As a United States resident, you enjoy the right to be represented in court by an attorney—either a private lawyer you hire on your own or somebody appointed on your behalf. Outside representation is by no means required, however; you are permitted to represent yourself if you prefer.
Also known as “pro se” representation, this approach is increasingly popular among those who desire greater control over the legal process. Self-representation is rarely advised, but it can prove successful in select circumstances. Below, we highlight how to self-represent in court—and when working with an attorney is a better option.
Preparation Is Critical
It’s possible to make a solid impression as a self-represented plaintiff or defendant, but it’s certainly not easy. No matter how extensively you research local laws, you’ll lack the in-depth experience that an opposing side equipped with an attorney might enjoy. This means success depends on extensive preparation. It should include not only research of local regulations, but also learning how to think, speak, and act like a lawyer. The following suggestions may prove helpful as you prepare for your day in court:
Master Legal Jargon
How you speak in court matters and it could determine whether your carefully crafted argument receives the due consideration it warrants. Before you appear in court, learn the basic terminology related to the practice area your case occupies.
Keep in mind that terms can differ considerably from one state to the next. Estate planning cases involving health care powers of attorney, for example, could reference agents, proxies, patient advocates, or attorneys-in-fact. Examine relevant state statutes in detail to get a better sense of the most commonly used legal terms in your area.
Obtain as Much Relevant Evidence as Possible
Your communication style is important, but your case will ultimately be won or lost based on the evidence you present. Gathering evidence as a self-representing plaintiff or defendant can prove difficult, as you likely lack the resources and relationships enjoyed by many top attorneys. For example, attorneys can influence filing decisions based on established trust built long ago with prosecutors—relationships that ordinary individuals typically lack. Lawyers can draw on this trust while negotiating favorable outcomes on behalf of their clients. Additionally, they possess a better understanding of necessary documents and filings, which may allow them to navigate the legal process more efficiently.
The specific evidence you need to obtain will depend largely on your case’s niche practice area. Police reports, for example, can prove useful in personal injury cases, especially if paired with pictures of the scene of the incident, such as a car crash or slip-and-fall accident. If your case involves any injuries, you’ll also want to promptly obtain medical records, as these can provide clear proof of your physical suffering.
Beyond documentation, legal discovery may involve processes such as interrogatories, depositions, and subpoenas. Research these concepts thoroughly to determine whether they may apply to your case—and if so, how they can aid your argument.
Keep an Eye on Deadlines
One of the most underrated aspects of hiring attorneys is that attorneys boast a thorough understanding of statutes of limitation, filing deadlines, and other important dates that might slip past the average individual.
If you choose to represent yourself, you’ll need to master the art of time management. The sooner you get a handle on important dates and mark them accordingly in your calendar or smartphone, the less likely you are to suffer the harsh repercussions of missed deadlines.
Understand the Complications of Appellate Court
Representing yourself in a “traditional” trial court is difficult enough as is, but if your case arrives at the appellate court, you’ll need to play by a whole new set of rules. Your case’s appeal does not serve as an opportunity to present evidence in a more convincing light. Rather, the appellate court will review the initial decision to determine whether it was arrived at via the correct application of the law. Because success in an appellate court is so reliant on a thorough understanding of legal procedure, outside representation is strongly encouraged.
A highly skilled attorney can provide significant value as you strive to navigate the complicated legal process. If, however, you’re confident that you can represent yourself in court, make every effort to prepare a convincing argument backed up by solid evidence. In court, there is no such thing as too much preparation.