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Represent Yourself in Court:
Is It Really Like Doing Your Own Brain Surgery?

by Paul Bergman and Sara Berman-Barrett
Copyright © 1993 Nolo Press

You May Find Yourself in Many Unwanted Situations:

  • You slip on loose carpeting in an office building and hurt your back.
  • You own a small manufacturing business, and a supplier delivers faulty raw material.
  • Your landlord is suing to evict you from your apartment, and you claim that the eviction is unlawful.
  • You want your ex-spouse to pay more child support.

In all of these instances--and many more--you may have to go to court to protect your rights if you can't resolve your dispute in a friendly way.

Lawyers commonly charge over $150 an hour for their services, so it may not make economic sense for you to hire one. Even if you win and are able to collect what the other side owes you, a lawyer's fees may devour much of your gain. Representing yourself in court or dropping your claim or defense altogether may be your only realistic alternatives.

Can You Really Represent Yourself?

Unless your case is unusually complex, the answer is yes--a resounding yes. You may not have the legal training of a lawyer, but you do not need to go to law school to have common sense, to learn how to ask intelligible questions or to recognize what makes people and information believable.

In the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of the country's most revered United States Supreme Court justices, "The life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience." As these words suggest, your everyday life experience is the foundation of most of what you need to know to present a coherent, convincing case. Besides, as former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger was fond of pointing out, many lawyers are not such hotshots; they often come to court ill-prepared and lacking professional skills.

Do not be intimidated by the difficulty of the law or legal reasoning. For the most part, you can look up the law you need to know. And you do not have to act or sound like an experienced lawyer to be successful in court. Both lawyers and non-lawyers with extremely varied personal styles can succeed in court. The admonition to "be yourself" is as appropriate inside the courtroom as outside of it.

No matter how carefully you prepare, you will probably feel anxious when you represent yourself in court, especially if your opponent has a lawyer. You are not alone. Many professionals feel anxiety--particularly before a first performance--whether they are lawyers about to begin a trial, teachers about to teach a class or actors about to perform on stage. As long as you use your common sense, educate yourself about courts and trials, and ask for help if you become confused, you should be able to represent yourself competently and effectively.

Being a Stranger in a Strange Land

Courts are public institutions belonging to the people, and you have the right to represent yourself. However, courts are also bureaucratic institutions with very heavy caseloads.

Historically, filing clerks, courtroom clerks, court reporters and even judges have usually preferred to deal with lawyers rather than with people who represent themselves. People who opt to represent themselves in court are referred to as "pro per" or "pro se" litigants.

Although the increasing number of people representing themselves is beginning to change attitudes in some places, many court personnel believe that they can do their work quicker and easier when they work with lawyers than when they work with pro pers. Do not be surprised if you initially encounter hostility from court personnel. Instead of helping you, they may even attempt to throw obstacles at you in the hope that you will get discouraged and go away.

If you believe that court personnel at any level are being rude to you, be courteous and professional in return even as you insist upon fair treatment. By knowing and following court rules and courtroom techniques, you can often earn the respect of the judge and the others who work in the courtroom. You may well find that they will go out of their way to help you.

How to Prepare for Trial

The key to success in the courtroom is good preparation. You will have to learn the rules before your trial begins: how to question witnesses, how to make objections, how to submit documents and more. Do not be discouraged. There are lots of books that can help you learn what you need to know. Go to either a public law library in the courthouse or a local public law school or to a legal bookstore and look for books on trial practice. Such books will explain the parts of a trial. You can later look for help in more specialized books if you need it--for example, if you get stumped on how to present specific evidence.

Each court system has its own procedural rules--for example, time limits for filing various documents and page limits on the length of those documents. Even though you are not a lawyer, judges will expect you to know and follow all court rules. If you miss a deadline, use the wrong kind of paper or violate some other rule, you will suffer the consequences even though you are a pro per litigant.

For instance, assume that you want to ask for a jury trial and that your local rule requires that a jury trial request must be made 30 days after the initial documents are filed. If you miss that deadline, you will not have a jury trial unless you go through a laborious process to request an extension of time to file your demand and the judge is willing to make an exception.

There are several rule books to have handy when you prepare your case.

Your State's Rules of Evidence

These rules define the evidence you and your adversary are allowed to introduce for the consideration of a judge or jury.

Your State's Rules of Court

These rules set out procedures and deadlines. Generally, states have separate sets of rules for different kinds of courts. For example, a state may have one set of rules for its Municipal Courts, another for its Superior Courts.

Your Specific Court's Local Court Rules

These nuts and bolts rules cover such important matters as where and when to file documents.

Books containing all of these rules should be available in a public law library. You may also want to purchase these books from the Clerk's Office in the courthouse or from a legal bookstore so that you can have them close at hand.

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The selected articles originally appeared in the Nolo News and are Copyright © Nolo Press 1996 and reproduced here with permission. If you find them of value, we encourage you to visit Nolo Press at their web site http://www.nolo.com. If you wish to post them on-line or otherwise distribute them, first read Nolo's copyright policy.

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