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Risks And Tips

There are risks to representing yourself!  Learn how to evaluate whether representing yourself is a good idea.  Also, get some tips on how to represent yourself effectively if you choose to go it alone and what you will be expected to do and know in order to handle your case.

Risks Of Representing Yourself

The biggest risk in representing yourself without a lawyer is that you will lose your case!  This might happen if

  • You are unable to follow all the required procedures to bring your case to trial or to defend yourself against the other side's claims, so your case is dismissed or the other side wins their case against you.
  • Once you get to trial, you cannot meet all the technical requirements to prove your case or establish your defense.

If you lose your case, the judge could order you to pay for the other side's court costs and attorney's fees, in addition to whatever other money the other side is suing you for.  This is true whether you are suing or being sued.  And this could be a lot of money!  Sometimes the costs of suing are more than the amount sued for.

If the judge orders you to pay the other side's fees and costs, a judgment will be entered against you.  A judgment is valid for six years and can be renewed for another six years as many times as is necessary until the judgment is paid.  To collect the judgment, the other side can garnish your wages, levy your bank accounts, place liens on your property, and utilize other collection methods.

So think carefully before you decide to sue someone or represent yourself in your case.  If you lose, instead of winning money or some form of relief, you could actually owe the other side money!

You can use the following checklist to help you evaluate whether it is a good idea for you to represent yourself.  Check each of the boxes that apply to you and your case.  The more boxes you check, the more risky it might be to represent yourself and the more you might want to think about hiring an attorney.

  I have a complicated case or a case that might become complicated.

  I do not feel confident that I can express my ideas and thoughts in writing.

  I am not usually on time and have a hard time meeting deadlines.

  I want or need legal advice.

  I am not available during the day during business hours.

  It will be difficult for me to arrange for time off and daycare during the day.

  I do not believe I will be able to stand in front of a judge and explain my position.

  I am not comfortable doing research in a library or on a computer.

  I am worried that the other side will not "play fair" or "game" me.

  I get angry easily, especially when I am under stress.

  I am often frustrated by rules I think are unfair or that I think should not apply to me.

  I might be too close emotionally to the case and might not be objective.

  My case might require an expert in the field to testify in support of my claims.

  I tend to be indecisive, and it is difficult for me to make a decision.

  There will likely be a lawyer on the other side of my case.

  The other side has indicated they will vigorously fight the case.

  All or most of the evidence that I will need to prove my case is in the possession of the other side, and the other side will probably not give it up to me easily.

  I have a difficult time living with my mistakes and the consequences of my decisions.

FYI!  Even if you decide to represent yourself in your case, it is always best to consult with a lawyer up front when you are sued or before you file a lawsuit to make sure that the case is one you can bring or defend with some chance of success. You can also ask a lawyer to help you with certain parts of your case, but still represent yourself. (When you pay a lawyer to help with only parts of a case, the lawyer's services are called "unbundled" legal services.)  For example, a lawyer can coach you, do research for you, write documents for you, and can help you understand what is involved in representing yourself. Click to visit our Lawyers And Legal Help page to learn more.


Tips For Representing Yourself

If you choose to represent yourself, here are some basic tips and recommendations you should follow to strengthen your chances of succeeding:

  • Learn the laws and rules that apply to your case.

Even though you are not a lawyer, you are still required to know and follow nearly all of the same laws and court rules as an attorney.  Understanding the law that applies to your case can help you understand what it is that you need to prove and can allow you to focus on the relevant issues at hand.

You can use this website to learn more about court forms and procedures and the legal resources available in Clark County, including the free classes offered by the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada and UNLV School of Law.

  • Do not give up without understanding the consequences.

If you are being sued and do not believe that you have any defense, you might think there is no point in going to court.  This can be dangerous, however, because you might not completely understand everything that the court can or will order in your absence.  It is best to get legal advice before deciding to give up.

  • Make sure all your written submissions are complete, neat, and timely.

During the course of your case, the main way you will convey your arguments, objections, requests, and any other facts and information in your case, both to the other side and to the court, is by preparing and filing written documents.  If you are using preprinted forms, make sure you have provided all of the required information in the correct blanks and checked all the appropriate boxes.  If you are preparing your own documents from scratch, make sure they comply with the court's rules regarding written submissions.  In either case, make sure you have provided accurate, truthful, and complete information, and make sure your documents are neat and legible!  After all, if your written submissions do not convey your arguments and positions accurately and thoroughly – or if the judge simply cannot read your writing – you have missed your chance to get your story in front of the judge.

Additionally, there will probably be deadlines for many of the documents you will need to file in your case.  Make sure you know the deadlines you are facing and that you get your documents filed on time.

  • Attend all hearings and get to the courthouse early.

Your court hearing is not an appointment that you can simply reschedule if you miss it.  If you need to change your court date for some reason, you will need to file legal documents requesting a different court date or get the other side to agree to the change.  This must be done well in advance of your scheduled hearing.  If you wait too long, it might be too late to change the hearing date.

If you miss your court date or are late, it is possible that the court will rule against you.  Allow yourself plenty of time to get to court.  Consider traffic, weather, parking, frequency of bus service, and the amount of time it will take to pass through the court’s metal detectors.

A good rule of thumb is to plan on arriving at the courtroom at least thirty to forty-five minutes before your hearing time.  Running late tends to make people anxious and distracted.

  • Bring your files to court.

You should have a file with copies of all papers you and the other side have filed with the court or given to each other.  Bring your file to all hearings.  You may need to refer to your file to ensure you are providing accurate information to the judge.  Also bring a notepad and pens for taking notes during the hearing.

  • Bring your evidence and witnesses.

What you need to bring to court with you will depend on the nature of your hearing or trial.  Witnesses may or may not be allowed to testify on your behalf depending on the type of hearing. It is worth checking with the Civil Law Self-Help Center to better understand the type of evidence that you need to bring with you.

If you are supposed to bring evidence and witnesses to the hearing, bring everything.  Ask your witnesses to arrive early and dress nicely.  If an important witness will not come voluntarily, you can get the court to issue a "subpoena" (a formal document that orders a named individual to appear before the court at a fixed time to give testimony), but this must be done well in advance of your trial or hearing.

If you have documents or pictures, bring the original item and two copies (original for the court, one copy for you, and one copy for the other side).  Things that you may need to bring to court may include any contracts at issue, receipts, estimates, letters, bills, photographs, and the like. Some documents cannot be used as evidence unless the right person is in the courtroom to explain the document and answer questions about it.  There are many rules about evidence, and you may want to talk to a lawyer about what evidence you need and how to make sure your evidence can be considered by the judge or jury.

Make sure your documents are organized neatly and logically.  It will be your job to walk the judge, jury, or witnesses through your documents, so you might want to arrange them in a tabbed binder for easy reference.  The judge might also have rules or preferences regarding how documents are used in the courtroom.  Take time in advance of your hearing or trial to find this out.

  • Arrange for an interpreter.

Do not show up at your hearing or trial expecting that the court will have an interpreter available. It is your responsibility to arrange for an interpreter in advance of your hearing to make sure that you or your witnesses are able to testify.  You should contact the court’s Office of Interpreter Services at least two business days in advance of your hearing to arrange for an interpreter to attend your hearing.  Click to visit our Interpreters page to get more information.

  • Dress appropriately.

Dress conservatively, as if you were going to a job interview.  You are not required to wear any particular type of outfit (like a suit or a dress) but you should refrain from wearing shorts, tank tops, halter-tops, or shirts that show your midriff.  All hats and sunglasses must be taken off prior to entering the courtroom.

  • Arrange for childcare.

Unless you are required to bring your children to court for some reason, make arrangements to have someone else watch them.  Do not bring your children to court with you!

  • Bring an outline of what you want to say.

Representing yourself in court can be a nerve-wracking experience.  You do not want to read a prepared statement, but an outline can be a useful tool to remind you of the main points that you want to cover.

  • Practice your argument.

You should be prepared to briefly and clearly describe your claims and evidence to the judge.  Try practicing in front of a mirror or friends without reading from a prepared statement.

  • Conduct yourself properly in the courtroom.

Do not chew gum, eat, read a newspaper, sleep, listen to earphones, or have your cell phone turned on.  During the hearing, you should listen carefully and talk directly to the judge, whom you should address as “Judge” or “Your Honor.”

During your hearing, speak only to the judge.  Avoid the temptation to speak directly to the other side.  Do not argue with the other side or interrupt them, and keep your emotions in check. If the other side is making an argument that you disagree with, or you feel that they are just plain lying, be sure to write down the point that you wish to make.  You will have the opportunity to address this point with the judge when it is your turn to speak. Never interrupt the other side or the judge!

  • Understand what just happened.

Representing yourself in court can be an emotional experience, and you may find it hard to stay focused in court when you are nervous or upset.  But you do not want to leave the courtroom without understanding the outcome of the hearing or trial and what, if anything, you need to do next.  For instance, will you need to attend another hearing?  Do you need to prepare any written legal arguments or file any documents with the court?  Do you need to prepare an order or will the judge do this?