Pro Se Litigant in North Carolina

Pro se litigants are people who represent themselves in legal proceedings.

A few weeks ago, I witnessed the best performance by a pro se litigant that I have ever seen. This pro se litigant was in District Court taking on her ex-husband and his attorney in a temporary child support hearing.  For a person with no formal training, she did fairly well. She mostly stuck to the facts. She asked questions that didn’t draw many objections. She didn’t appear to frustrate the court with irrelevant or unnecessary information.  It was obvious that she was out of her element, but she still maintained her poise and she never looked overly nervous. Still, no matter how much better she performed than some of the other pro se litigants that I have observed in the past, she lost her hearing.

So what makes a good pro se litigant?

Most lawyers never stop to think about it. I believe that a good pro se litigant is organized and has great presentation skills. He or she is persuasive and articulate, and has a talent for storytelling. A good pro se litigant is also a good negotiator. He or she may even have an abundance of creativity and a natural knack for problem-solving. The truth is, even if you could combine all of these skills into one person and make a good pro se litigant, that good pro se litigant is still at a large disadvantage before he or she ever enters a courtroom. You see, many lawyers already have the traits that make up a good pro se litigant. On top of that, lawyers have legal education and experience. But if lawyers already have the skills that are necessary to litigate effectively, as well as the legal education and experience, why do so many pro se litigants continue to navigate the court system alone? In most cases, the decision to represent oneself is not made by choice. Many pro se litigants want to hire an attorney. Many consult an attorney before deciding to strike out on their own. Some pro se litigants already had an attorney working on their case at some point, but decided to end the representation. No matter the reason, entering the courtroom as a pro se litigant is a bad move that should be avoided if at all possible.

If you have a family law case, you definitely need an attorney.

Don’t believe me? Just take the pro se litigant I recently observed in court. I would argue that she lost her case before the hearing even began.  Sure she asked good questions. She even tripped her ex-husband up on more than a few points here and there. Still, she had absolutely no understanding of the child support laws in North Carolina.  I imagine she thought she would show the court how bad of a person her ex was, and that would be enough to win her case.  Well here is a bit of bad news for anyone else thinking about litigating their own family law case: proving that your opponent is a bad person is not enough to win. Sad but true, being a bad person does not mean that you automatically lose in family court. The emotions on display in family law courtrooms may lead you to believe otherwise.

Many pro se litigants get wrapped up in the emotions of a tense family law case, but the law, not emotions carry the day in family court, just like any other court. Pro se litigants do themselves a true disservice in family court because the pro se litigant is faced with the difficult task of presenting his case to the court while keeping his emotions in check at the same time. Simply put, it is very hard to get a favorable outcome pro se in family court. “But why”, you ask. “I handle my own traffic tickets.”  “I took my cousin to small claims court.”  “I watch Law and Order and The Good Wife.”  “I’ve seen hundreds of episodes of Judge Judy, and there’s no tougher judge than Judge Judy.” “Why can’t I represent myself in my family law case?” “Why can’t I sue for custody of my children? I know them best. I am their parent. I’m their flesh and blood.” “Best interests? I am the best interest they have ever had. Who knows those kids better than me?”

Those are all good points, but you still need a lawyer for your family law case. If you stop to think about it, it makes perfect sense.  First consider the three (sometimes more) years of training an attorney has to have before graduating from law school.  Then think about the weeks or months of preparation that attorney must undergo before taking the bar exam.  Think about the rigorous and difficult bar exam that attorney had to take before becoming licensed to practice law.  Think of all the cases that attorney handled prior to meeting you.  Think of all the experience that attorney gained in all of those cases.  Think of the wealth of knowledge that attorney had to accumulate in order to speak with you intelligently about your legal issue.  Even if you are pessimistic about attorneys to begin with, at least think of all the skill the attorney acquired by representing the clients that came before you.  At the very least those earlier clients were the guinea pigs that chartered the course and blazed the trail for your attorney’s now glorious representation of you. At this point, you have thoroughly researched your legal issue. You have scoured the internet, leaving no stone unturned. You have even asked an Avvo question, or two. You have downloaded your “file it yourself packet” available from your local court. You are ready to begin. Why not take the next step and begin to represent yourself? If you are sincerely thinking about representing yourself in a family law case, there are more than a few reasons why you should not.

Here are the top 10 reasons why you should hire a family law attorney for your case.

It’s Your Family We’re Talking About!

This isn’t a traffic ticket we are talking about here. If you are presented with a family law issue, you really need to evaluate what is at stake. If your matter involves custody, the outcome of the representation can impact your relationship with your loved ones for years to come. One choice, whether to hire an attorney or not, could be the difference in experiencing many cherished memories with your child, or merely hearing about them later. Don’t leave something so important to untrained hands, even if they are your own.

Your Case Is Not A Purple Alien

No matter how unique your family matter is, we have probably seen tons of cases just like it. This is especially true for a firm that practices in one particular area. Take my firm for instance, the McIlveen Family Law Firm. We don’t dabble in a variety of practice areas. We only handle family law cases: no criminal law, no worker’s compensation law, no business law, nothing else, just family law. We devote our entire practice to dealing with areas involving family and domestic issues. From pre-marital agreements, separation agreements, post-separation support, divorce, equitable distribution, alimony, adoption, child custody, and child support, family law is all we do. We only appear in family court in front of family law judges. When we are not representing clients, we read about family law issues. We stay up to date with the changes in family law, so that we are always able to advise our clients on family law issues. In fact, we learn so much that we sometimes give seminars and training to other attorneys about new and developing areas of family law. When you come into our office, we cannot guarantee you a win. We will never do that. There are just too many things that could happen over the life of your case. What we can tell you, however, is that if you have a family law issue, your case will not be the first time we have encountered it.

Because Courts Are the Worst!

Courthouses can be very intimidating places. As soon as you enter the courthouse you are shuffled through security. You are commanded to empty your pockets, and to remove your belt and shoes as well. You are then put through body cameras and metal detectors. After going through security, you proceed to your courtroom. During this time, you are sure to hear tales of another’s misfortune with the legal process. Once you find your courtroom, a Bailiff (who is probably a gentle giant), sternly instructs you to sit down and turn off all of your electronic devices. This temporarily severs you from the outside world. You take your seat in the courtroom on a bench that is just a tad more comfortable than your high school gym’s bleachers. Then the judge enters. He calls out instructions that you simply do not understand. Maybe he spoke too fast, or maybe you were confused by something he said. Oh well, at least he called your case first. Surely you will be out of court and on your way home in no time. Wrong, for some reason, the court decides to deal with the cases out of order. You are completely puzzled by this entire process. You can’t leave the courtroom because you do not know when your case will be called. Meanwhile, you have not seen your opponent or his attorney the entire time you have been in court. Why put yourself through this much frustration. Hiring an attorney can often limit your interaction with the court and will likely cut down on the number of appearances you will have to make in court. For many aspects of your case, your presence simply isn’t necessary. Your lawyer can go to the court and speak on your behalf. Unfortunately, if you represent yourself, you are your advocate, and you have to go to court each time your case is called.

Experience. It’s Part of What You Pay For

A large part of being a good attorney is experience. We’ve done this before. If we make it look easy, chances are, it is because we stumbled through it a few times before. We have learned from our mistakes how to do it just right. Why not trust your legal proceeding to someone who has experience with cases like yours?

Pressure… Pressing Down on You

Being a family law client is tough. Whether your marriage is ending in divorce, or you are a parent fighting for custody of a minor child, family law issues are emotionally draining. Nevertheless, I think family law clients are the strongest clients. Unfortunately, I think they make the worst pro se litigants. Most of my clients tell me that until their family law case is over, they feel like their lives are on hold. Can you imagine trying to perform a difficult task, such as, I don’t know, representing yourself in court while you feel as if your life is on hold? Can you imagine the amount of pressure you would feel, understanding that if you don’t get the outcome you want, your family dynamic will change? Most pro se family law litigants are very aware of this pressure. They tend to get very emotional about their cases, and often get so caught up in proving that the other side is a terrible person, that they forget to present their own case. The pro se litigant that I observed two weeks ago did this exactly. Trust me, it is not a winning formula, but it is a natural response to the strong emotions and pressure that are always present in family law cases. It is difficult enough just being a family law client. Don’t compound your problems by also becoming a family law pro se litigant. You need quality representation that is focused on the legal objective at hand.

You Bring Your Case, We’ll Bring Peace of Mind.

Hiring a family law attorney can do wonders for your peace of mind. We can’t take away all of your worries, but we’ll be with you as you navigate this difficult part of your life. Family law is adversarial and unless you have an appetite for conflict, some aspects are sure to be uncomfortable. Just filing all the paperwork and waiting for your court date can drain even the most optimistic and energetic person. Attorneys can help during this time. We are advisors, confidants, and listeners. We can be that voice of reason when you are thinking about doing something drastic. We are motivators, coaches, teachers, guiders, and if you want us to be, friends.

When We Don’t Know, We Know Where to Go

Let’s face it, at times, even the most experienced attorney is stumped by a new legal issue or procedure. If you represent yourself, you too, will inevitably run into something that you do not understand. At that point, you could call around for legal advice from attorneys. Most, however, will require you to come in for a consultation first. You could try to have your question answered online, but in most cases, attorneys simply cannot provide you with detailed and thorough answers online, and certainly the information will not be enough for you to be successful in court. You may decide to just save your questions for the judge. Unfortunately, judges cannot give you legal advice. When lawyers are puzzled by legal issues, we have a large pool of resources available to us. Many lawyers own a collection of books dealing with their particular practice area. We have subscriptions to online legal researching services. We have relationships with other attorneys (perhaps some of the same ones that you call or submit queries to online) that may have encountered our legal issue before. By the time we go to court, we are prepared, and so are our clients.

Because We Love Seeing Pro Se Litigants On the Other Side

Don’t get me wrong, there are occasions when we would much rather deal with a lawyer, but for the most part, dealing with a pro se litigant means a favorable result for our clients. It’s not that we take advantage of pro se litigants. In fact, I think it is difficult to take advantage of a pro se litigant. Pro se litigants enter every transaction with their shields up. They are alert, and will spot it if you try to pull a “fast one”. Moreover, judges are very fair to, and even protective of, pro se litigants. So why then do we love seeing pro se litigants on the other side? It’s fairly simple: being a lawyer is hard work. It’s hard for attorneys. That’s why we say that we “practice” law. Pro se litigants lack the legal training and experience of a licensed attorney. Pro se litigants are often unprepared for hearings. Most want to go into court, explain how they have been treated unfairly by the other side, and walk out of court with a victory. Pro se litigants struggle with civil procedure. But of course they would. Civil procedure is difficult. There’s an entire course of study devoted it in every law school. The deadlines of civil procedure are huge stumbling blocks for most pro se litigants. I have seen many pro se cases dismissed due to missed deadlines.

The Other Side Has One

You remember all the times you’ve heard “don’t be a copycat”? That does not apply here. No my friend, you get no points for originality with this one. If you show up to court and the other side, has an attorney, you need to figure out how you can secure an attorney for yourself as well. Perhaps you question the intelligence of your opponent. (Just as an aside, you would be surprised just how often opponent intelligence is questioned in family law.) If your opponent, that dummy, that imbecile, that nincompoop on the other side , has had the bright idea to hire an attorney to represent him, why would you, a person of superior intelligence, not hire a lawyer for yourself?

You’ll Likely Lose More Money Than You’ll Save

In the past, pro se litigants have told me that they elected to represent themselves in family law matters in order to save money. They have told me that family law attorneys are too expensive, and that handling their own case is an easy way to save money. While you may save money in the short term, choosing to represent yourself is almost always a costly mistake. Pro se litigants are, more often than not, unsuccessful in court. That bad outcome usually translates into a direct financial hit to the pro set litigant, which is far worse than what an attorney would have charged to avoid or minimize that bad outcome in the first place. In custody cases, the loss of parenting time with a child cannot be measured financially. Moreover, even if a pro se litigant is successful, he or she probably left something on the table. There is always something that the pro se litigant did not read or consider that would have entitled him or her to a much larger recovery. If you’re a pro se litigant, and you don’t believe me, just ask yourself, why was my opponent’s attorney so eager to accept my offer? Why was he so eager to agree to my custody arrangement? Is there something about my child’s other parent that should keep him from having parenting time altogether? If you are facing a family law issue, schedule a consultation with a qualified family law attorney today. Don’t wait, your case may worsen the longer you delay.

If you are thinking about representing yourself, I strongly urge you to reconsider. The likelihood of failure is too great, and you have far too much at stake. What happens in the courtroom can impact your relationship with your family for years to come. You deserve an experienced attorney who is familiar with the court system and the exact legal issues that are germane to your case. Give yourself some peace of mind as you go through this difficult time. Hire an attorney to help you get back to what matters.

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David Simmons
Associate Attorney
When David is not practicing law, he enjoys exercising, playing pool, watching the Carolina Panthers, spending time outdoors, and traveling. He especially enjoys spending family time with his wife and son, David II.

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