14 valuable lessons I learned representing myself in Small Claims Court
Yes, you can win your case pro se, but listen to your legal coach
Recently, I heard a podcast discussion about why Rudy Giuliani isn’t representing himself in court and owes more than $132K in sanctions after not responding to parts of a lawsuit from two Georgia election workers. One other podcaster recited the age-old saying, “If you are your own lawyer, you have a fool for a client.”
NOTE: This post is NOT about the District Attorney’s racketeering indictment for alleged efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. This post is NOT about Donald Trump (Inmate No. P01135809) nor his former attorney. It is, however, what inspired me to write about lessons I learned as a pro se litigant.
I have mixed opinions about referring to pro se litigants as “fools.” Playing Devil’s Advocate, if you don’t know what you’re doing at all, why not give someone who went to law school a shot? Sure, you may have nailed your Criminal Justice class, but I’ve worked for enough lawyers (as a print and digital editor, publicist, co-blogger) to know there are a zillion intricacies to every case. More significantly, if you passionately believe in your case, no one (moms excluded) will ever care as much as you do.
I understand why attorneys I’ve interviewed complained so much about law school: They learned the book, but they didn’t step into a courtroom.
Years ago, I had to defend myself to get unemployment benefits, presenting my case to an administrative law judge from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. I organized my files, turned in needed evidence and was given the opportunity to cross-examine my employer. To my absolute surprise, I won that case. I went into it 99% sure I’d lose but figured nothing beats a failure but a try.
A decade and a half later, when another incident came about, I pondered on the odds of the judgment being in my favor twice. I shied away from it at first, consulting with my real estate lawyer to see what my options were. After a consultation from her and an initial letter sent to the soon-to-be defendant didn’t work, I was still trying to avoid going to court. But after state representatives for a towing company, my homeowners insurance policy agent and a prior client (who is an active property manager) all said this sounded like a discrimination case and could potentially work in my favor in Small Claims court, I gave in. (It took me three months to think this through because I can think of a zillion other things that I would prefer to use my money for.)
Reminder: The Constitutions of the United States and the State of Illinois not only guarantee the right to be represented by legal counsel, but also afford to each and every citizen the right of self-representation.
So, would I consider myself “a fool” for choosing to go pro se, even after the defendant hired an attorney less than 12 hours before the first court appearance? Absolutely not. I was and am still proud of the way I presented myself in court. My own legal coach had already said I was a “smart cookie” and was confident that I could argue my case. But when the opposing attorney also admitted I did a “good job,” it both startled me and made me not regret being the “fool” in this scenario.
Did I win? Nope! I made some easily avoidable mistakes while also making decisions that could’ve easily helped me win. As a result, I’m now tied one to one. Here’s what I learned in Small Claims Court that may be able to help others who proceed pro se.