I Fired My Lawyer and Got My File, Now What?
Unfortunately, many people get mad at their attorneys and fire them without really, really thinking it through first. There are others whose attorneys back out of a case once it is started.
Often the person then reads a little information on the internet (and BEWARE! a lot of the info out there is written by people who have no education or training in the law and the info they provide is WRONG!!!), decides to represent themselves, and bails into the case without a complete understanding of what all is involved.
The first step in representing yourself, particularly if you have had a lawyer on the case and are now going to represent yourself is to familiarize yourself with the file that is now in your possession.
First, look for any dates of which you need to be aware. The attorney should have told you if there were any important dates already set. You would be smart to not rely on this but instead to read through the file carefully looking for any setting. There may be hearings, the trial, discovery deadlines, etc. which you should immediately calendar in a way they will not be missed. In addition, you need to be sure that you calendar reminders in advance so that you can prepare.
Next, an acquaintance of mine told me about a discussion he had with a person the other day who had some evidence struck from a trial but was unable to explain correctly why it had been struck. That person had no legal training and was using terminology that was incorrect for what had occurred. It appears, although he was never certain, that the person had fired their lawyer and had boxes and boxes of their file. However, when they got to trial the other side objected to evidence and the judge would not allow it into evidence and thus the pro se litigant lost their case. Based on our putting our heads together we believe that what likely happened is that there was discovery in the case sent to the lawyer for the person prior to their being fired but the discovery was never completed. The pro se litigant didn't know for sure because they had not been through the files because "there were so many".
Leaving aside the fact that you MUST actually understand legal terminology and not just repeat words that you heard, even more important is that for you to successfully represent yourself in a case you must be intimately familiar with all of the paperwork. If you have gotten your file from your attorney you must sit down and go through it page by page (no matter how much there is) and be sure you understand every piece. It is safe to assume that if it is in the file then it is somehow important to the case.
While many people get upset about this, another point is that a pro se litigant doesn't get a break of any kind because they are not a lawyer. They are held to the same standards, expected to know the same rules, and must in every way meet the same burdens as if they were an attorney. By the way, if you are representing yourself you do have The Guerrilla Guide to Legal Research don't you? Knowing the law of your case is important!
Someone appearing pro se (also known as pro per) must know their file, their evidence, their case, and the law as it pertains to the case completely. They must not only know what is in their file, but they must be able to lay their hands on it immediately! When I trained new attorneys one of my instructions was that if you couldn't find something in trial in less than 30 seconds then it didn't exist as far as I was concerned. Nothing makes a judge madder and makes you look less professional than struggling to find something in your file while the judge or jury looks on.
This goes back to my #1 rule for being successful at trial.