Should you represent yourself?
Updated: Apr 28
As an old saying goes, “He who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client.”
However, in many legal proceedings, people attempt to represent themselves. Many represent themselves because they do not believe they can afford a lawyer. Others represent themselves because they are so egotistical they think they can handle their own case better than any lawyer.
If you have a pending legal case, you may be asking yourself: Can I represent myself? What follows, is a list of common types of legal cases that Oklahomans often face. In each of these situations, I will explain when, if ever, you should represent yourself.
You should never represent yourself in a criminal case. The stakes are too high. If you are convicted, you may be sentenced to serve several years in prison. Even if you don’t go to prison, you will still have a conviction on your record. This conviction can prevent you from getting jobs, and can also increase any punishment you will receive in a future criminal case.
Criminal law, in the United States, is extremely complicated – even Byzantine. In part, this is because the United States offers so many protections to criminal defendants. In many, many cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on what law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and courts can and cannot do in criminal cases. Claremont University professor Michael Uhlmann has gone so far as to say that the U.S. Supreme Court has written a “national code of criminal procedure.” If you don’t have qualified legal counsel in a criminal case, it’s very likely that the law gives you protections that you don’t know about.
The bottom line: you need a lawyer in a criminal case. If you can’t afford a lawyer, you may ask the judge for a court-appointed lawyer, and the state will have to pay for this lawyer.
A creditor or debt collector has said that you owe them money, and has threatened to sue you. You can at first negotiate with the debt collector. You may not need a lawyer for this – many people successfully negotiate with debt collectors, without the aid of a lawyer. However, if the situation is very complicated, you may need a lawyer. Trust yourself. In such a case, you are probably the best judge as to whether you need a lawyer to negotiate with a creditor.
If the creditor or debt collector has filed suit against you, you can still negotiate with the creditor or collector – the court will probably encourage you to settle out of court. Again, you may not need a lawyer at this point. You may be able to negotiate a settlement with the debt collector, and you may not need a lawyer. However, you still may need a lawyer if the situation is very complicated.
If you intend to challenge the debt collector in court, in a hearing before the judge, you need a lawyer at this point. The rules of procedure in civil court cases are too complicated for most non-lawyers to understand. The creditor or collector almost certainly will have a lawyer, and if you don’t have a lawyer in a case that goes before a judge, you will be at a distinct disadvantage.
Many people get divorced without lawyers. There are two types of divorces: uncontested divorces, and contested divorces. An uncontested divorce, is a divorce where the parties can reach an agreement without arguing the case in front of a judge. A contested divorce is a divorce where the parties argue before a judge.
You may, or may not, need a lawyer in an uncontested divorce. You may be able to negotiate with your ex-spouse without a lawyer. However, if you feel that you need help understanding any legal issue, then, it would be wise to get a lawyer. If your ex-spouse has a lawyer, you may or may not be able to negotiate with this lawyer yourself. Ask yourself: Do you trust your ex-spouse’s lawyer? Is your ex-spouse’s lawyer trying to work with both of you together, or is this lawyer trying to take unfair advantage of you? Is your ex-spouse’s lawyer telling you anything that is suspicious, or that you don’t understand? If you do not feel that you can negotiate with your ex-spouse’s lawyer yourself, get a lawyer.
You may also need a lawyer to help you with the paperwork that must be filed with the court in a divorce. NOTE: There are a number of non-lawyers who are offering to prepare paperwork for people to file in divorce cases. Some paralegals will offer to help you prepare paper work to file in divorce cases. In Oklahoma, a non-lawyer is NOT allowed to prepare paperwork for a person to file in court. Because paralegals are not lawyers, paralegals also cannot prepare papers for you to file in court. The Oklahoma Supreme Court has held, in Latson v. Eaton, that, if a non-lawyer prepared documents for you to file in court, the non-lawyer is guilty of unauthorized practice of law. If someone offers to help you prepare papers to file in court, always ask if the person is a licensed attorney. If a person is not a lawyer, and prepares papers for people to file in court, you may report them to the Oklahoma Bar Association for unauthorized practice of law. Click here to see how to file a complaint for unauthorized practice of law in Oklahoma. (Note: These instructions are labeled “Filing a Complaint Against an Attorney.” However, the process on this page, is exactly the same, as the process of filing a complaint against a non-attorney for unauthorized practice of law.)
If your divorce is contested (i.e., argued before a judge), then you do need a lawyer. There are parts of the Oklahoma family law process that you, most likely, do not understand.
Furthermore, divorce cases are very emotional. You will be so emotionally affected that you will not likely be able to think clearly as to what is the best argument and the best defense. In addition, you may become so angry in the courtroom, that you “fly off the handle” and lose your composure. If you do this, the judge may sentence you for contempt of court.
In Oklahoma, a paternity case, is a suit between two parents who were not married, but have a child together. In a paternity case, the court can decide issues of custody, visitation, and child support, just as in a divorce case. I would suggest that, the decision as to represent yourself in a paternity case, would be governed by the same considerations as the decision as to represent yourself in a divorce case. You may or may not be able to represent yourself in an uncontested paternity case, and you will not be able to represent yourself in a contested paternity case. See above under the heading “divorce cases” for a more complete explanation of when you can represent yourself.
Here’s one area of Oklahoma family law where you don’t need a lawyer. Suppose the other parent has custody of your child, but the court has given you visitation. Then, suppose the other parent is denying you visitation.
In this situation, the Oklahoma state legislature has created a way for you to get visitation without a lawyer. Go to your local court clerk, and ask the clerk to give you a “Motion for Enforcement of Visitation.” The clerk should give you a form. Fill out this form and give it back to the court clerk. The judge should set a hearing within 21 days. At this hearing, explain that you have been denied visitation. The judge can then see to it that you get visitation. For more information on how to do this, click here.
In Oklahoma, protective order cases are designed to work without lawyers. However, in some protective order cases, you may need a lawyer. There may be issues in a protective order case that could affect other cases (such as divorce, custody, or criminal cases). These cases could create complicated legal issues. Also, if you’ve been a victim of domestic violence, going to court and facing your abuser could be so frightening that you need a lawyer.
To find out more about how to file for a protective order, click here.
Small Claims Court
In Oklahoma, in most cases involving money damages less than $10,000, the case can be heard in small claims court. Small claims court is designed to be simple so that the parties won’t need lawyers. If you’re in small claims court, you probably don’t need a lawyer. To find out more about how to got to small claims court without a lawyer, click here.
Drafting a will
Many people attempt to draft wills without a lawyer. You should not try to do this.
The rules for wills in Oklahoma are very complicated. If a will does not contain certain very precise language, the property could end up going to a person you don’t want the property going to. If you’re not a lawyer, you almost certainly don’t know the rules for what language needs to go in a will. An improperly drafted will may result in contentious litigation among your family members after you die. Many hotly contested court cases have resulted from wills that were not correctly drafted.
Many businesses will sell “home-made” wills – many businesses also sell forms where you can draft wills over the internet. You should stay away from these types of wills, also. The reason is, only a human being, who is knowledgeable about wills and probate law, can ask you questions, understand your family and property situation, and draft a will that precisely fits your needs. In estate planning, every person’s needs are different, and, a one-size-fits-all form (either in print or over the internet) cannot be best for your needs.