In this guide you will learn the steps you need to take to effectively defend yourself in court.
Thinking about representing yourself in court?
Maybe you don’t have the money to hire an attorney.
Perhaps you don’t want to work with a public defender.
Whatever the case, you want to be prepared to represent yourself in court.
Introduction to the Step-by-step Guide
In this Step-by-step guide you will find:
- Dozens of exclusive tips from attorneys.
- How to access tools you can use to learn the law.
- Links to critical information on defending yourself.
- Pointers from my experience of representing myself in court.
- A thorough reference for you to use as you build your case.
How should you use this guide?
This guide is not legal advice, it is a reference for you to use as you build your case.
Use this guide to help you keep track of what you need to remember to defend yourself effectively.
Sound good? Then let’s get started with Step 1!
Step One: Consider your Options
Step one to defending yourself in court is to consider your options.
Perhaps this is not surprising, but the first tip many of the attorneys i interviewed gave, was to not represent yourself.
Here’s the deal, it’s a fair point, and for many, it is the best advice this article may offer.
Yet, as you might suspect, the decision to represent yourself in court without an attorney is: a decision which must be made by you.
Don’t worry, all of the attorneys had great information on how to represent yourself in court.
However, I would be remiss if I did not firmly make the point that: most people should not represent themselves in court.
Several of the attorneys interviewed made exactly this point:
“It’s never a great idea to represent yourself in court, but sometimes it’s a particularly bad idea. If we’re talking about a traffic ticket, then you’re generally risking time and money only. So there’s less risk there then, say, a felony trial.”-Paul Saputo at Saputo Law Firm
To put it much simpler, Attorney Jason Saverese chimed in with his first tip about self-representation:
“My first tip is: don’t.”-Jason Saveres at Savarese & Associates PLLC
Again, that is fair enough!
But, he did elaborate on this point:
“If you wouldn’t rebuild your own car’s transmission or operate on your own knee, don’t represent yourself in court.”-Jason Saveres at Savarese & Associates PLLC
Finally, Sasha Shulman, of Shulman Law put it this way:
“I have been an attorney for close to 14 years. I practice primarily criminal defense. My number 1 piece of advice for a person who wishes to represent themselves in court: Don’t do it. Too many things can go wrong, and the consequences are dire.”-Sasha Shulman, of Shulman Law.
It will likely come as no surprise that representing yourself in court can have hefty consequences if poorly executed.
It is important that you — evaluate all of your avenues before pursuing the decision to defend yourself in court. If you can not afford an attorney, you may want to consider working with a public defender.
But, from here on out, I will assume you have come to the conclusion to represent yourself after weighing all of the options.
Step Two: Self-defense in Court Starts at the Pretrial
Pretrials are a funny thing.
Plead guilty, and you can be finished with court entirely.
On the other hand, if you want to prove your innocence, you will need to be prepared for what may be a battle lasting months, or even years.
Before diving further into what pointers you can use to defend yourself in court, it is important to consider the need to be prepared at your pretrial. Not just the trial itself…
I’ll leave it to Attorney Paul Saputo to elaborate:
“Remember that pretrial is very important. Representing yourself in court starts a long time before the trial. If you don’t set yourself up correctly by filing the right motions, investigating the case properly and preparing for trial, you’re only setting yourself up for failure.”-Paul Saputo at Saputo Law Firm
Although you can always catch up later, it is a good idea to prepare yourself for an effective pretrial.
Knowing just what it will take to make your pretrial successful will require a lot more reading. It also requires a bit of experience. That is why, even if you are representing yourself, you should still consult with an attorney.
Step Three: Learn the Law
It’s true, the most important aspect of representing yourself in court is to: learn the law.
You may have already suspected that. Yet, the only way to win in court is to know the law!
And David cuts straight to the point with this tip.
“The most important piece of advice for pro se litigants is to learn the law.”-David Reischer, Esq. Attorney & CEO of LegalAdvice.com
David Reischer cut straight to what is possibly the most important point. Learn. The. Law!
But that is not all, David continues to explain what the most crucial point a “pro-se” (self representing) litigant must keep in mind. You want to be sure you are not being taken advantage of!
“A pro se litigant will be ill equipped to do legal research, make a court appearance or draft a motion but if the pro se litigant can muster a basic understanding of the law, they can at the minimum make sure that they are not taken advantage of by the legal system.”– David Reischer, Esq. Attorney & CEO of LegalAdvice.com
This is easily one of the most important steps to representing yourself in court. If you don’t know the law, how can you use the law to defend yourself in court?
That is why a majority of this article is dedicated to learning the law.
There are many, many ways to learn the law, and we are going to cover a few in this guide on how to represent yourself in court!
Learn the Law at Local Law Libraries
It’s unlikely that you are an active subscriber to Westlaw or Lexis. However, there is a good chance that you have access to legal library right down the road which is.
Many counties have law libraries which are open to the public.
Although you are often not able to check out books if you aren’t a lawyer, most libraries are getting rid of physical books anyways. For better or worse, everything is going online. Most county libraries subscribe to one or more of the online legal search engines and provide access to the public.
If you are unsure about the legal libraries in your area, and you plan on representing yourself in court, check out this directory of law libraries.
Chris Goodwin expands on this idea:
“Legal research is expensive. Lexis and Westlaw subscriptions are incredibly expensive and each legal book can be hundreds of dollars. Most local law libraries or court houses will have free Westlaw or Lexis terminals for the public to access.”
“Rather than comb through endless statutes (which are available online for free usually), a person can use a secondary source available from Lexis or Westlaw that will be an overview and interpretation of the law.”
“Oftentimes these secondary sources will provide a primary source for reference. This way, a person can get a simple, easy to process overview of the law, along with a citation to show the judge.”–Chris Goodnow at Goodnow McKay
Learn the Law Online:
In many ways, this is the best age for folks to represent themselves in court.
Simply put, the internet is an amazing tool for legal research, but you must use it wisely!
Unfortunately, there are many sources of bad information online. When it comes to law, the consequences of this information could not be more extreme.
Online research for legal information is OK, but be sure to be mindful of your sources.
Here’s the deal, there are truly many good online sources, and Maria Leonard of The Pels Law Firm shares some of her favorites:
“For research, many states, like my home state of Maryland, have Peoples-Law.org, which explains different areas of the law in layman’s terms. Google Scholar is another good legal research site.Maria Leonard Olsen, Esq. The Pels Law Firm
It’s true , Google Scholar is a good source of legal information online. A few other sources worth noting for case research include:
- Find Law
But those are only the beginning. Feel free to explore uncommon legal perspectives you may find on the internet, but just be mindful.
Court is not about emotion, it is about law. If you don’t know law, you can not win in court.
Using The Internet to Learn What Not to Do in Court
In my experience, the internet does a great job at showing you what not to do in court.
Here is an excellent example of what not to do in court, WARNING it is hard to watch:
I just had to add this comment someone made to that video, as it unfortunately is how many folks see pro-se litigants.
There are countless examples of this kind of behavior in court. Unfortunately, this kind of behavior makes it difficult to find the truth about certain laws. Yet, it is a humbling example of what not to do.
Local Online Index
In some states, there are local law indexes which are operated by local clerks of court.
Now, not all jurisdictions will have these, but if they do, they are an excellent resource of information.
Attorney Justin Lovely explains:
“The biggest thing I can recommend, at least in my state of South Carolina, is to research your local public index. These are websites ran by your local clerks of court. “
“Often, you can research the case files of case types similar to the one you need help on. Find one that has gone all the way to trial or judgment. In these cases, you will find the complete case file of similar pleadings, motions, documents, etc. Then you can see what was filed, when, by whom, under what circumstance, etc.”
“It will give you a starting point to represent yourself. Now as far as case law and what arguments to make under your local rules of civil procedure, well, that is where a lawyers expertise comes in.”-Justin Lovely at justiceislovely.com
Consider a Self-Help Course
In my experience, I found a self help legal course to be tremendously helpful in learning how to defend myself in court.
I highly recommend checking out HowtoWinInCourt.com.
Their course is only $250 for the first year, and you will learn A LOT about how the legal system works. The information is laid out in an easy to follow format, which can help you learn fast.
Full disclosure, you can use my affiliate link to purchase the course, and help support this content. I would not be recommending the program if I had not used the course for myself. Seriously, it is well worth the investment!
I am sure there are other sites that are good as well, but I don’t have any experience with them.
Step Four: Prepare For Your First Appearance
Learn The Court’s Rules
I know what you are saying.
“I have already learned the law, now I have to learn the rules?!”
The rules of the court are as important as the law itself when it comes to representing yourself in court.
The court’s rules — establish order, and ensure that the process is (at least somewhat) fair, even for those who want to represent themselves.
You may be able to borrow a set of these rules from your local legal library, or you can find them online:
Jason Saverese had this to say
“If you ignore tip number 1…”
AKA, don’t represent yourself in court…
“…then you should download and print out the rules of procedure that apply to the court you’ll be in. Learn them well before you begin drafting your pleading (complaint or answer to a complaint).
Be aware that most courts have state rules of procedure AND local rules of procedure. Both sets of rules apply and must be followed.”
“Failure to do so could cause you to lose your case.”-Jason Saverese at Savarese & Associates PLLC
There is a reason folks go to school for years to learn this stuff, but we are still not done with the best practices for defending yourself in court.
Matthew stresses the importance of these rules, especially for a pro-se litigant:
“Most courts are exceedingly deferential to the arguments of a pro-se party because they recognize the inherent disadvantages and dangers of self representation, so a pro-se litigant would be wise to keep basic notions of fair play at the forefront of the courts concern.”-Matthew, Ryan, Esq., Flushing Law Group
Learn the Rules of Evidence
So, there are the rules of court, and the rules of evidence. A self-representing individual should be familiar with both.
“Print out and learn the applicable rules of evidence. Not every fact, document or witness is relevant. Some evidence (hearsay, for example) is not allowed in court, without you citing the proper exception.”-Jason Saverese at Savarese & Associates PLLC
This sentiment was also relayed by Paul Saputo.
This is what Paul Saputo had to say about learning the rules to better defend yourself in the courtroom:
“Read the rules. Read the rules of evidence, read the rules of criminal or civil procedure (as they apply to your case). Read the local rules. Read all the rules well in advance of trial.
The rules matter, and they can also get you very far. You’ll probably have a lot more luck citing a rules than citing a case. You can always argue a rule.-Paul Saputo at Saputo Law Firm
Consult With an Attorney
I know that if you have made it this far, you have likely decided to not have an attorney represent you. But, you can still have a criminal defense attorney help you work on the case, and make sure that you are doing things in the proper order.
“You can always use the local law library to do research and get sample motions in the practice guides. However, using an attorney on unbundled services to get some guidance is the best way to know exactly what to do, say or file in your case. Unbundled services means finding an attorney that operates on a flat fee, and provides a la carte services and consulting.”Nichole A. Wilkinson sibuslawgroup.com
Seriously, it may cost $500 to hire a lawyer for a few hours, but the consequences of not doing things right, are extreme.
Just a few hours of legal advice from an attorney can be tremendously helpful. As Jason Saveres explains:
“Consider paying a lawyer for at least 1 or 2 hours prior to filing anything with the court, so you can consult with him or her and have them provide their advice on what to file with the court, which witnesses to call, which invoices, affidavits, photographs, etc. are needed.
Those 2 hours could be money well spent. He or she can even suggest important, relevant questions to ask witnesses, and strategies that you need to use.”-Jason Saveres at Savarese & Associates PLLC
Step Five: Prepare Your Case
Preparation of your case is, unsurprisingly, a huge part of your case when it comes to representing yourself in court.
When it comes to representing yourself, you will find that judges are more open to oral arguments from pro se litigants. Though, much of your preparation must be focused on the written arguments you submit.
It’s true, court is where, in many instances, ideas or words come to battle. Yet, your ideas must be based in morals, religion, or law to be received by the court.
The American legal system is strongly based on religious freedom. And in fact, many laws, and the legal system itself, is based on biblical foundations, just as is the American Constitution.
Here is the most important point, if you plan on representing yourself in court, and you plan on defending yourself using religious freedom arguments, you must respect this next top tip for representing yourself in court.
If you consider yourself a pro se litigant or a sovereign citizen, you need to follow this step:
Keep it Simple: Make One or Two Key Points and Stick to It
Look, this is a huge mistake I have seen many folks who want to represent themselves make.
I was reminded of this point by David Reischer who explained as follows:
“As such, a pro se litigant must appear in court on time and make 1 or 2 points to the judge as clear as possible. Do not get bogged down in facts or law. Make the 1 or 2 points and pray.”-David Reischer, Esq. Attorney & CEO of LegalAdvice.com
The Case of Too Many Points
Now, I wanted to expand on this point by showing an example of what David is talking about. Hopefully, this example will show the importance of following this simple tip.
Back in January of 2015, everyone was making a fuss about a case heard in the State of New York.
The opinion summary for Phillips v. City of New York, No. 14-2156 reads as follows:
Now, at first that seems like a lot to take in. At the time that this case was decided, many thought it meant that NY no longer recognized the religious exemption for vaccinations. This was not true then. Though, NY has since gotten rid of this vaccine exemption.
This case is an excellent example of raising far too many points and lb!
Although I encourage you to read the court’s decision in full, I will try to explain it further.
Let me break it down.
The Plaintiffs-Appellants, not having learned their lesson the first time around, tried the same maneuver again. They raised the following challenges in their case against the city of New York in their appeal to the original decision.
The legal challenges were as follows:
- Rejecting plaintiffs’ substantive due process
- Free exercise of religion
- Equal protection
- Ninth Amendment challenges
- “Plaintiffs also raise numerous arguments on appeal based on a deposition”
If you think this is a lot of information, and you are asking “how do I defend myself in court?”. This is only the beginning!
Although the plaintiffs raised 5+ arguments against the City of New York, they lost every one.
In my opinion, an opinion I have held since I wrote this, having read the original decision where the same allegations were raised. It is clear that the judge would have considered the plaintiff’s point if only she had focused on the argument for her “free exercise of religion”.
As you can imagine on appeal, Phillips’ case was dismissed. Just like her first in the lower court.
The original judge eliminated the plaintiff’s arguments one by one. This is a snippet of what the court had decided about Phillips’ original arguments:
It doesn’t end there either, the original judgement continues:
All of this information is just a long-winded explanation for the reason that you need to keep your arguments limited.
When defending yourself in court, focus on one or two great points, and stick to them!
Not only will this lead to less writing and stress on your end, it leads to less work for the judge. Allowing them to focus on the point you are arguing, without being overburdened.
Step Six: Appearing In Court
Practice the 3 D’s: Dressed, Diligent, and Direct
When appearing in court to defend yourself, remember “appearance is everything”.
Now, I simply loved this “rule” that Sasha Shulman brings forth about representing yourself in court.
According to Shulman, of there are the three D’s: dressed, direct and diligent.
“Let’s break these down.”
“You don’t need an Armani suit to go to court. However, you are much more likely to be taken seriously if you look the part. Make the effort to wear appropriate dress clothes. It is also a sign of respect.”
“When speaking in court, be direct. If something that can be said in 20 words takes 20 minutes, you lose your listener. A judge will appreciate a well-thought, succinct argument. Going on tangents will just annoy or bore the listener, and you lose impact.”
“Research your position. That might mean reading statutes or case law or relevant treatises. If you hire an attorney, we know the relevant law and the appropriate arguments to make. You need to be 10 times more prepared than everyone else in the room. That also means being organized, having copies available for the opposing party and the judge, and having a roadmap of your argument.”–Sasha Shuman at Shulman Law
These points really bring forth the importance of representation when defending yourself in court. I really love this rule of three D’s!
This rule is critical for anyone who is looking how to represent themselves in court.
But appearing in court doesn’t end there:
Be Respectful to the Judge and Court
Look, dressing is one part of appearing in court, the other is being respectful to the judge, and the rest of the court. This of course includes the jury, the clerk or court, and court reporters.
It’s true, other attorneys stressed the importance of: appearance in court when representing yourself without an attorney.
Attorney Saputo takes it one step further for those who might be defending themselves in court before a jury, saying:
“At trial, remember that juries are judging everything you do. They are not just listening to the words coming out of your mouth, they’re looking at your body language, your appearance, and how other people interact with you. Trial is theater, so details matter. ”-Paul Saputo at Saputo Law Firm
This point is so true!
Speaking for myself, I have stood before many judges. Every time I have dressed appropriately (in my hottest thrift store suite and work boots). I was treated with the same respect I would greet the judge and court with.
Even after I would watch many, many people go up before the judge and catch an attitude from him or her. I would go up and be respectful, waiting for my opportunity to speak.
And would always be greeted with immense respect from the judge. Maybe not the clerks so much, but always the judges. Even the ones that I thought were mean.
Still speaking from experience, don’t let the judges frustrations with others affect the way you treat the court. Even if you catch a little attitude from someone here or there, let it slide.
It will reflect well on you. Self representing individuals should be concerned with sticking to their premeditated points, motions, or paperwork.
Emotions and emotional reactions will not get you very far in a court room.
Stick to the facts and law, often the court will follow.
If they don’t, then you may have an appeal on your hands anyhow.
Eric Klein goes a bit deeper:
“The best advice I can give a pro se litigant is to be courteous and deferential to the court, not just the judge, but the court officers, judicial assistants and court reporters.”
“A pro se litigant must keep in mind that court personnel will not provide legal advice so don’t ask the same question 10 different ways expecting an answer, that will just agitate the clerk.”
“A pro se litigant should not attempt to use legalese…that will make a non-lawyer sound stupid. Lawyers no longer use legalese, as such, neither should pro se litigants.“– Eric N. Klein, Esq., at Klein Law Group
Chris Goodwin had a few more points to add about behavior in court.
“ Regardless of the type of court it is recommended that an individual who is self-representing be very respectful of the judge.
“Often times, individuals will attempt to talk out of turn or talk over the judge. If you are short, succinct, and respectful, the judge will often times grant a significant amount of leeway in the proceedings.”-Chris Goodwin at Goodnow Mckay
“The judge is fully aware the person appearing before them is not an attorney and, accordingly, adjusts his or her expectations. It is important for a self-representing individual to speak simply, clearly, and logically.
Usually, self-represented persons get into trouble by trying to be too lawyerly, and get too fancy. This, generally, just confuses the matter. If a person has a simple, common sense, logical argument, it is usually better to present that rather than attempt to get lost in trying to speak legalese.”-Chris Goodwin at Goodnow Mckay
Maria drives the point home with these last few remarks!
When in court, behave respectfully. Do not interrupt the judge when he or she is speaking. Be organized with what you would like to say and any documents you would like to present.
Have copies of all documents for the judge and your adversary. And if you do not understand something the judge says, ask. Better to clarify before any order is entered.-Maria Leonard Olsen, Esq. The Pels Law Firm
Don’t Forget Obey Deadlines!
One of the final points that was raised, which is equally as important as all of the other information is — be sure to hit deadlines!
Failing to do so can cost you the case.
Jason Savarese takes over saying:
“You are at a distinct disadvantage before you even file a pleading, and attorneys will point out your every missed deadline, misfiled pleading, irrelevant or inadmissible statement or piece of evidence, etc.”
“If you are sued, be sure to serve your answer by the applicable deadline. So many pro se defendants fail to do so, and are then surprised when an order is granted, awarding the plaintiff all relief requested in the lawsuit. Let me know if you have any questions.”-Jason Saverese at Savarese & Associates PLLC
Don’t Forget! Filing Motions and Subpoenas
In my experience, filing motions and subpoenas as a self-representing defendant, is one of the most difficult things to do.
Look, if the judge does not see a “certificate of service” (showing that you have indeed served the papers to your adversary), he or she can not even listen to your motions.
For example, if you have a motion to dismiss, but you didn’t serve your adversary appropriately, it really doesn’t mean much. Now, you may find that the judge and the prosecutor are willing to hear it anyways, but they may not be required to.
One of the most important acts, and biggest challenges, of representing yourself in court, is filing motions and subpoenas correctly!
I will leave it to Attorney Chris Goodnow to expand upon:
“Filing motions can be difficult, however, depending on which court the appearance is in, a court may make template filings online that are simply fill in the blank.“
” If a self-representing person is appearing in a court, they should search for the court’s website or call the clerk of the court, and check if there is a form available to fill in. This is very common and can take the guesswork out of starting from scratch.”
“It is also important to note that many of the filing fees may be waived by the court for a person in financial hardship.“-Chris Goodwin at Goodnow Mckay
One Final Point
I know it was said earlier, but I wanted to drive the point home!
The How To Represent Yourself in Court, the Ultimate Weapon
Look, this site is mostly not monetized, though I do get a kickback if you sign up for this course. I would not recommend something I do not believe in.
The How to Win in Court Program by attorney Frederick Graves is an astounding asset to anyone looking to represent themselves in court. Even their free email notifications are loaded with valuable content. For only $250 you can pick up almost all of the tools you will need to represent yourself in court.
If you go to this link, you can get the program, and support more in-depth content like this in the future!
The Real Secret Weapon
Some might say it’s knowledge….
But, here’s the deal. One of the most important tools I learned is from the course above.
One of the best tools a pro defendant has at their disposal is to always, always be preparing for an appeal.
An appeal, other than the Creator himself, is the greatest tool you may have in a court room.
The thing is, judges hate appeals. If they get too many, they may not look to good among their peers.
Showing that you know the law, court rules, and proceedings, shows the judge that you aren’t just making things up. Being informed shows judges that you mean business and that you will do what it takes to win. Typically, just that attitude alone is enough.
And seriously, sign up for this course. It is tremendous, and simple.
What Do the Numbers Say for Pro Se?
Look, much of this guide is actually dedicated to the act of self-representation. But I wanted to take a quick dive into the numbers.
Pro Se Cases Are Dismissed More Frequently:
According to a review by the Federal Courts Law Review in the year 2011, around 33% of pro se cases were dismissed in federal courts. Compared to only 5% of cases where an attorney represented a client.
Pro Se Cases and Findings of Guilt
As of 2011, 65% of cases in the review ended in a guilty plea for pro se litigants. Note that this number excludes all dismissed cases or cases disposed before trial. This was compared to around a 95% guilty finding for those with legal representation.
Now, there is one last statistic, which shows favor to those who had legal representation. When a case went to trial, 95% of pro se litigants were found guilty, as compared to only 82-86% of those with legal representation.
I am not sure why exactly the two info-graphics show different results, but they do.
What’s the Bottom Line on Representing Yourself in Court?
It’s no secret, representing yourself in court, especially if it is a criminal matter, is no easy task!
Many lawyers, unsurprisingly, advise against this.
However if you are going to do so be sure to:
- Consider Your Options
- Prepare for pre-trial
- Learn the law
- Learn court rules
- Learn the rules of evidence
- Act with respect
- and Meet deadlines
If you are diligent in your study, respectful, learn your law, and right is on your side. Who’s to say you can’t? There is only one way to find out if you can make it happen.
One of the best ways to learn about the legal system, other than become a lawyer, is to represent yourself in court the right way. I am not suggesting that you should. In fact, for most, it is best not to. Yet, if you are truly in the right, and God is with you. Who is to say you can’t?
If you need advise from an attorney, reach out to one of the many fine contributors of this article or search for criminal defense attorneys near you.
However, you can bet pretty strongly that the contributors of this article are some great resources. After all, they went out of their way to offer what information they could to the public at large, and that is pretty awesome.
Thank you for reading, and thank you to all the legal professionals that helped make this ultimate guide to representing yourself in court possible!
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