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FAQ: How Do I Represent Myself Against Opposing Lawyers?

Someone may decide to represent themselves in a civil lawsuit for several reasons. Suppose the case presents minor legal issues, and the self-represented party has the time to dedicate to representing themselves. In that case, they may prevail without hiring an attorney. However, if the opposing party hires their own attorney, the pro se litigant may have a more challenging case than they initially thought.

This article answers frequently asked questions (FAQs) about representing yourself in a civil lawsuit when the other side has hired an attorney. Although going head-to-head against an attorney may make prevailing in the case more difficult, it is not impossible.

This article does not cover representing yourself in a criminal case. As a criminal defendant, the other side (the prosecution) will always have a government attorney on the case. Contact a criminal defense attorney if the government has charged you with a crime.

Do I need to hire a lawyer if the opposing party did?

No, you do not necessarily have to hire an attorney if the opposing party hired one in a civil case. Anyone who has good organizational, time-management, and writing skills can prepare themselves for a civil lawsuit.

Two key considerations to make when deciding whether to hire an attorney come down to the following:

  • Can you afford an attorney? Lawyers often charge hundreds of dollars per hour. Additionally, they don't just charge for their substantive legal work. They also charge for phone calls, emails, travel time, and even time spent waiting for the court to call the case. The bills can add up very quickly.
  • Do you have the time necessary to pursue or defend against the claim? Some civil claims take years to resolve. That is quite a commitment, regardless of whether you hire an attorney. However, if you choose to represent yourself, you will spend significantly more time on the case than if you hire an attorney.

Consider the amount in dispute and whether employing a lawyer makes sense financially. Then, consider the time you must invest to resolve the dispute. After weighing these pros and cons, you can decide whether to hire an attorney or represent yourself.

Note that most states have designed small claims courts to allow parties to litigate and resolve disputes quickly and without hiring attorneys. If you have a minor civil dispute, consider researching whether you can file it in your state's small claims court.

Even if I represent myself, are there times I should consider getting advice from a lawyer?

Yes. Even if you go it alone, you should strongly consider consulting a lawyer at specific points in a lawsuit.

For example, if the opposing party asks you to sign a settlement agreement, you could benefit greatly from consulting with an attorney. Remember that the opposing attorney has their client's best interests in mind, not yours. They also are not obligated to explain any legalese or confusing clauses in the proposed agreement.

An experienced civil litigation attorney can provide helpful legal services regarding whether the settlement agreement is reasonable. Even if you have done the rest of the work, consider consulting a trained legal professional to read through any proposed agreement. That way, you'll only have to pay the lawyer for the critical work you cannot do yourself.

Additionally, consider consulting with an attorney if you have an upcoming court proceeding, like a jury trial. A jury trial involves complicated procedures and court rules that you must follow both before it occurs and during it. In complicated cases, you may need to contact an expert witness to testify about the issues in the case.

Every civil case has a discovery phase, where the parties exchange information about the case to learn more about the facts and legal issues. A common tool in discovery is to call the parties to sit for depositions. A deposition allows one party to ask another party questions under oath. An attorney can provide helpful advice before the deposition, and they can object to improper questions during the deposition itself. For more information about discovery, see the section about discovery below.

Where can I learn about representing myself?

FindLaw has an extensive series of articles on self-representation, so read through those guides to get started. Additionally, FindLaw has many articles that provide in-depth information about most areas of law, such as:

Browse FindLaw's Learn About the Law section for more information about certain areas of law.

In addition to FindLaw's self-help guides, other good resources include:

  • Libraries
  • Your state's bar association
  • The court clerk (to a limited extent)

Libraries will have self-help guides, books about court procedures, and other legal resources. Court clerks can help you with local court requirements, such as the forms you must fill out and the documents you need to file. However, they cannot give you legal advice.

Your state bar association also likely has self-help resources for pro se litigants. Visit the association's website to see what it offers. They may also have resources related to low-cost legal representation. Alternatively, consider using FindLaw's Find a Lawyer resource to find an attorney near you.

How do I respond to discovery requests?

In a civil case, parties engage in discovery, which allows them to learn more information about the case. It involves an exchange of information about the dispute. Common methods of discovery include:

  • Demands for discovery (also called requests for production)
  • Requests to answer interrogatories
  • Request for admission
  • Depositions

If you represent yourself, you should answer the interrogatories and demands carefully. You must file a response, and you do so under penalty of perjury. Therefore, if you lie or omit information, you may face serious consequences.

Read FindLaw's section on the discovery process for more specific information.

How should I negotiate with the opposing lawyer?

Don't let the fact that the person you're dealing with is a lawyer scare you. Many lawyers tend to act in kind and will meet civility with civility. If you are confrontational, expect the lawyer to respond in kind or escalate it.

The best approach when negotiating with a lawyer is to be professional and polite while at the same time insisting on your rights or your position. If you believe the law and facts favor your position, explain that and stand firm. Remember, the opposing attorney does not have your interests in mind, and you are responsible for advocating for yourself.

You may ask the opposing lawyer to engage in alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Common ADR methods include mediation and arbitration.

In mediation, a neutral third party will attempt to help the parties in a dispute reach an amicable resolution. The mediator listens to both sides' arguments or defenses. They will act as a go-between and bring up each side's strengths and weaknesses to the opposing side in an effort to reach an amicable solution. Mediation is informal and relatively inexpensive compared to a trial.

Arbitration involves the parties submitting evidence, arguments, defenses, and witnesses to an arbitrator or a panel of arbitrators. It's not uncommon for retired judges or attorneys to serve as arbitrators.

The arbitration process is similar to a court case, except it is generally streamlined and less formal than a trial. After the arbitration hearing, the arbitrator(s) will issue a ruling stating which party they agree with. Depending on the method the parties choose, arbitration may bind the parties to the ruling.

I'm having problems with the opposing lawyer. What should I do?

You may run into issues with an opposing attorney for several reasons. First and foremost, remember that the opposing attorney is not your friend. Their job is to advocate zealously for their client. This will, of course, cut against your interests. Don't assume the other attorney is poking holes in your case just to upset or intimidate you.

The opposing attorney presumably has many other cases to work on, and they typically communicate and deal with other attorneys all day. Given that they both manage several other cases on any given day and mostly communicate with other legal professionals, their communications with you may come off as blunt or cutting. Also, most of the time, they will not consider your feelings throughout the case. Instead, they have to attend to their own clients. That's the practical reality of most attorneys advocating for a client.

Therefore, you should expect issues and disagreements to arise with the opposing attorney; after all, you have a legal dispute with their client. Their client pays them to disagree and find weaknesses in your arguments or defenses. As long as they do not breach any rules of professional conduct, you will have to accept that this comes with the territory in litigation.

It's also possible, however, that an attorney may take you less seriously if you represent yourself. Alternatively, they may act more aggressively or unfairly toward you. For example, they may try to overwhelm or intimidate you with legalese and grandstanding. They may even try to demand you do something, even if you have no legal obligation to do so.

If you believe opposing counsel is too aggressive or demanding, politely ask them to tone it down so that negotiations can proceed. If the lawyer is still overly aggressive and you've made reasonable efforts to get along, consider telling counsel you might schedule a meeting with the judge to discuss the issue. This alone may get the lawyer's attention.

Regardless, try contacting the opposing lawyer before running to the judge. A judge may not look kindly on you if you haven't first made a reasonable effort to resolve your differences. Consider contacting the judge as a last resort, and remember that the attorney has no obligation to take things easy on you just because you represent yourself.

What kind of things am I responsible for if I represent myself?

Everything. If you plan on filing a lawsuit without an attorney's help, you should prepare for a lengthy legal battle filled with paperwork, deadlines, and complex procedures.

There's a lot of paperwork involved with legal representation. Therefore, you will have to write many letters, fill out court forms, and file many documents. For example, the following steps of a typical civil case involve extensive paperwork:

Deadlines also play a crucial role in litigation. There are deadlines for everything, so make sure to stay on top of them. Otherwise, an opposing lawyer will make you pay. Missing deadlines not only may reduce your chances of prevailing but also may bar you outright from having your day in court.

You will also likely have to conduct extensive legal research as you pursue or defend against a claim. See the section above about representing yourself for ideas on where to begin your legal research. Additionally, use FindLaw's search function to search for a specific legal issue and begin your research there.

Questions? Contact an Attorney

Navigating the legal system is tricky for experienced attorneys, let alone a self-represented party with no legal experience. Before you file or respond to a lawsuit, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney. An experienced attorney can help you navigate any legal problem you may have. Their help may make the difference between winning or losing your case.

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