Friday, August 14, 2009

A Fool for A Client

Besides writing for this blawg and being a professional skydiving Elvis impersonator, I manage to actually practice law once in awhile. As I troll the courthouses, I have begun seeing an alarming number of pro se defendants in criminal court and pro se divorces in family court. With the economy in a downspin, it does not surprise me. Still, I can’t help but think of the old saying he who represents himself has a fool for a client. Judging by my experience with clients, the majority have little real exposure to our judicial system. It is usually limited to the People’s Court, Boston Legal and other smatterings of fictional legal dramas. They supplement their knowledge with internet chatrooms, web links to information from other jurisdictions, and the bad advice from Larry their auto mechanic who had a DUI 18 years ago in Massachusetts. For these clients, taking the risk to go to court alone can have harrowing consequences on their wallet or even their freedom. I recall one woman came into our office after doing her own divorce. She wanted to reopen her divorce matter after the statutory time limit had passed. Her weasel of a husband convinced her that she should not get a lawyer and that they should just part ways after 30 years of marriage. After all, he had been the one working during the marriage. All she did was raise the kids, cook meals, wash dishes, mow the lawn, etc. Unfortunately she agreed to a no fault divorce where she basically got a pat on the back, a few items of furniture and an old Ford Escort. He kept the Benz. He needed a good car for work after all. In her effort to avoid paying for an attorney, the spurned wife had given up her right to thousands of dollars in deserved alimony as well as her interest in the house and the Benz. IN Connecticut, because she had not asked for alimony at the time of the divorce, the matter was considered closed. In legal terms: tough cookies. Another client came to me for immigration help after being denied US citizenship. Years ago he had pled guilty to a crime without the assistance of counsel. After reviewing the case, I realized that at the time he could have used a diversionary program that would have left him with a clean criminal history. A fly by night notary who originally filled out his paperwork told him he did not have to admit to the crime because it happened more than 10 years ago. Not only was it illegal for the notary to give legal advice, it was the wrong advice. He wanted to save a few bucks. The money he saved may have cost him his chance to be a US Citizen. Of course, he did eventually hire us and I am a brilliant attorney. I am sure we will be able to salvage the case. The biggest problem I see with pro se litigants is that they appear to be clogging up the docket. If you have ever dealt with an ornery pro se defendant, you will know that some try to make needless frivolous motions, make crazy demands and constantly ask for continuances. It drives me bonkers. As they attempt to learn legal procedure, they prolong normally quick matters and cause added expense for everyone. Of course, I write this post after being pulled over today for having an expired registration sticker. Ironically, I plan to represent myself. It is my sincere hope I do not have a fool for a client. You may also wish to visit Harvard Law's self help blog


Cliff Tuttle said...

PRO-SE parties prevail on both sides in Landlord-Tenant cases. That is okay in Pennsylvania in round one, but on appeal, either side can be picked off by an experienced lawyer. Legal services can often defeat a meritorious claim for rent and possession, causing the poor landlord to start over. Catch is, you may not know that the other side is represented until you arrive at the hearing.


Irene C. Olszewski, Esq. said...

I have witnessed some disastrous pro se cases and continue to wonder why pro se parties are allowed in complicated divorce cases or criminal cases, where so much is at stake.

We don't allow non-doctors to perform brain surgery ...