Representing yourself in court can be a huge and very complex challenge, as you’re essentially doing something that lawyers spend many years and dollars learning how to do as a profession. It’s kind of like, deciding to fix your own car when you have no automotive knowledge or experience or trying to pull out your own tooth, or trying to operate a welding machine, etc. There are some things that, if possible, should be left for the professionals to handle. However, sometimes hiring a professional is not ideal, especially when it comes to legal services.
There are many reasons one may decide to represent themselves in court (legally referred to as “in pro per”). For some, it’s because they can’t afford to hire a lawyer. For others, it’s because they want to have complete control over their case. For others, it’s because they have legal experience/knowledge and they think representing themselves is the best option. No matter the reason, when you are in pro per, there are many things you MUST understand-below are 10 of these things:
- The Same Rules Apply
Whether you’re representing yourself or represented by a lawyer, the same rules and procedures apply – you are required to follow them and will likely get no slack if you get it wrong. This is one of the biggest mistakes those in pro per make. If you’re going to represent yourself, you MUST know all of the rules, laws, and procedures; “I didn’t know I had to or couldn’t_______________” is never an excuse…make sure you know.
- Get Legal Advice
If you’re not going to hire a lawyer to represent you, at minimum, you need to seek counsel and get legal advice. As mentioned above, when you’re in pro per, you’re required to know and follow the same rules that lawyers must follow, and there are A LOT of rules. Considering the fact that most lawyers and even judges have a hard time remembering all of the rules, even after years of law school, continued education, and practice, this is kind of a big deal. For this reason, it’s important to seek legal advice that can guide you through the process and lessen your chance of missing something or getting it wrong.
- Research is vital
If you’re going to represent yourself, you need to know your stuff. For this reason, research is vital. Even experienced lawyers spend hours every day conducting research- this is a must to ensure that you’re up to speed on the current laws, trends, and strategies available to support your case. Be prepared to become very familiar with your local law library, online legal research tools, and books. You can never learn or know “too much” – so learn as much as you can.
- If it’s not relevant, it’s not worth mentioning
While we understand that there are a lot of things that may have happened in the past and your current family law case, it’s important to understand that in family law, if it’s not relevant, it’s not worth mentioning. In order to be relevant, it must have a significant bearing on the issue in front of the court- if not, leave it out. For example, California is a “no fault” divorce state; it doesn’t matter who cheated, had a gambling problem, or was unwilling to compromise in your marriage. Although these things may be important from a moral standpoint, they are rarely relevant from the legal angle. So, no matter how frustrating this may be to you, leave it out… Raising irrelevant issues in a family law case will lead to frustrating the judge who isn’t interested in these things, and as a result can negatively impact your case. Know what’s relevant and what’s not, and focus on the former.
- Attorneys are intimidating
That’s their job. Especially when they’re going against someone in pro per in court who has minimal if any legal experience. Although there are some attorneys who genuinely want to resolve the issues when you’re representing yourself, it’s important to expect the attorney you’re going against to be a jerk, try to bully you, give you little information, and request a lot of information from you. That’s how they’ll win…IF you aren’t prepared for it. Don’t take it personally, understand that it’s their business to protect their client’s interest, and they will do what it takes to do so.
- If you’re going to act as your lawyer, act like a lawyer.
You must treat your case as if it is your business, the same way you’d expect an attorney to act if they were representing you. As mentioned before, make sure you’re prepared- having spoken to an attorney for guidance, done your research, and prepped your arguments. Be confident. If you want to achieve favorable results, you have to be diligent in building your case. Anticipate the arguments that will be made against you, practice your arguments, prepare your testimony, and know your objections, understand the rules of hearsay and evidence. Go all in, put your best foot forward. If you make a mistake, brush it off, handle it the best way possible, and keep it moving. You are your client and your client is depending on you to get it right.
- Did you know some attorneys offer limited scope services?
Limited scope services are specific services you pay an attorney to do without hiring them for full legal representation. For example, you can hire an attorney just to prepare your court documents, or you can prepare your own documents and hire an attorney to come to court with you. You could also hire an attorney just to guide you through the legal process by giving you legal advice throughout as suggested above. These services are great for those who can’t afford or simply choose not to obtain full legal representation but would like to make sure they are comfortable with their case.
- The other side may have to pay for your attorney’s fees
California Family Code gives the court discretion to order one party to pay the other party’s attorney’s fees. The law requires that both parties to a family law action have equal access to adequate legal representation. One of the most common reasons a party will have to pay attorneys fees for the other is if there is a disparity in the income and assets of the parties and one has the ability to pay the other’s attorneys fees. Another common reason a party may have to pay the other’s attorneys fees is due to actions by that party that goes against the promotion of settlement or resolution of the case. So, if the lack of money is the only reason you are representing yourself in your case, you should definitely speak with a lawyer about the possibility of getting an attorneys fee award to cover your legal representation.
- Free/Low-Cost legal clinics are better than nothing
Representing yourself completely with no guidance whatsoever is a very difficult task, especially if you don’t know where to start or what to expect. For this reason, almost every courthouse has a self-help center where you can get help completing your forms and filing your documents. Although most of these self-help centers are not authorized to give you legal advice, they can point you to the right resources that you may need. Another option is low cost/free legal seminars in your county. Many organizations and attorneys offer events throughout the community where you can get your questions answered or even low-cost representation, so before you try to do it all alone, these options are a better alternative.
- If done wrong, representing yourself could be costly
More costly than hiring a lawyer to represent you in fact. One thing you must understand is the importance of proactivity. It costs more to FIX a legal problem than it is to PREVENT a legal problem from getting out of hand. Far too often, people try to represent themselves, not realizing the time and commitment that’s required in order to achieve even close to your desired results. This is not something to be taken lightly. After all, your money, property, assets, or more importantly children may be on the line, and mistakes that would’ve been avoided by working with an attorney can cost you more than it would’ve been to just hire an attorney from the outset. So, if you’re going to represent yourself, do just that- fully commit and give it your all, so that in the end, no matter what the result is, you can rest in knowing that you did your best rather than looking back, thinking… “I should’ve just…..”