Six Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Represent Yourself in Court

If you have to go to court, it can be a nerve-racking proposition. You’re sitting at home on a sunny afternoon and out of nowhere, these papers come in the mail saying that you are being sued or summoned, or whatever. Not good news.  All of a sudden, your heart starts beating fast; your palms get sweaty; you’re shaking. What do you do? While hundreds of crazy thoughts are probably running through your mind, the top two concerns that usually stand out are:

  • Whether or not you should hire an attorney
  • How much will it cost? 

The truth of the matter is that nobody wants to hire or pay for an attorney. All those fees and monthly legal bills; it’s just not an attractive option. In your heart, you know that you need to hire an attorney. But because we live in DIY (Do It Yourself) times and have access to the internet, there’s a good chance that you are going to do what a lot of people do nowadays; handle it yourself.  

As an attorney who spends a great deal of time in courtrooms all over New Jersey, on a daily basis, I cringe as I watch folks trying to handle their own cases. To say that I don’t recommend it is an understatement. I could literally write a book on why you shouldn’t represent yourself in court but instead, let me give you six reasons why representing yourself is not a good idea.

6. You’re Too Emotional  

To be an effective legal advocate, you have to be emotionally removed so that you can analyze the case with a clear, unbiased mind. If you attempt to represent yourself, in addition to not having the required knowledge, it’s virtually impossible to separate your personal feelings from the issues involved in your case. It’s never a good idea to make major decisions or handle major issues when you are upset, especially when you’re handling something that you are not professionally trained to handle.

He who represents himself has a fool for a client.

Abraham Lincoln

You may be a tough person that never backs down from a fight, but the courts are not the place for that. Despite what you think, you’re never going to be able to resolve your personal feelings in front of a judge. Take a step back, take a deep breath (or several) and hire a professional to do it the right way

Full Time Worker

5. You Don’t Have Time

If you are like most people, you either work full-time, part-time, or are a parent, which is always a full-time job. The last thing you have is the time to navigate the court process. You may think that you’ll just pop over on your lunch break and handle your business, or make a quick call to get an answer to your question, but trust me, it doesn’t work that way. The courts are extremely busy and without an attorney to help you through, you’re probably going to experience a great deal of frustration and not much success. I could go on about this topic all day but the bottom line is that you shouldn’t waste time trying to figure out how to do something so that you can get it done when you can just hire an expert to do everything for you. Remember, time really is money.

4. You’re Actually Costing Yourself More Money

Legal problems are a lot like plumbing problems. Here’s an example: So you’ve got a leaky faucet and you decide that it’s no big deal; you’ll just head over the local hardware store, grab a new faucet and change it out. Then it gets real.  That leaky faucet is actually not a leaky faucet and after 6 hours of you working on it and doing more damage, you have to break down and call a licensed plumber. When the plumber arrives, in addition to charging you for fixing your original problem, the plumber has to charge you to get the faucet back to a point where it can be repaired.  Congratulations, you just paid twice, both in time and money.  When it comes to legal issues, it’s smarter to pay an attorney once and get it done right the first time.  You’re probably concerned about money, which most people are, but don’t let that be the deciding factor. Talk to an attorney to clearly define your issue and see what they’ll charge you. If you don’t like what you hear, go somewhere else; you have a right to shop around for the best deal.

If you look around and don’t find the right price, in most cases, you can always try to go to court and represent yourself. However, keep in mind that you risk doing a lot of damage to your cause. In some cases, an attorney can usually come in and fix what you’ve broken, but it will cost you. But there are also other times when so much damage has been done, that there’s nothing that anyone can do to help you. The outcome of your case is going to have a significant impact on your life. Why take the risk of not having your case handled right the first time?

3. You Will Get Tripped Up by Details

You’ve probably heard someone say, “The devil is in the details.”  When it comes to the law, that saying couldn’t be more accurate. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen people submit motions to the court, only to have them rejected because they aren’t filled out properly, or an important form was left out.  The rules of the court are very technical and there’s not a lot of room for hand holding; you either get it right or you’re getting it back and you’ll have to start over.

And if you think that the folks working at the courthouse can help you, think again.  While they are perfectly nice people that have been working there for many years, they are strictly forbidden from giving you any legal advice. The most they can do you for is provide you with the correct forms and direct you to their self-help center or the local Legal Aid agency.

The assumption is that you are going to court because the issue is important and has a significant impact on your life. You don’t know what you don’t know until you make a mistake, and then it could be too late. Do you really want to make a mistake that could affect the rest of your life and have to live with it just because you wanted to save money and do it on your own?

Know The Rules

2. One Size Does Not Fit All

There is one VERY IMPORTANT thing that you MUST realize. When it comes to legal issues, one size does not fit all.  Every day, I have clients telling me what happened to their friends when they went to court. I always have to remind my clients that that just because their friends had a favorable outcome on a similar issue, that in no way means that they will have the same experience.  Each case is fact-specific and the smallest detail could make or break you. And I also have to remind my clients that there’s usually a fairly good chance that their friends aren’t telling them everything. After all, what’s a good fake war story if it doesn’t end with a stunning, dramatic win?

The courts are complex and things don’t always go the way they should. I often hear the word “fair” thrown around after the judge has ruled, but when it comes to the law, what’s “fair” for me may not be “fair” for you. All you can really do is hope for the best, be prepared for the worst, and hire an attorney so that you give yourself a chance.

1. You’re Not a Licensed Attorney

First, I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to be arrogant. I’m simply saying that if you are not a licensed attorney, you probably won’t know enough to effectively represent yourself.  That is not an insult to your intelligence, but if the law is not your thing, it’s not your thing. For example, I’m a licensed attorney and I think I’m a fairly smart guy, but I don’t try to handle the electrical work in my house because I have no idea what I’m doing. Now, I could try to do it myself and risk getting shocked to death, or I can call someone who does it for a living.

Look, there are times when you will be successful in court on your own. You may be able to negotiate a traffic case in municipal court, or maybe even get child support established in family court. I’ve even seen people beat the big debt collection law firms on those old credit card debt cases.  But understand that those outcomes are rare and few. Anyone can get lucky on any given day but if your issues are not black and white, which most aren’t, you’re going to need some assistance from an expert.  It goes without saying but I’ll say it; you can always do things yourself but you get what you pay for.

Arthur Guess

With over 17 years of diverse public service, I founded Guess Law to merge my skills and passion for helping others. As a solo practitioner, I’m dedicated to exceeding client expectations, offering expertise in Criminal Law, Family Law, Employment Law, Business Law, and more. I prioritize precise legal research, individualized approaches, and lasting professional relationships. Beyond my legal practice, I am committed to supporting at-risk youth and student-athletes, serving as a local high school football coach, mentor, and family advisor. An avid runner, I always run for a worthy cause or charity.

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