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How do I represent myself in court?
Whether you are going into Small Claims Court, Circuit Court, Bankruptcy Court, or into Traffic Court, if you want to win or at least stay in control of your destiny to the fullest extent possible:
- You have to listen, learn, read, get organized, keep good records, stay focused and determined, and above all else keep a healthy sense of perspective and humor.
- Legal research is hard and time-consuming. But it can also be interesting, rewarding, and even fun.
- It’s not all online. You can’t “Google” the law and expect to win your case.
- Legal analysis is even harder. See, for example:Five Methods of Legal Reasoning, posted 8/3/11, at the Legal Skills Prof Blog
- If you walk into a law library with a “What’s the law on x?” or “How do I sue someone?” question and do so without pencil and paper in hand, or if you do not write down what the law librarian tells you, or you’re obviously in a hurry and expecting a quick answer, please do not be surprised if you are given only very brief instructions. There are hundreds of other people in line behind you, literally and figuratively (a lot of them use email to ask these questions). Those who take notes, listen, and work hard deserve the most attention.
- Do not expect to find an off-the-shelf fill-in-the-blank legal form. You will probably have to draft your own forms. (Don’t blame the law librarian for this and please don’t say, “but they had this form in xxx state or country.” Wherever you go, there you are.)
- If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Online lawyers and legal websites aren’t always better-than-nothing. They are not always accurate, reliable, or cheaper than doing the work yourself at the law library or hiring a local attorney. Do your homework on how to hire a lawyer and check on that lawyer's license.
- Paralegals are not attorneys. Paralegals cannot advise you on your legal options, on what the law says, or on how to draft or fill in a form. Only attorneys can. And then there are those pesky unauthorized practice of law problems. Take them very seriously; those rules are there to protect you. Yes, they are there to protect lawyers, too, but they protect you first.
- The best pro se litigants usually consult lawyers, often early in their cases and sometimes throughout litigation. That is how some of them become really good pro se litigants who win their cases.
The Oregon Judicial Department's Self Help page has resources for self-represented litigants, including information on how to file a case and how to prepare for a civil trial. The Oregon legal research blog has posts on self-represented litigants, and you can also visit your local county law library to research representing yourself in court. Check your local public library or bookstore for the book Represent Yourself in Cout by Paul Bergman (published by Nolo Press).
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