Recently, I represented a client, in a collection matter, against unrepresented defendants. They were unrepresented during the complaint phase, during the attempted bankruptcy discharge phase and again during the collection phase. Result: They lost every time. This is not an uncommon scenario. In fact, I see it every time I enter the courthouse. On any given day there is a population of would be pro se litigants. Whether it be a man or woman, whether they be young or old, American or otherwise, they all have one thing in common: they’re all willing to risk their house, car, inheritance, custody or visitation rights with their kids, their pension plans and yes, sometimes even their freedom by rolling the dice and representing themselves. They look clearly lost from the moment they step into the courthouse, aimlessly wandering around looking for the information desk. As they eventually find their way to the clerk’s office they stand and await their turn. Waiting for someone to hear them out, to understand their plight, to side with their version of the story and to obtain much needed assistance, guidance, and most of all, legal advice to start their case. But with a straight face, staring from behind the glass, and 4-5 others waiting their turn, their attention is directed to the sign posted just to the left or right of where they’re standing, and it reads: “the clerk’s office is unable to offer legal advice”. They proceed to read the sign, but are hopeful that if they ask again, with just the right amount of empathy, that they will surely receive the assistance they so desperately need. So once again they ask the same question, but worded slightly differently so that it sounds like a new question. What follows is an answer, that is given, but which provides no substance, and hence the beginning of the circular conversation. Ultimately, the would be litigant may or may not be handed a thick packet of forms and information, but in the end, the result is the same. The would be litigant leaves disheartened and just as unsure and confused as when they first arrived.
Why is the courthouse, where legal cases and arguments are heard everyday, not the place to receive legal assistance, guidance and advice? Because a thorough analysis of every case is needed before any competent advice can be given. Of course, such a courthouse clerk has not been properly educated and/or trained to engage in such an analysis and even if they were, a three (3) minute synopsis between a glass window is neither the time nor the place. Such a service can only be provided by an attorney, and when authorized by law, some other legally trained person. And because laypersons, who give legal advice, are impermissibly engaging in what is known as the unauthorized practice of law – A would be serious violation and liability issue for the court system. So now what?
The would be litigant goes it alone. Why? I hear it all the time, “because I’m right and he/she is wrong”. While that may be true, we all know that “right” doesn’t always win, and particularly without the proper assistance. Of course, there are plenty of nationally recognized cases that would prove my point. In addition, the layperson is generally ill-equipped to handle a true legal matter. And heaven forbid, like in my recent case, they are up against a represented party. Those are the saddest cases to watch (and, believe it or not, to participate in) because navigating through the legal system is generally not for the lay person. There are rules, statues, codes, regulations, legislative history, case law, time limits, preliminary matters, a whole different set of vocabulary words and processes and procedures to consider. In short, a large variety of ways to flat out destroy a potentially good case. Worse yet, is when the litigant leaves not even knowing how the case was lost or how or if the case can be fixed, but without a doubt feeling lost, confused and certainly wronged. They walk away slowly asking “how can this be?” Because “law isn’t that difficult”, and surely no more difficult than what is portrayed on TV. of course, given that view, advice from a real world attorney was never even properly considered.
And just when does the layperson ultimately find it worthwhile to obtain counsel? Once the complaint/answer to the complaint has been improperly prepared and filed; within 48 hours of the statute of limitations (deadline); when a reconsideration is needed AFTER 3 or 4 previous motions have been filed, ALL saying the absolute wrong things; when the appeal period has run and a badly needed technicality is sought after and my personal favorite, when the client has a head full of battle strategies, directions and suggestions, for the lawyer, but no money! And on some occasions, when it’s flat out too late.
Of course, at this point and If the case is salvageable, the cost, for an attorney, is now double, sometimes triple what it would have been had they just come in the first place. So would be pro se litigant, save yourself some time, effort, frustration and yes, money and see a lawyer first! My IT guy once told me “Pay me know or pay me more later”. Never truer words spoken.
Be sure and also keep in mind that attorneys are not only available for full case representation. Attorneys can offer great advice, if only for a one time consultation. Trust me, it’s well worth a couple hundred dollars to obtain an upfront, honest and thorough analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of your case; to learn whether it’s really worth the fight; whether there is an alternative solution that doesn’t involve the court system and/or when you need it, some good solid general guidance if It’s determined that you may be able to go it alone.
So, consider carefully the value of your claim and whether or not it’s worth the investment to protect it. Of course, for those who truly cannot afford an attorney, there are a variety of ways to still obtain the assistance you need. In the State of Maryland, our most recently retired Chief Judge Bell, has long encouraged attorneys to engage in 50 hours of pro bono service a year. As such, there are plenty of lawyers willing to take on the lesser paying client in a variety of ways. In addition to private practitioners who work for profit, there are plenty of private practitioners who accept low bono and pro bono cases, throughout the year, thru non-profit organizations, such as Community Legal Services and the Maryland Volunteer Lawyer Service. There are attorneys who participate in free clinics, during limited hours, right inside the courthouse. There are attorneys who work for Legal Aid and the Public Defenders’ Office. Finally, there are lawyers who offer their time at free community Law Day events like the Ask-a-Lawyer Day coming up, on April 26, 2014, at First Baptist Church of Glen Arden, MD. So take some time to research out these services if you need it and provide your case with the legal expertise it requires and deserves. And remember the old saying: “a man (woman) who represents him/herself has a fool for a lawyer.”
Thanks for reading. Please note that I am licensed to practice law in Maryland and the District of Columbia. This topic was based off of my own general advise. Please note that every case is different and nothing herein is intended as specific legal advice. Please feel free to learn more about my practice at www.kelseylaw.net and to seek legal advice when you feel it necessary.
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