So many articles, blog posts, and online comments by lawyers bemoan the presence of self-represented litigants in court. Advice to the poor hapless lawyers who must deal with them is abundant. Practically everyone has something to say, including a law practice management educator and technologist– whatever the heck that is–law firms, solo practice blogs, bar associations, the ABA Journal, and others.
So, you have on the one hand a group who must go to court to represent themselves, usually because they cannot afford a lawyer. On the other hand, you’ve got advocates for someone (usually a company) who clearly can afford a lawyer. The latter bemoans the presence of the former because they don’t always “do” court the way the latter thinks they should. Boo hoo. How annoying is it to have lawyers present in the courtroom when you’re pro se? Very. So pro se litigants, since they have a plethora of advice for dealing with you, below is advice for dealing with them.
Your Case is Too Important to Rely on Silly or Arrogant Lawyer Statements
As American citizens who want to represent themselves in court, pro se litigants often have to cope with supercilious lawyers. Maybe arrogant, disdainful or smug behavior from lawyers stems from law school training – perhaps a course called “Overblown Notions of Self-importance 3100”. It’s also likely that lawyers pick up such attitudes from TV shows. Whatever the reason, pro se litigants handling cases important to them, like eviction, debt collection, divorce, foreclosure, and other civil matters are increasingly challenged by patronizing lawyers. One very silly attorney blogger writes, “Sometimes pro-se adversaries study up and want to follow every rule, call you on every technicality, and play lawyer with you. They have a right to do this, and they assume this is what lawyers do. Of course, most lawyers, especially in Civil Court, don’t do this. We usually try to figure out what the case is really about, and find a fair way to resolve it.”
First, when you represent yourself in court, chances are you must be there. You may not necessarily want to be however, so, you’re not “playing”. Second, it’s good to “study up” because if we didn’t, a lawyer would see we don’t know the law and can win on that. As for the statement about lawyers finding a “fair way to resolve” a case. Is that blogger kidding? Suffice it to say, that’s not been my overwhelming experience, so don’t rely on that statement. See instead, 6 Of The Biggest Mistakes Pro Se Litigants Make.
Opposing a Lawyer is a Pain
Patient, hard working, and overburdened pro se litigants see more than their share of haughty lawyers. I estimate that 95% of attorneys can be described as snotty, snooty or haughty. That constitutes an increase in such qualities since the 1970s. These statistics are shocking! Maybe it’s unfair to refer to a lawyer just doing his or her job as snobby, arrogant, haughty, or other synonym for “supercilious”. After all, people in this country have a right to be snobby, arrogant, haughty, or other synonym for “supercilious”.
The more arrogant a lawyer, the more effective – right? Maybe. Unfortunately, from a pro se litigant’s perspective, opposing a disdainful lawyer often means headaches. Pro se litigants complain that lawyers know the rules but don’t always follow them (see the earlier quote from the silly lawyer), use rules of evidence to take trip you up, bully pro se litigants, resort to trickery when desperate, play buddy buddy with judges to get more favorable decisions, and take unfair advantage of their access to resources that self-represented parties do not have.
But I’m a Star Like “Bobby Donnell”
If you encounter the lawyer whose main purpose is to capitalize on your lack of knowledge or on the judge’s bias against pro se litigants, be aware that your presence is only additional fodder. Outside the courtroom, the lawyer might try to;
- moderate or settle the case by offering you pennies to compensate for thousands spent;
- bully you into paying far more than you might owe; or
- threaten to charge huge amounts in attorney’s fees if you lose.
In the courtroom, the supercilious lawyer is eager to subject you to a cross-examination that can only be described as patronizing (wink wink to the judge). You have options for opposing lawyers who confuse “Suits,” “Law and Order”, “The Practice”, and even “Boston Legal” with real life.
First, do your research before going to court. React with calm effectiveness to arrogant behavior, insulting offers of resolution, or motions that border on the frivolous. If, for example, a lawyer seeks a protective order claiming you are harassing, delaying or being otherwise inappropriate, don’t yell or scream at him, file a motion that will make him or her justify the accusations with real case and statutory law.
In court, stick to the issues and make sure the lawyer does too. If he or she brings in information about you that is not in evidence or at issue, object. Bring them back to reality. Let them know that you can fight and that this show won’t end with one episode. This is real life, not “The Practice”, and they’re not Bobby Donnell.
Getting Used to Lawyers
As for the phenomenon of the supercilious lawyer – you may as well get used to it. Supercilious lawyers are here to stay. There’s little to be gained from complaining about lawyers who take unfair advantage of a system we pay for. Focus instead on making it as difficult as possible for them to get an easy win. If you lose, you’ll have stood up for yourself. That helps us all in the long run, and it’s something to be proud of. If you win, you can forever say, I faced the supercilious lawyer, and I smote him thus!
This article is a response to a post by Paula J. Frederick, entitled “Learning to Live with Pro Se Opponents,” GPSolo Magazine (American Bar Association) – October/November 2005.