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Should You Represent Yourself in Court?

Whether you should represent yourself in a court case is a multi-faceted question. Whether you have a civil or criminal case, two primary considerations include whether you can afford an attorney and the potential consequences you face if you lose your case.

If the government has charged you with a crime and you face potential jail time, you should contact a criminal defense attorney near you. If you cannot afford an attorney, you can ask the court to appoint you one, free of charge. Obtaining legal representation when your freedom is on the line gives you the best chance of prevailing in your case.

In a civil case, where you aren't facing potential incarceration from a criminal case, you may consider representing yourself. If you have time management and negotiation skills, as well as confidence in your research and writing abilities, you may prevail without an attorney.

This article answers frequently asked questions (FAQ) that non-lawyers representing themselves in a civil case may have. Even if you decide not to hire an attorney in your civil lawsuit, consider contacting one to discuss your case. Most attorneys provide free consultations to discuss a case, and this initial discussion can give you a general assessment of your case's strengths and weaknesses.

When should I represent myself, and when should I hire an attorney?

There is no way to provide a blanket statement about when you should represent yourself versus when you should hire an attorney. Every case is different, and the calculus for hiring legal representation or going it alone differs in every situation. Some general guidelines and considerations may help you decide which option is best for you.

In no particular order, consider the following factors as you decide whether or not to hire an attorney:

  • The complexity of your case
  • Whether you can afford an attorney's legal fees
  • The worst-case scenario if you lose your case
  • The time you have to dedicate to your case
  • Whether the opposing party has hired an attorney
  • The potential toll litigating a case on your own may take on you and your family

You may find that it makes sense to represent yourself for minor civil claims. Consider checking your state's small claims court rules, as states have designed those to offer a quick and inexpensive means to resolve minor civil disputes. Some states don't allow parties to a small claims case to hire attorneys.

Can I hire a lawyer to help me only when I need it?

Yes, a self-represented litigant can hire an attorney to help with a specific part of a case. As mentioned before, each case is different.

Limited-scope representation, also called unbundled representation, refers to an attorney-client relationship where the attorney represents a client for one or several parts of a lawsuit. For example, you could enter into an agreement where the attorney agrees to conduct legal research on your behalf and draft a brief for an upcoming court case.

Another option is to hire a lawyer coach for legal help during your case. A lawyer coach acts like a legal consultant. For example, they can review the facts in your case and tell you which laws apply to the issues in your case. They can also prepare you for an upcoming court hearing and walk you through how to best present your case.

While both legal services will cost you money, you will probably save money using these compared to hiring an attorney to represent you throughout the entire case.

Where do I file my case?

You have to file your case in a court that has jurisdiction over the parties to the case and the subject matter of the dispute. Jurisdiction refers to a court's ability to interpret laws and render a decision. Filing in a proper venue is essential for any lawsuit.

Federal and state courts make up the U.S. court system. Federal courts decide disputes involving federal laws and between citizens of different states. State courts decide disputes involving state laws.

Most litigants will file their civil disputes in a state court. For example, suppose you believe someone has violated a state law and caused you an injury or monetary damages. In that case, you may file the case in state court.

Each state has a different court system. Therefore, the name of the court in which you file may differ from a neighboring state. For example, in Illinois, a plaintiff files their initial complaint in the Illinois Circuit Court. If a party appeals a Circuit Court's judgment, they must file their appeal with the Illinois Appellate Court. Subsequent appeals go to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Some states also have specialized courts that deal with specific areas of law, such as family law and probate disputes.

Contact the clerk's office at your local courthouse if you have questions about how and where to file a case. The court clerk can provide basic information about filing a claim but cannot provide legal advice. You can also search for your state's rules of civil procedure.

How do I deal with all the paperwork involved?

If you have questions about how to file or respond to legal documents, consider contacting the court clerk at your local court. They can help identify the court forms you need to file a lawsuit and how to e-file forms.

You can find more information at a local law library or your state's bar association. Your state may have an Access to Justice resource. In addition, check to see if your state or county has a legal self-help center or offers free legal aid resources.

FindLaw also provides many articles with free legal information about different areas of law. Browse FindLaw's Learn About the Law section for more information.

I filed my lawsuit. Now what?

Once the plaintiff files their lawsuit, state and local rules set the procedures and process. If you need clarification on what comes next, ask the court clerk if they have self-help resources explaining the litigation process.

In civil cases, the parties engage in discovery before the trial. Discovery involves an exchange of information between the parties to the case. Methods of discovery often include the following:

The court may also schedule pretrial conferences or hearings. In a pretrial conference, the parties and judge discuss the case and deal with any issues that may prevent the court from conducting a fair trial. Parties may also file pretrial motions, such as a motion to dismiss or a motion for summary judgment.

The parties may communicate about settling their dispute. If the parties cannot reach a settlement agreement on their own, they can try an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) like mediation or arbitration.

If the parties do not settle, they should prepare for the upcoming trial. This may include gathering evidence, preparing their arguments or defenses, and securing witnesses to testify. If a witness tells a party they won't appear to testify, the party may request a subpoena. A subpoena is a court order that compels a witness to appear in court, produce certain documents, or both.

How do trials proceed?

Although rules of court procedure vary, the general court process is as follows:

  • If the parties have a jury trial, the jury selection process occurs.
  • Each party makes an opening statement that provides an overview of the case they intend to prove.
  • The plaintiff (the person or entity that filed that lawsuit) presents their case to the court.
  • Once the plaintiff rests their case, the defendant (the person or entity the plaintiff sued) presents their case.
  • Both sides make closing arguments, summarizing their version of the events and explaining why they should prevail.

When either party presents their case, they may introduce evidence to the court. If a party objects to an argument, the introduction of evidence, or a statement the opposing party makes, they must say so in open court.

The judge will decide whether to overrule or sustain any party's objection. If they overrule the objection, they allow the party to continue with their argument or statement, or they will allow them to introduce the evidence. 

If they sustain it, they do not allow the party to continue with the argument or statement, or they will exclude the evidence. Consider reading your state's rules of evidence for more information about admissible evidence.

During each party's arguments, they may offer their testimony. They may also call witnesses to testify. If a party calls a witness to testify, the opposing party has a right to cross-examine them. See the section below for more information about direct and cross-examinations.

When the trial concludes, the trier of fact will render a decision. In a bench trial, the judge will issue their decision at the end of the trial or by a specified date. In a jury trial, the jury will render a verdict.

Consider talking to the court clerk or visiting your court's website for more information about procedure and court rules.

How do I question my witnesses and cross-examine the other side's witnesses?

If you call a witness to testify, you conduct a direct examination of them. If the opposing party calls a witness, you can cross-examine the witness. Different rules govern the direct and cross-examinations.

Direct examination aims to establish a prima facie case in your favor. When you prepare to call a witness, consider looking up the elements of your cause of action and think about how you can ask questions to elicit responses that establish those elements.

During the direct examination, you generally must ask certain foundational questions before asking substantive questions. In general, you must establish that the witness has first-hand knowledge of the matter to which they testify. This shows the trier of fact that the witness has credibility concerning the subject matter.

For example, suppose the case involves a car accident, and the witness saw the car accident from the sidewalk. To lay a foundation, you could ask the following questions:

  • Where were you on [the date and time of the accident]?
  • What were you doing at that time?
  • Where were you in relation to the accident?

After you have established the necessary foundation to establish your witness's credibility, you can ask questions that may elicit answers supporting your case. These might include substantive, open-ended questions, such as:

  • What did you see at that time?
  • What happened after the accident?
  • Did you see the traffic signal? What color was the light at the time of the accident?

The party conducting a direct examination cannot ask leading questions. These questions tend to put words in the witness's mouth or suggest an answer. For example, you couldn't ask the witness the following questions during a direct examination:

  • The red car was speeding, right?
  • Did you see the blue car hit the white car?
  • The traffic signal was red, wasn't it?
  • The blue car was in the wrong lane, wasn't it?

Once the party conducting the direct examination finishes asking questions, the opposing party can cross-examine the witness. Unlike a direction examination, the person conducting the cross-examination may ask leading questions. The party conducting a cross-examination often asks leading questions and tries to impeach the witness's credibility.

In our hypothetical car accident case, the party conducting the cross-examination may ask the following types of questions:

  • Isn't it true that you were facing the other way when the accident occurred? (This tends to show the trier of fact that the witness did not see the accident)
  • You just testified the blue car hit the white car. In your deposition, didn't you testify that the white car hit the blue car? (This tends to show the trier of fact that the witness may have lied under oath)
  • Isn't it true that you spent time in prison due to a conviction for tax fraud? (This shows the trier of fact that the witness has a history of dishonesty)

Cross-examination aims to poke holes in the witness's prior testimony and cast doubt on their credibility. How well you conduct a cross-examination may propel you to victory or sink your case. You need to prepare as much as possible and be able to think on your feet.

How do I conduct myself in court?

Although you don't have an attorney, the court rules apply to you just like anyone else. Do not expect leniency from the judge or court staff. A judge may give you some slack for simple mistakes made in good faith, but they will not give you preferential treatment. 

The judge's role is to ensure the parties receive a fair trial, and a pro se litigant should not count on receiving any favors just because they don't have an attorney.

One of the easiest ways to figure out how to conduct yourself during a trial is to sit in on another trial. The public is allowed to sit in on most trials. Watching a trial allows you to see where the parties stand, how parties question witnesses, and how a trial flows.

Creating an outline of your case is an excellent way to keep your presentation focused. It can also help you if you forget something during the trial. Consider making a trial binder with all the information and evidence you may need during the trial.

Finally, utilize self-help books or resources from your public library. Self-help books can help you write opening statements, learn which questions to ask, and learn how to introduce evidence in a case.

FindLaw also has a section on self-representation. You can also use FindLaw's search function for specific information as you pursue or defend against a civil claim.

Should I request a bench trial or a jury trial?

It depends. A bench trial may benefit a party that believes the laws and facts favor them. A jury trial may benefit the party who believes their case paints them in a sympathetic light. A jury trial often costs more money.

In a bench trial, the judge acts as the trier of fact. This means the judge interprets the law and applies it to the facts. The judge issues their decision at the end of the case. Because a judge is an objective legal expert, a party who believes the black letter law favors their case may want a legal professional to decide the case. 

In a jury trial, the jury acts as the trier of fact. Juries often consist of 12 members from the community. The jury returns a verdict after deliberating the case. Since the jury often consists of non-legal professionals, they may take emotions into account more than a judge will. Therefore, if you believe you appear sympathetic in the case, you may want to request a jury trial. 

If you believe the other party's testimony may present you in a bad or unsympathetic light, you may want to request a bench trial.

Contact an Attorney for Help

Even minor civil cases can include complicated questions of law and fact. Although small claims court cases can have a quick resolution, full-blown civil cases can take months or years to wrap up. Before filing a case, consider contacting a civil litigation attorney for legal advice.

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