Top 10 Myths About the Legal System That Pro Se Parties Believe
1) The courts are fair
On a whole, this is probably more true than not but just slightly and definitely not to the degree that a person representing themselves believes. A lot of the later myths touch on this, but just realize that in almost every case one or both sides lose. And in almost every case, all parties believe they are correct and on the winning side. That fact alone tells you that most of the time at least someone in a case thinks the court is not fair.
A better lawyer, someone's appearance, an inability to properly argue a point, almost anything can cause a judge or jury to rule the wrong way.
In addition, a case can take a long time to get to court, which can be unfair in itself.
2) Lawyers are crooked and not worth the money
Undoubtedly some lawyers are crooked, but the most common complaint by someone who has lost a case is that their lawyer "sold them out". I have seen people complain because they gave their lawyer a list of questions and he refused to ask them which meant he had been bought off by the other side.
There may have been some cases where this has happened, but to say that it is rare would be greatly overestimating it. Think of how much money a lawyer will earn over their career. Is your case and whatever you think they might have been paid worth risking that? Almost assuredly not. The reason your questions weren't asked is because they weren't relevant, were objectionable, would result in answers that hurt your case, or were asked but in a different way. Lawyers aren't allowed to do things that they know are wrong, even if their client tells them to.
Lawyers cost a lot because it is a huge investment of time and money to become a lawyer, maintain your license, and run a business. While I certainly agree that the system is to complicated, it is what it is and it is designed to have lawyers involved. For that reason alone lawyers are usually worth their costs.
3) I can represent myself as well as any lawyer
Maybe, but as we mentioned before the system is designed to have lawyers involved and the courts have consistently ruled that everyone has a right to represent themselves BUT they have to play by the same rules as an attorney. If you are going to represent yourself then you need to have a good working knowledge of the Rules of Evidence and the Rules of Civil Procedure at a minimum. You had also better understand not only what objections to make but why you are making them. Often an objection turns into a mini-chess game, with each of you shifting arguments in an attempt to have the court rule in your favor and if your knowledge isn't complete then you will lose. If you can't get evidence admitted, or can't get the opponent's improper evidence excluded, then you will lose your case.
4) I know someone with a case just like mine and…
You don't, and the fact that you don't realize this is dangerous.
Their case is almost certainly different than yours and most of the time is not even close. The fact that you don't recognize the differences means that you shouldn't represent yourself. If you can spot the differences then you are halfway to the point you need to be to successfully present your case.
5) I can win on appeal
It is exceedingly rare that a case is reversed on appeal and the chances of a pro se winning on appeal against a lawyer are about equivalent to the chances of catching a unicorn.
By the way, cases are almost never reversed because of evidentiary points, they are reversed because of errors of law. That means that you wont' win just because the verdict wasn't in your favor, you have to prove to the Court of Appeals that the case was conducted improperly and you would have had to "preserve error" which many lawyers can't even do properly. We'll have another post later on preserving error so be sure and sign up for our RSS feed.
6) They'll settle because…
Never, ever, ever count on them settling. Assume you are going to have a trial and prepare for it form the beginning. Most cases do settle, but not for the reasons most pro se people believe. Companies aren't worried about the publicity, the cost of the lawyers, etc. they are only worried about what they could potentially lose if they go to trial. With you representing yourself, they aren't worried about that at all (but you can surprise them by taking to heart what we say here on www.LessonsInLaw.com). Maybe they'll offer you a little to keep from having to mess with the case, but usually it is so little you will consider it an insult.
7) I don't need to spend money and time to win my case
I debated putting this one in here, but added it because you have to know when to spend money and when not to. In some cases, like when you are suing a doctor, the law requires you to have an expert. Before you start your case be sure that you know if you need an expert, who it is going to be, and what it will cost. I can't tell you how many times I was told by a client that their doctor assured them that he would testify and then you call the doctor and he doesn't know what that person is talking about.
You also need to spend money on putting evidence together for trial. We will have a book on preparing evidence for trial soon that will explain how to do it inexpensively but it is still going to cost some money. If you aren't willing to spend what's necessary, then you shouldn't be pursuing your case.
8) I don't need to do discovery
Most cases need some amount of discovery done if the court permits it. You need to know what evidence the other side is going to present and what witnesses they are going to call. Your court may not allow discovery, some small claims courts don't, but if your court allows it then you should use that ability. If you've never done discovery take a look at our book on it at this post.
9) I'd rather have a judge than a jury
Sometimes this is true. However, if you are the Plaintiff in a case, know that most judges are conservative and, in addition, if you are facing a lawyer will usually give them the benefit of the doubt. If you are the Defendant you will want to consider whether you want the person suing you to have to convince one person they are right, or a bunch of people. I like jury trials and since most lawyers are not very good at them, you should like them too. I don't want this post to become too ad laden, but look at our book on jury selection at this post and you will be ahead of the game against most lawyers.
10) I'll win my case because I'm right
Being right has nothing to do with winning. You have to convince other people (the judge or the jury) that they should rule in your favor and that ability to persuade, not how right you actually are, is what makes the difference.