will be assigned to you. You're allowed to strike one you think is biased.

If asked, the NASD will give you a list of the arbitrators' recent awards in NASD forums. For a list of all your arbitrator's awards in any forum, dating to 1989, call the Securities Arbitration Commentator (201-761-5880).

Third, you need the right temperament. Are you good at detail, willing to put in scads of work and capable of holding your temper when goaded by the other side?

You need these traits to win -- yet with some biased panels, they may work against you. Ironically, "the more ably you prepare your case, the harder it is to present yourself as having been duped by your broker," Ryder says.