How to Be Your Own Lawyer

By Kathryn Radeff

If you decide to go to court without a lawyer, you need to know the rules of the court and also a little of what earlier courts have said about similar cases. All disputes have risks and benefits, so it's very important to weigh both sides and be prepared by asking yourself these questions: If it's a criminal case, is there a chance that you could go to jail if you lost? Could you be fined if you lost, and could you afford it? Would the cost of a fine be greater than the cost of a lawyer? Realize also that no one goes into a courtroom for the first time without being nervous. You can, however, keep your panic under control and appear calm in the courtroom.

Realize that an attorney can better handle some disputes, like criminal cases, especially if there is even a remote possibility that you could go to jail. Know that a criminal record can interfere with future jobs, your credit rating and your social status. If you are going to court without a lawyer because you can't afford one, you may have a right to a free lawyer. When you first appear in court, ask the judge if that applies to your case. You can also check with the local legal aid society. If they can provide you with an attorney, you will likely be assigned a very busy lawyer who will gladly appreciate any help you can lend to your own case.

Think about the fines you may have to pay if you lost. A court clerk can answer any questions you may have about court procedures, including the fines permitted by law, the names of the judge and prosecutor, and the location of the courtroom. Balance the likely fine against the potential lawyer fee, and consider which will cost most. Ask yourself if it would be better to find a lawyer to represent you who will charge less than the $500, for example, your fine would be.

Ask the court clerk for the file on your case. Some parts, like a complaint that may have been brought against you, are public records. All lawsuits begin with a complaint, and the information can be helpful in preparing your case.

Understand the court system, and research similar court cases. A few minutes of study will help you decide how you can prepare your case. Trial courts are the ones you see most often on TV and at the movies. These courts are the first to hear most types of cases. Civil courts present a variety of situations, including divorce proceedings, auto negligence and the contest of a will. These lawsuits can be very difficult. If you decide to be your own lawyer, consider first reading the book "How to Be Your Own Lawyer (Sometimes)" by Kantrowicz and Eisenberg.

If you are terrified about representing yourself in court, you can do a good job of hiding it by looking people in the eye. Don't fidget, pace or curse. Someone may be watching how you behave and report to the court on your behavior. Remind yourself that you're OK. This is no easy task, but you're willing to brave it out. Dress appropriately. Arrive early to collect your thoughts. Always prepare ahead of time, and bring as much information and documentation as you possibly can. When addressing the judge, always call him "Your Honor," and speak up. Thank the judge when you are finished speaking. Be respectful at all times. Sit up straight. Take notes whenever possible.

About the Author

Kathryn Radeff began writing professionally in 1982. A versatile writer, she has contributed to numerous publications, including "Woman's World," "The Buffalo News," "Buffalo Spree," "Reader's Digest" and "USA Today." Radeff studied theater and dance at the University of New York at Buffalo for two years. Following a 20-year career as a fitness instructor and dance educator, she now specializes in writing about health issues.