Practice Corner: Encounters with Pro Se Litigants
by Daniel DeWoskin
We have all heard that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. Many of us have had occasion to walk into a courtroom, be it in magistrate, state, or even superior court, only to find that the courtroom is packed with pro se parties waiting to have their matters adjudicated. Watching inexperienced people handle their legal matters can at times be entertaining and at other times extremely frustrating. We observe these parties fumbling with rules regarding cross-examination or the admission of evidence. It is almost always apparent that these people are uncomfortable, intimidated, and unaware of how much they do not know about prosecuting or defending a legal action. Out of necessity, desperation, or perhaps stubbornness, many people still choose to represent themselves in court.
Is it hubris that causes these people, these “fools,” to represent themselves? The fact is that many parties are representing themselves because they could neither find, nor afford, counsel in a particular matter. These situations can be simply tragic. Many times, these persons are out-maneuvered by an attorney because they fail to acknowledge procedure or to understand the application of law to a particular issue. These people may lose their cases solely because their temperament or demeanor has overshadowed the presentation of evidence in their cases. There is not much of a fix to this problem, as the courts cannot take it upon themselves to advise pro se parties lest they cease to be impartial to some extent.
As attorneys, it can be like watching a train wreck. And yet, even watching the least capable pro se parties, I have to give them credit for having the nerve to walk into court, to stand before a group of strangers, and to engage in public speaking for which the outcome may have dire consequences. It is refreshing and impressive when some of these individuals have taken the time to conduct research into their legal issues and patiently wait for certain cues from the court as they advocate for their position. We have all seen these cues ignored at times by the most experienced and knowledgeable attorneys.
I myself have dealt with pro se parties and can say that I have always found it to be troublesome. When dealing with a pro se party, I am always cautious to avoid ever giving legal advice to the other party. I have a duty to my client and my responsibility to zealously represent his or her interests cannot be compromised. I also have a duty to deal fairly and honestly with my opponent. In these situations, it can be challenging to set the right tone so that I do not inadvertently escalate any hostility that may already be present in the litigation. Even by making very deliberate choices as to how I speak with my opponent can backfire, causing more work and headache for everyone involved, including the court.
Any lawyer who has dealt with pro se parties is likely to say that there is some measure of comfort when dealing with represented parties. Pro se parties are always personally involved in the matter at hand and can often have difficulty taking a step back so that they might see their opponents’ arguments for what they are. If these people were not personally involved, they would not deem the matter worth their time or attention in the first place. When both parties are represented by experienced and professional counsel, knowledge of law and courtesy generally help govern the course of litigation. This is quite the contrast between the emotion and intimidation that can be in play in pro se litigation.
There are also times where we as attorneys sit down in a crowded court and have the person seated beside us turn and ask, “Are you an attorney?” This usually means that we are about to be asked if we can answer a quick question that is never quick and never isolated. When I find myself in this position, I usually resort to recommending that the person ask for a continuance and seek counsel, but I am always professional and polite so that I do not seem to be turning my back on them. As opposed to explaining that I need to be paid for my services, which is true, I have found that people respond better when I explain that without a thorough review of the particular facts of both parties and their assertions, I am not able to provide them with a reliable answer.
It is extremely important in our justice system for people to have access to the courts, even when they cannot afford counsel. Our judges do a good job demonstrating patience and appreciation for the rights of pro se parties, and yet I am continually perplexed by how many people will try to handle a complex litigation matter without doing any homework. While I doubt these same people would handle their own dental work, sometimes I just have to wonder.
I am disappointed when I see pro se parties get intimidated by attorneys in court. There are those rare moments when one of these parties, outgunned and out of their element, has done the legwork and prevails in court. If you have never seen this in action, it is something to behold. Recently, I spoke to a young woman who succeeded in defending herself in a civil action. It was rather remarkable. I was impressed by the quality of her research and preparation, and she was impressed by how ignorant and unprepared her attorney counterpart was.
I suppose the takeaway from this encounter was that we should never take our opponents for granted. So, while a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, there is no substitute for preparation, knowledge of the law and facts, and humility in a court of law. As lawyers, we should try to find the balance between stressing the value of qualified counsel and understanding why people may still choose to represent themselves. Instead of dismissing all these people as foolhardy, perhaps we should first caution them, then suggest where they might find the resources to empower them in their decision. In the end, if they do follow through with the research, it should demonstrate that what we do is unique, precise, and specialized.
As lawyers, we are aware of the dangers of pro se litigation. We know the troubles that lurk in handling matters without knowing the facts, the law, and the applicable procedure. For those who do not know these dangers, we must act as stewards. We may benefit these people and the system in general without giving out free legal advice, but also without treating what we do as beyond the reach of a dedicated individual with something to prove. Once again, many of these individuals do not have a choice, and nobody in our community benefits from a system that breeds intimidation and contempt.