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Representing Yourself

It’s not easy to decide whether to represent yourself. Before you make a decision, take some time to consider whether your personality, work ethic, and lifestyle are suited for the task ahead. The following questions should help you assess your situation:

* Do you have the time to learn the substantive and procedural aspects of the laws involved?

* Is your case relatively straightforward?

One way to make this determination is to attend a free legal clinic in your area. Call the clerk’s office of your local court and ask if there are free legal clinics or a Volunteer Lawyer for a Day program. If there is one, attend it and discuss your case with the lawyer present. You should come away understanding more about the complexity of your case and whether or not you feel able to represent yourself.

* Do you feel comfortable negotiating with the opposing party (or the lawyer representing the opposing party)

  • If your case involves going to court, are you willing to:
  • speak in public?
  • understand the legal aspects of your case well enough to explain it to a judge?
  • meet deadlines?
  • perform legal research and understand court rules, cases, and statutes?
  • produce documents to file in court?
  • take the time and effort to understand and respond promptly to papers issued by the court?
  • respond to papers received from the opposing party?
  • free up time in your schedule to attend court hearings?

What it Means to Represent Yourself in a Legal Proceeding

If you are involved in litigation and decide to represent yourself, you will be referred to as a pro se litigant. While a court will hold you to the same standards as a lawyer, most courts will be less stringent with mistakes made by pro se litigants, and might even have a staff attorney at the courthouse to guide you through some of the procedural requirements. However, not all courts are helpful and can in fact be hostile to pro se litigants. Keep in mind that should you come to a point during the legal proceedings where you would prefer to be represented by a lawyer, you may have the option to do so.

Where to Find Help

In addition to the clerk’s office mentioned above, there are several nonprofit institutions and other organizations that may be able to help with your case and provide guidance and resources. In extremely rare cases, they may even offer to represent you in court.

Other good resources include legal form books. Form books contain legal forms that lawyers use in drafting a legal document. Legal forms come in templates with suggested language and must be tailored to fit the situation. There are many types of legal forms available, categorized by subject, procedure, court, or state. Bear in mind that the forms are not meant to be used as boilerplate language. You will need to perform additional research to make sure that the form is appropriate to the situation and complies with current law. Here are some sites that have legal forms:

You can also visit your local law library (at a law school or courthouse) to find legal form books.

Additionally, Nolo.com is another wonderful legal resource. Nolo publishes print, software, and online manuals covering a wide variety of legal issues, including materials on taxes, employment, intellectual property, real estate and how to operate a small business. The publications are written for the layperson and are terrific do-it-yourself legal guides.

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