In college, when my front driver’s side window decided to stop working, I had the brilliant idea of fixing it myself. I figured a mechanic would charge well over a $1,000, and I could figure it out on my own. I had a video with instructions, so what was the risk, right? I bought the parts needed and after disassembling the door panel, I took one look at the mass of wires and delicate parts and knew I was in over my head. I eventually got the window to go up and down, but I broke a piece of the interior door panel, which made the automatic locks trip up.
The lesson here? Sometimes the professionals do know best. In the legal field this is especially true. As one judge said to an unrepresented defendant during the course of his murder trial:
You don’t know how to ask a question. You don’t know how to offer things into evidence. You keep making stupid speeches. You keep saying you are good at this. You are not. I do not say this to insult you.
— Justice Carol Berkman to Robert Camarano, a pro se litigant representing himself in a murder trial in New York State Supreme Court.
Unfortunately, whether in a murder trial or a 10-minute hearing, attorneys and judges have either thought or said the same thing, in dealing with an unrepresented party. Unrepresented parties, or pro se parties, are all too common. The frequency of pro se parties is a depressing reality for those, like me, that want a good clean “game” and not a massacre because a pro se party doesn’t know the rules of evidence or even commonly known trial practices.
As a law professor of mine used to say, you don’t “win” a trial in a rout, you win in one of those 17 to 14 decisions by a field goal. That is how most cases are, at least between parties with attorneys, but when a pro se party is involved, it is often a blowout. It’s a complete rout because the pro se party doesn’t even know the rules of the game.
It’s not just court where pro se litigants are disadvantaged, it’s also in drafting. In divorce and custody orders especially, I’ve seen a misworded sentence cost a party ten of thousands of dollars.
So what’s my advice to those thinking of fixing their legal problem alone? Visit an attorney and ask questions. You may learn quite quickly that you are out of your league. You may realize the matter requires less in attorney’s fees than you thought. You may have newfound confidence in going it alone. Either way, you’ll have a chance to pick the brain of a professional in the field. I couldn’t really consult with a mechanic before going it alone, but you can consult with an attorney.