The 5 Biggest Mistakes of Parties Who Represent Themselves in Court Without A Lawyer

One of the greatest and worst aspects of our legal system is that anyone can represent themselves in court.  Allowing anyone to represent themselves in court ensures that no matter your financial resources, you are able to access the courts to seek justice. However, proceeding without an attorney can be just as likely to lead to great harm to a self-represented party.  Failure to pay heed to the court system’s black letter law and procedural hurdles can lead to drastic consequences.

In order to help you steer clear of common traps and tricks which affect self-represented parties, I have prepared the following list of mistakes to avoid.

The 5 Biggest Mistakes Self-Represented Parties Make

5.  Not Knowing the the Law. Of course, this is going to be the biggest problem with self-represented parties. There is a reason law school is three years long, the bar exam is two or three days long in most states, and it takes years for lawyers to develop true expertise in just one practice area. The law is incredibly complex and it’s very difficult for even the most passionate non-lawyer to learn it all without having been to law school and practiced for many years.

4.  Missing Deadlines. Litigation is filled with deadlines. There is no easy go-to guide for figuring out these deadlines — they are spread throughout numerous statutes and rules of court.  What’s more, later deadlines change based up earlier actions.  The court also does not provide reminders to the parties about these deadlines, even for self-represented parties. Judges and courts hold parties responsible for complying with the deadlines.

Missed deadlines can have major repurcussions, including monetary sanctions or evidentiary sanctions, meaning certain matters are deemed “true” for the duration of the case. For that reason, it’s very important to keep track of and calendar upcoming deadlines.

3.  Including too much or too little information. Drafting legal pleadings and motions is both an art and a science. Most attorneys take years before they get comfortable with the craft of creating legal documents which are either filed with the court or exchanged with opposing parties.  Over these years, the attorneys learn what information is relevant or must be included and what information is unnecessary and/or damaging to a case.

A self-represented party simply doesn’t have the built-in knowledge honed over years of practice to know what key facts and evidence needs to be included, or excluded, at each turn.

2. Not Knowing the Procedural Rules. This common mistake is similar to #5, Not Knowing the Law.  Most judges are unforgiving if you do not follow proper procedure and will impose penalties if the proper procedure is not followed. In today’s era of lean state budgets, courts rely on strict procedure to winnow down the vast number of cases clogging the court dockets. That means if you trip up and make a mistake, you could lose all ability to recover.

1.  Not Knowing When to Work Collaboratively with the Other Party. Litigation is known as a contentious arena for good reason. However, opposing lawyers also have to work together. Lawyers need to share information, documents, and work together to bring their clients to some kind of resolution.  There is a time for fighting and a time for working collaboratively.

The problem with self-represented parties is they are often too emotionally involved to work with the opposing party. This is especially true if they’re representing themselves in a family law matter such as a divorce or child custody proceeding.  A lawyer who is representing a party is better able to represent the client’s best interests by being a vigorous advocate and at the same time dispassionately determine when to collaborate.

If after reading this list you still want to represent yourself in court, you should think about consulting one or two attorneys prior to proceeding on your own.  Most attorneys will do a quick free consultation to evaluate your case and figure out if it’s a good fit — both for you and the attorney.  Many attorneys will also work with you to figure out a way you can pay their bills which won’t break the bank.

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