There are hundreds of websites written for people who want to represent themselves. Everyone in the United States has access to Google and Bing. Most people with at least some computer savvy can locate major case decisions for DUIs, divorce and criminal offenses with a few swipes on their smartphones. Here’s the cold fact: while you may effectively represent yourself in some limited cases, if you have been charged with anything other than a petty offense or traffic ticket, or if you’re embarking on a divorce or family law case and don’t want to give everything away to the opposing side, you should strongly consider speaking to an attorney first. And after speaking to that attorney (and maybe a few others), you should probably hire one of them. Here are 6 reasons why you should not (I repeat: NO NO NO) represent yourself in court, regardless of everything else you may have read online.
1. So you want to go pro se, but you don’t know what the words “pro se” mean?
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard lousy attorneys or unrepresented defendants tell the court they’d like to “squash” a warrant. Do you know the right word to use in that last sentence? It’s “quash” and if you didn’t know this, you probably should not be representing yourself in court. Courtrooms have a certain vocab, a Latin-heavy lingo, that you may not be used to hearing in everyday life. Every document served in court has its own legal title: petition, citation, motion, answer, response. Every hearing has a different name: first appearance, arraignment, setting, pretrial conference, disposition etc. Stop your head from spinning on all of the legal jargon and hire an attorney so you don’t have to think so hard. P.S. Pro se translates to “for oneself,” as in going to court for yourself. Remember this.
2. The judge will not like you if you represent yourself.
Yes, you have the right to represent yourself in court. However, nobody likes it. Should you decide to represent yourself, it’s likely you’ll hear the judge advise you once or more about that decision. Sometimes judges will even slickly try to talk you out of going pro se (I know you now know what pro se means). Representing yourself means the clerks and judges will have to take more time to explain things to you. This will effect court efficiency and most judges love efficiency. Also, some defendants/respondents/petitioners come as cocky or arrogant as they huff and puff and address the Court. Have you heard Judge Judy react to arrogant people on her show? I’ve seen judges come down similarly on parties. I’ve heard a judge actually tell the parties, “This is not Judge Judy!” when courtroom decorum wasn’t followed.
3. You’ll get out of court faster.
In most jurisdictions, attorneys are heard before everyone else. That means if you have an attorney, he or she can jump up and have your case called toward the beginning of the docket. That means you get to skip being bored and restless listening to all of the other cases drone on before the judge gets to your name, Zachary Zagat, printed last on her alphabetically listed docket. 4. Every courthouse and courtroom is different. You can’t research that online. I’ve practiced in Colorado for almost a decade now and I’ve appeared in eight different counties/jurisdictions so far. Every jurisdiction runs a little differently from the next. While a pro se or sovereign focused website will give you a general overview of what you might expect of the court process, that website might not be specific to your jurisdiction and I’m certain there will be no details about how the courtroom operates in your assigned division in your particular jurisdiction. I suppose you could sit in on dockets for hours beforehand and get a feel for your judge–and I’ve seen pro se defendants do that sort of thing–but who has that kind of time? You’re better off spending that time shopping around for an attorney who you feel is on your side and competent to take your case. And speaking of online research, printing out Wikipedia pages and webmd.com articles to present to the Court at a hearing will have little to no impact on the outcome of your case. There’s this big book of things called The Rules of Evidence, which dictates what kind of evidence gets action in a case. You’ll be held to a standard pretty close to a regular attorney and that means you’ll have to play by the same Rules.
5. An experienced attorney knows the court’s quirks and preferences.
Remember the classic comedy, My Cousin Vinny? Vinny may have (spoiler alert) won the trial, but he sure looked ridiculous along the way. And he was an actual law school graduate. I suggest you find an attorney who has experience practicing in the courthouse where your case is scheduled. When I say “practicing,” I mean standing in front of the bar in the courtroom on a regular basis, reciting his bar registration number from memory for the record without hesitation, and addressing the judge from the lectern. A cousin of a friend of a friend who does real estate law probably won’t be of help to you on your felony burglary case that’s postured for a jury trial, even if his retainer is bargain basement. Why not choose the attorney who can name a couple of the judges in the courthouse and knows that, for instance, Judge Matthews is a woman?
6. Have you met Miranda?
Don’t trust what you see on TV. I’ve had dozens of potential clients tell me that their cases should be thrown out since the police officer never read them their rights. Because, they say, on Law & Order, or CSI or Brooklyn 99, the cops always read the Miranda rights, right? Not so fast; there is no automatic rule saying a cop has to read you anything upon first contact. You’re really only supposed to get those famous Miranda advisements read to you if you’re facing custodial interrogation, a term which can be complicated and is outside the scope of this blog post. And even if you happen to be in a situation of custodial interrogation and you weren’t read your Miranda rights, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire case gets tossed. There are nuances that need to be considered. If you’re going to remember anything about Miranda upon reading this post, remember the second of the rights: You have the right to an attorney. If you can’t afford an attorney, one may be appointed for you. Take advantage of this right and don’t go it alone on your legal matter.