Pro Se or Not Pro Se

Appearing pro se (representing yourself in court rather than using a lawyer) is becoming more common. Some judges have one day in which they try to schedule all pro se cases while others stagger them out, both so that the stress of dealing with people unfamiliar with the procedures isn't as burdensome and also in the hopes that the litigants will learn something from watching the lawyers who are there at the same time.

However, it isn't always possible for people to appear pro se.

When Is Pro Se Improper

  1. When you have a power of attorney for someone else and that person has to be in court – A power of attorney is not the same as being an attorney and you cannot represent someone else in court. Contrary to what people claim it is not a "rip off" or a "scam", all states regulate the practice of law. Just because someone has signed a form allowing you to conduct business for them it does not mean that you are not the equivalent of an attorney and if you file anything in court or respond to anything in court for that person then you have likely broken a law and engaged in the "unauthorized practice of law". 
  2. When a corporation that you own all or a part of has been sued – With some exceptions in small claims court, and these will be specifically set out in that court's rules, if a corporation is sued then an attorney must represent that corporation in court. The reason is that a corporation is a separate legal entity and the only person that can represent any entity is themselves or an attorney. It doesn't matter whether you are an officer of the corporation, a stockholder, or the only stockholder. Unless your specific court allows it then you cannot appear for the corporation. Establishing a corporation provides some advantages for liability and tax purposes but it also has some disadvantages and this is one of them.
  3. On behalf of an estate in a probate case – Some courts vary on this as well, but since you are actually filing things on behalf of a legal entity known as an estate, then many courts will not allow the executor to appear without an attorney. Again, if they do it is equivalent to the unauthorized practice of law and is a criminal offense; and
  4. As the representative of a class action – In effect, this means that a pro se litigant cannot bring a class action. The theory behind this is the same, that you are acting as a representative of other people and therefore only an attorney can do this.

In addition, if a person represents themselves the courts have been consistent in holding that the pro se litigant cannot recover attorney's fees or be compensated for the time they have spent on the case. The real danger is that they can, however, be made to pay the attorney's fees for the other side in the litigation.

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