If you choose to proceed in a lawsuit without an attorney, you should be especially alert to meeting all of the requirements of the court process. Some of these requirements may seem technical and tedious, but your case might be dismissed if you do not meet them. For example, you will need to keep up with deadlines in each phase of your case. If the opposing party files a motion, you must respond within the time provided. If you plan to introduce certain evidence at trial, you will need to disclose that evidence within the required window. These timing elements can be challenging to manage, so you should plan carefully.
Attorneys learn the nuances of their craft through formal legal education, and good trial lawyers are constantly honing their skills. Examining witnesses, introducing evidence, and presenting arguments to a judge or jury are not simple tasks. Since you will not have the benefits of an attorney’s training, you should make sure that you understand the rules that apply to the court in which your case will be heard. You should get a copy of the court’s local rules and review them in detail. Regardless of the strength of your case, you will need to follow even the most arbitrary rules to make sure that you have your day in court.
Preparing for Trial
One key issue that arises at the outset of a case is whether you would prefer a judge or jury trial. Most of the time, you will have the opportunity to request a jury, but you may find it easier to present your case to a single judge if you do not have an attorney. You will need to go through a jury trial if the opposing party requests it, however, since either party can exercise this right.
You also should get familiar with the elements of your legal claim. Even though judges may give more latitude to litigants who do not have an attorney, you will need to prove each element of your claim if you are the plaintiff. If you are the defendant, on the other hand, you will need to be able to attack one or more elements of the plaintiff’s claim. If you are unsure of whether you can do that, you may be better off reaching a settlement outside court. Part of proving or disproving a claim involves introducing evidence that is admissible. You should review the rules of evidence for your court to confirm that you can present the evidence that you need to make or defend against a claim.
A trial often involves providing testimony, calling witnesses to testify, cross-examining opposing witnesses, and making arguments to the judge or jury about why you should prevail. (Read more here about the procedures involved in trials.) This can be a lot to bear in mind for a non-attorney who does not have any litigation experience. You may benefit from making notes in advance about the points that you want to cover and your strategies for attacking your opponent’s likely arguments.
While a judge will not expect a non-attorney to have the same polish as an attorney, you should make sure to behave professionally in the courtroom. You should be courteous and respectful to opponents, even if you feel that they have wronged you. A judge may appreciate being addressed as “your honor” rather than by their name. Small points like these can make a big difference in the way that a judge views your case.
If your opponent or their attorney criticizes your arguments or attacks your credibility, you should not take it personally. Simply wait to make out your version of the case instead of letting your frustration show. If the other side appears to be taking advantage of your lack of sophistication or badgering you too aggressively, you can remind the judge that you are proceeding without a lawyer based on financial necessity. This should lead the judge to move the proceedings back to a manageable level for you in the interests of fairness.