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To Pro Se Or Not To Pro Se: The Logic Behind Representing Yourself At Trial

No one really likes lawyers.  The only time most people generally have to talk to one is when they’re in some sort of legal trouble, and even then for most it’s an ordeal.  I mean, who want to have to recount some horrible event in their life to some stranger?  Also, there’s a general perception that lawyers are elitists and it can be intimidating to meet with one.  Not to mention the fact that legal representation can often be incredibly expensive.

So what’s the alternative if you’re stuck in a legal problem and don’t want to pony up for an attorney?  Well, you can always choose to represent yourself, or as we in the legal world call it, acting as a pro se litigant.

But is that really a good idea?  Sure, there are a ton of stories about bad lawyers, which by themselves may be enough to convince one to go it alone.  Also, some would say the amount of intelligence it takes to be an attorney is no different than that of any other occupation requiring extensive critical thinking skills.  If the latter sentiment alone was the only barrier keeping people from being a good lawyer, I suspect that the legal field would look a lot more different than it does today.

Unfortunately the sad truth of the matter is that for most pro se litigants, more often than not, their cases end up like this, with the vast majority of pro se litigants losing their cases.  That last link contained a quote from the judge hearing a case against a man accused of murdering his girlfriend.  The 62-year-old defendant, Robert Camarano, chose to represent himself in his own murder trial and was publicly reprimanded by the judge, who said:

“You don’t know how to ask a question…You don’t know how to offer things into evidence. You keep making stupid speeches. You keep saying you are good at this. You are not. I do not say this to insult you.”

Very, very embarrassing indeed.  Not only was that quite a hurtful thing to say, but you’ve got to believe that the defendant’s chances of winning his case must be really bad after the judge made that speech in front of the jury.

Tragic hilarity aside, what’s important to highlight from the judge’s speech is that it really underscores the greater reason why it’s so tough to represent yourself in court.  The fact of the matter is that being a lawyer in America or pretty much in any other developed country in the world requires a vast amount of knowledge regarding proper legal rule and court procedures.  Areas of knowledge like the federal rules of evidence, civil and criminal procedure are generally very foreign and unnatural concepts created for reasons of fair, speedy, and efficient justice.

This all means that for the average non-law school graduate pro se litigant, arguing their own cause in court becomes a battle between facts and procedure.  As aptly pointed by the judge in Camarano’s case, the divide between lawyer and pro se litigant often comes down to the first focusing on the proper way to argue a case versus the latter making “stupid speeches” based on pure logic.  And please note that when I say logic, that’s not always the case for pro se litigants (note the story about the accused rapist in the latter half of that link).

Thus, as I mentioned earlier, if intelligence was the only obstacle keeping people from representing themselves and actually winning their cases, pro se litigation might not be such a bad idea.  However, this isn’t to say that pro se litigation doesn’t have a place in our justice system.  There are many instances where it can be used effectively and without must difference than when hiring a lawyer.  Small claims and traffic court come to mine immediately.

For instance, a very straight-laced friend of mine recently got his first traffic ticket the other day.  Being the overly neurotic type that he is (as that’s probably the only type of person in my opinion that can go through most of their life without ever being issued one), my friend freaked out at the notion of having to go to traffic court.  He wanted to know if he should hire a lawyer, to which I replied that it was a personal decision on his part, but if I were him, I wouldn’t waste my money.  Judges in traffic court have to hear a lot of cases, I told him, and having an overly argumentative attorney may very well hurt his chances instead of helping him get his ticket set aside.

So what should you do if you have to make a choice between hiring a lawyer or going pro se?  Well, like I told my friend, the answer to that question is a personal one.  There’s a reason the United States Constitution protects a person’s right to choose to defend themselves.  Sometime people can be better off if they do.  However, please just use some common sense.  In smaller cases, you’re probably okay, but in the bigger ones (like murder or even more serious misdemeanor charges) try to go with an attorney.  It’s still up to you, but do you really want to end up like our friend Mr. Camarano?

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  • Pro se Answer

    I will always go with filing Pro se if I ever have to fight any civil action against me.

    Thanks for your article.

  • Eric Jennings

    Certainly the size of a case is very important. A small claims or a civil court case can be a lot easier than a supreme court case. Also, what a lot of people who represent themselves fail to realize is that the majority of cases are settled. Cases in which people are trying to get the absolute victory or a judgment for the plaintiff can take years. A lot of people think of the court as a win lose situation. Howevever, settlements can be great for pro-se litigants and sometimes opposing lawyers can be very cooperative in working towards a settlement.

  • Kennedy

    Pro se won Summary Judgment against the the City of Beverly Hills. Even the best trial lawyers can’t win Summary Judgments. As a pro se you must be prepared to be held to the same standards as a experienced trial lawyer or your case will be dismissed. Most Pro se know their case better then a hired lawyer so you can win but make sure you follow the court rules and deadlines and cite the law correctly to be able to win against the opposing counsel. Litigation isn’t for the faint of heart but if you want justice you will have to fight to win and the opposing counsel will stop at nothing to get your case dismissed. Lawyers hate a pro se beats them in court due to their egos and reputation. The opposing counsel will play a dirty game. Go Pro se and get justice!

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