I’ve received a number of questions from people who want tips about representing themselves in a lawsuit. I’ve also had the experience of being in a lawsuit where the opposing side opted not to have counsel. These are my recommendations if you’re considering appearing in a lawsuit in propria persona (“pro per”).
The saying is true: The lawyer who represents themselves has a fool for a client. This is doubly, or triply, true for a non-lawyer who represents themselves, especially if the other side has counsel.
You will be at a considerable disadvantage from the start because you likely don’t know the processes involved in litigation or the civil rules of procedure that apply in that court. (Law students take at least one semester of civil procedure.) If you self-represent, you may often feel like you’re flailing while trying to understand the basics of being in litigation.
Your opposing counsel may have years or decades of experience, and will use it to their strategic advantage on behalf of their client. The court will be somewhat understanding of your disadvantage, but “I didn’t know” is never a valid excuse for any mistakes you make. You will be held to the same standards as represented litigants and lawyers
Check the Court’s Self-Help Website
Many court websites have a self-help section for people who are representing themselves. This webpage may have forms and guide about the process to assist you.
If you have a law library, use it! This may be part of the court or a law school. Make an appointment with the law librarian. They are there to help you, and I’m sure you won’t be the first pro per litigant to ask them for help.
Invest some time to learn about the claims in your case. Learn the elements of each one, what is the burden of proof and who has it (including when it may shift from one side to the other). Matching elements of the claim to evidence and supporting it with statues and/or case law is a large part of litigation.
Don’t Ignore Documents and Filings
Do not ignore any documents that are served on you via email or regular mail. Saying “I never received it” won’t save you if the other side followed the court’s procedure for service. These may be things like interrogatories, requests for admissions, and other types of discovery. Not responding to these may be detrimental to your case.
Additionally, there are limited times in which you can send such documents to the opposition, and if you don’t send these to the other side, you may lose precious opportunities to acquire information for your case.
Consult a Lawyer
Some people represent themselves because they can’t afford to hire a lawyer. I get that. The legal system is biased towards people who can afford counsel. The saying “You can get as much justice as you can afford” has a lot of merit.
Even if you can’t afford to be represented by counsel, you can still hire a lawyer that you periodically consult to help you create a strategy, craft your arguments, and prepare your filings.
If you’ve been served with a lawsuit, consult a lawyer immediately! The deadline to respond comes up fast, and if you don’t respond, you could lose by default. If you want to sue somebody, even if you want to represent yourself, you should still consult a lawyer to prepare an effective complaint.
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