The Pitfalls and Perils of Pro Se Representation

The Pitfalls and Perils of Pro Se Representation

By Jared R. Mack

“He who represents himself has a fool for a client” is a quote often attributed to Abraham Lincoln. However, the true origins of the proverb are unknown.  Although the author of the quote may be uncertain, the sentiment has never been more relevant.  The modern judicial system is a chaotic commingling of statutes, regulations, case law and procedures, all of which can prove fatal to the unwary party’s case.  Just as one would not attempt to perform an operation without the knowledge of a surgeon, one should not attempt to navigate the complexities of today’s legal system without the expertise of an attorney.

The perils of proceeding pro se (Latin for “in one’s own behalf”) are present in every turn of a court proceeding.  From the commencement of an action, a plaintiff - petitioner risks having their case dismissed if the proper documents have not been properly prepared or served.  Similarly, a defendant - respondent faces having a judgment or decision entered against him/her, if certain documents are not responded to in a proper and timely manner.  In some scenarios, something as seemingly insignificant as the formatting of a legal document can lead to an unfavorable disposition of the case.

In addition to the potential procedural pitfalls, a pro se litigant is at a significantly increased risk of failing to recognize, interpret or properly address the material legal aspects of the case.  A deep understanding of the legal elements and burdens in a particular matter allow an attorney to gather and present the facts of a case in a manner that provides the client with the highest likelihood of success.  A pro se party’s failure to utilize available legal tools to build and present their case can not only lead to an unfavorable outcome, but can cause irreparable damage to that party’s case in the event that an attorney becomes involved later on.

If a matter is not settled or otherwise disposed of, it will be scheduled for a trial.  Preparing for and trying a case is one of the most difficult tasks for even the most seasoned attorneys, and is nearly impossible for someone with no legal training or experience.  Attorneys can spend hours culling through documents, preparing witnesses and versing themselves in the applicable rules of evidence before stepping foot in a courtroom.  Delivering opening and closing statements, examining and cross-examining witnesses, making and responding to objections, and entering evidence are just a few of the hurdles that a pro se litigant will face at trial.  Also, there will most likely be an attorney on the other side of the courtroom, ready to pounce on any mistake that the self-represented party may make. 

A self-represented party is also deprived of the objective analysis provided by his/her attorney.  Even the most “simple” legal proceeding can be emotionally taxing for anyone involved, especially the parties themselves.  The personal investment in a case can corrupt even the most rational individual’s judgment, exacerbating the existing hazards of pro se representation.

The above discusses only some of the risks of pro se representation. Before deciding to represent yourself, consider discussing your rights and options with the local, experienced attorneys at Levene Gouldin & Thompson, who can assist you in navigating this complex process. 


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