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Representing Yourself Successfully

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"How to Screw Up Your Case in Five Easy Lessons"

By M. Sue Talia

Some judges loathe pro se litigants. Sometimes this is legitimate. Pro se litigants make the judge's job harder because they usually don't know the rules or the legal culture. This means the case frequently takes more of their time than one with two knowledgeable lawyers involved. Also, pro se litigants are sometimes harder to control. After all, if a judge is getting mad and ready to throw the book at a lawyer, the lawyer may think about the next 15 cases that he is going to have before the same judge and bite his tongue a bit. The pro se litigant, who hopes he will never have to see this judge again, may go on blundering into a buzz saw without knowing any better.

The other reason judges hate pro se litigants, however, is that there are certain patterns which individuals who represent themselves tend to repeat over and over and over again, most of which make cases much more difficult.

If you really want to mess up your case, try one of the following:

Perry Mason Wannabes

Say you have always wished you had gone to law school. Perhaps you were a Perry Mason or Divorce Court junkie when you were a kid, and the real reason you want to limit legal services and represent yourself is so that you can play lawyer. DON'T. This isn't about giving rein to your ego or fantasy life. If you do, you are certain to be unsuccessful in court and embarrassed for making a fool of yourself. Remember, you are a litigant who is representing himself. Don't try to be an attorney, or they will make mincemeat of you. Besides, after you have done it a few times, the joys of arguing in court are highly overrated.

Whine

Nothing will brand you more quickly as a difficult litigant and make the judge stop listening than if you want to use your day in court to cash in on all the "brown stamps" you have been collecting on your spouse through 15 years of marriage. If you are going to handle your own court appearances, find out in advance what is legally relevant and what is not, and limit yourself to the former. It may feel great to complain to an audience about the miserable failings of your spouse, but if you do, you will lose not only the audience but, most likely, your case.

Also, if you tick one judge off by your behavior, and then get transferred to another judge, don't assume there isn't carry over. The courthouse is a workplace much as any other. Once a case or litigant is labeled a "problem" that may well carry from court to court via the grapevine. You may well find the next judge even less sympathetic than the first.

One of the best uses you can make of your consulting attorney is as a sounding board, and let her coach you as to what is or is not useful for the judge to hear.

Also, do what the lawyers do. Watch the judge and look for signals. If the judge is losing patience with you or telling you to change the subject, change the subject. You will never score points with the judge by disregarding her instructions.

Expect the Courts to Make Up for Your Inexperience

Some courts will loosen the rules a little for pro se litigants (to the disgust of Opposing counsel, I might add). However, don't expect much. Judges are sworn to be evenhanded and fair to both sides. They may intervene if your opposing counsel is running you ragged with esoterica, but they won't (read: can't) do your work for you, and you should not expect it. Most of them will make a point of being absolutely impartial and won't cut you any slack whatsoever. Therefore, do your homework and expect that you will be held to the standard of any other litigant, represented or not.

Turn In Sloppy or Illegible Paperwork or Don't Serve Opposing Counsel With a Copy

This is guaranteed to make a judge nuts. I have already said that legal drafting is tricky. It needs to be clear and legible and the opposing side (whether represented or not) must be provided with a copy of whatever you file with the court. Rules vary from state to state and even county to county, but most of them require that documents be filed and served several days before any court appearance. Find out the rules, including the local variations, and adhere to them. Just because you are not a lawyer does not mean that a judge is not going to apply the rules and expect you to play by them. The worst of all possible results is that your paperwork is thrown out and you lose the case because you forgot to serve the other side or because it is so sloppy the judge can't read it.

This is particularly important when it comes to drafting orders. You have no idea how disastrous a badly-drafted order is when you later attempt to enforce it, and just because you think you know what it means doesn't guarantee that the judge will interpret it that way. It may also surprise you to learn that many experienced attorneys do lousy paperwork. Imagine how much harder it is to fill out the form properly if you have never seen it before.

Similarly, when a pro se litigant pulls out a shoebox full of receipts instead of properly prepared exhibits, any judge is going to inwardly groan. Be organized and do it right if you are going to do it at all.

Argue With the Judge

They HATE this. In some courts, it can get you held in contempt. Be courteous and professional. Plan on spending a lot of time hanging around the courthouse (without the kids, of course) if your case is being litigated. Educate yourself on the court procedures which apply to your case and, if possible, watch the judge who will be hearing it. You will learn a great deal about how he runs his courtroom and which arguments he responds to most favorably.

A particularly ineffective pro se trait is to raise your voice louder and louder as you repeat the arguments the judge has already rejected. Don't do it.

Finally, be realistic about what relief the court can and cannot grant. Many people are incredibly naive on this point and expect all sorts of things that the courts simply aren't equipped to deliver. Find out what is realistic and what is not and concentrate on the former. Above all, remember that if you are losing, you will never change the judge's opinion by arguing with him.

Copyright M. Sue Talia 1997. Excerpted from "A Client's Guide To Limited Legal Services". All Rights Reserved.

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