My client and I wait for a woman to clear her bundle of papers from the thick wooden Petitioner’s table. The woman glances nervously at us and then at the gray-haired, black-robed judge, seated high at his mahogany bench. The woman’s hands shake and her eyes tear slightly as she sweeps her muddled heap of papers into her canvas bag.
In legal terms, she is “pro se” (pro – SAY) meaning a person who appears in court without an attorney to represent him or her.
The judge has just dismissed her case. The woman and judge appear equally frustrated. Despite her pleas, the judge accurately stated that he had no choice but to dismiss the case. The pro se woman’s handwritten pleadings were not filed on a timely basis and were riddled with errors requiring dismissal.
Most people would not consider wandering into a hospital emergency room to perform surgery on their own child without guidance. In fact, most people seek qualified help to fix their furnaces and their cars.
And yet these same people flood our courts as pro se parties when it comes to family law cases. Unrepresented and uneducated on the nuances of the law, they argue cases and file pleadings on their own, allowing courts to decide the most critical issues in their lives: how much time they will spend with their children, where their children will live and go to school, how their retirement accounts and debts will be divided, whether they must sell their home, whether they can keep their job or must quit to earn more money.
An increasing number of people are attempting to secure results without one of the most fundamental components of our legal system, the attorney.
To a degree, I don’t blame them. Attorneys seem expensive. There are plenty of attorney jokes letting us know what you think of us as a profession. I am aware that some attorneys are accused of “churning” up the ire in a divorce and thereby their own legal fees. But there ARE good attorneys who are ethical and fair. I have met plenty of them. I like to think I am one of them.
The biggest problems arise when failing to hire an attorney is more expensive than hiring one. The risks are simply too great – the court deserves to hear a case fully and accurately, your child deserves a full and fair development of the record, you deserve the benefit of astute advice and advocacy when it comes to your family and your livelihood.
I am an attorney and I am here to tell you there is a reason I research, attend trainings, get to know the judges and my co-attorneys, keep up on the latest state of the law. There is a reason I spent three years in law school and many more practicing a profession suited to my skills as a writer, researcher, negotiator and public speaker. Like doctors and nurses, electricians and accountants, attorneys are trained to help people. Judges frequently express the relief they feel when there is an attorney helping to usher the case through the process, as pro se parties often cannot do despite valiant efforts.
As my own oral argument commences, I forget about the pro se. I do not notice her taking a seat in the courtroom, watching intently as I advocate hard on my own client’s behalf.
My client does well. The opposing attorney and I argue legal points for the judge, but also work together to settle many issues to the clients’, and their children’s, mutual benefit.
As I head out of the courtroom, the pro se woman stops me. “Would you please represent me?” she asks. “This is the second time my case has been been bounced out of court. I just want to get divorced.”
That’s a true story. And it was not the first or last time I helped a party whose case was dismissed, or about to be dismissed. Men, women, old, young, every type of litigant: even sharp business professionals who know their way around a balance sheet and yet had their QDROs rejected by the court.
Almost all family law attorneys (including me) offer free initial consult visits. With arrangements like unbundled legal services, mediation and collaborative work with a good attorney who treats you as a partner, you have more options than you think. And, perhaps, more at risk than you realize if you try to go it pro se.