We, as attorneys, are often asked “Do I really need to hire a divorce attorney or should I try to represent myself?” The operative word in this question is try. While anyone can try to represent himself or herself in their legal matter, it is ill-advised. Below are the top reasons why you should not represent yourself in court:
By Human Nature, You Are Emotionally Invested in Your Own Case
Family law and divorce cases are, by nature, extremely emotional matters. Time and time again, we witness cases while in court wherein one party attempts to represent himself or herself and becomes anxious or defensive, which portrays him or her as unstable and not credible. The courtroom is a place where evidence and facts need to be the center of the argument, not blame shifting and emotional outbursts. Our firm even represents several attorneys who know the hazards of self-representation as they realize it is often challenging to remain dispassionate in a case to which they are a party to.
Knowing the Law Doesn’t Mean Knowing How the Law Works (and How to Make It Work for You)
Unless you have graduated from law school, taken and passed the bar exam, and have been practicing law for years, you do not have adequate knowledge of the law and the court rules and procedures in order to correctly handle (and win) your case.
Court rules and procedures are completely different than the actual “law.” The “law” consists of statutes passed by a legislative body. “Case law” is the law outlined by prior cases. Court rules and procedures are regulations of a court and how various matters pending before the court are handled and processed. Attorneys are trained and educated in all three of these aspects of cases and know how they are all intertwined.
You may think that you understand the laws and court rules and procedures, however, oftentimes perception is reality. What people perceive is what they believe to be reality. And oftentimes people are wrong. Perception is nothing more than an opinion. The law revolves around facts.
Now envision this: You are an educated and skilled person and you are convinced that you have what it takes to represent yourself. You talk to several friends and colleagues who have been in your situation, you spend hours searching the internet for any information pertaining to the issue at hand and you’ve seen several episodes of Law & Order. You feel ready for the courtroom battle.
The big day has arrived and you are in court and feel confident to proceed. Your adversary’s attorney speaks to the judge and it becomes apparent that you both have a very different interpretation of the law. The adversary’s attorney hasn’t interpreted what the law is, he or she knows what the law is. You quickly realize that your perception and interpretation of the law is all wrong. You were so passionate and believed so much in your own point of view that your mind made this perception a reality, instead of what it is- a non-factual opinion.
Your Adversary Has an Attorney Trained in the Laws, Court Rules & Procedures
This goes hand-in-hand with the preceding point. Your adversary and his or her attorney will absolutely love on the fact that you are trying to represent yourself, especially when he or she goes up against you in the courtroom. He or she will try to portray you as unstable, especially in child custody and divorce proceedings.
- You are an attorney and your client is fighting for custody of his or her child.
- The other party is attempting to represent himself or herself in court.
- You have prepared your client for what he or she will experience while in court and your client is confident.
- After preparing your client for court, you know exactly which buttons to push to make your adversary look bad.
- You know that your unrepresented adversary will be unprepared for the onslaught of questioning and you are relishing in the fact that he or she will most likely become agitated and emotional.
- For the sake of looking good in front of your client and getting him or her custody, you attack your adversary’s weaknesses while in court and your adversary is an emotional mess in front of the court and appears unstable.
- Since stability is extremely important when raising children, the court sees your adversary as unfit to properly parent his or her children.
- Custody is awarded to your client and your client is ELATED.
Case in point: you do not want to be the unrepresented party going up against a trained and skilled attorney in court.
Information and Forms on Court Websites Are Often Incorrect
Trust us on this…
Our firm has handled several cases wherein clients came to us for a name change. We were retained by one client who needed a name change for her daughter in Nassau County. Knowing we had handled several name change cases in both Suffolk County and Queens County, we used the online forms from the New York State Court website to prepare the name change petition and required supporting documents. After all documents were prepared and signed by our client, we sent a staff member to file the papers. We were then informed that the name change forms on the court’s website are incorrect. We, as attorneys, were able to correct the issue expeditiously but you, as an unrepresented party, might not be so lucky…
Additionally, when new laws are passed or laws are amended, the New York State Court website doesn’t update their online forms for several months. This means that if you do not have the “insider” knowledge of the new laws (which our attorneys learn about in their mandatory Continuing Legal Education courses) you will not know that new forms were added or current forms were changed. Essentially, you will be preparing and submitting outdated forms that are no longer accepted by the court. This will delay your case for months!
Judges and Court Staff Will Not Assist You Nor Provide Legal Advice Nor Guidance
Judges and court staff are not allowed to assist you in court or give legal advice, no matter how charming or nice you are. They cannot assist you with filling out forms. The only advice they will give you is this: “We strongly encourage you to hire a trained and educated attorney.”
It Will Cost You More to Have an Attorney Fix the Mistakes Later
Money is the first reason why people endeavor to represent themselves in legal matters. Several times per month we consult with potential new clients who bring in a folder or binder with forms that they have attempted to file in court, but were rejected by the court for deficiency. We see people who have signed agreements that were not mutually beneficial to both parties and we’ve seen people give up thousands of dollars’ worth of assets or agree to pay child support or spousal support that is well above what he or she should be paying in accordance with state laws. Our immigration attorneys have dealt with the tedious task of fixing improperly filled out forms provided by previously self-represented clients. The bottom line- you will waste money and your precious time if you fail to properly handle your own legal matter.
The second reason is why people seek to represent themselves in legal matters is they feel that the internet can successfully teach them the law and court procedures. Heed our warning: Google did not go to law school. Neither did Yahoo! The internet is filled with a mixture of trained and untrained people giving advice that is often incorrect, outdated or not pertaining to the laws in the state in which you reside.
“He who represents himself has a fool for a client”- Abraham Lincoln