I once spoke with a colleague who told me that he had a personal legal problem. He was dealing with his case on his own. But after going through a great deal of angst, he finally decided that he would retain an attorney to handle his matter. So, he walked into another colleague’s office, and retained that attorney. He told me, “When I walked out of his office, I felt like it was not my problem anymore—it was now his problem. My colleague knew the law about as well as the attorney he retained. He certainly had the experience to handle his case. Why, then, would he choose not to represent himself?
The answer lies, interestingly in the American Medical Association (AMA) Code of Ethics. Although physicians in the United States are not prohibited from treating themselves, the AMA discourages the practice. It argues that physicians who treat themselves can both overestimate their medical knowledge and suffer lapses in judgement due to their stress and emotions. It would seem that it is human nature to make decisions more cautiously and with greater reason when those decisions concern others, but not oneself.
The same goes for attorneys. Abraham Lincoln famously said, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” This holds true for both legal professionals like my colleague and for anyone else considering representing themselves in a court of law. Even knowing the law with confidence does not give someone good reason to represent themselves. To do so would be for them to take unnecessary risk because their judgment is clouded by their emotions.
Self-represented litigants often find themselves in court after a court hearing wondering what happened and why. These litigants probably went into court that day not knowing what was important and why. A self-represented party usually wants to “tell their story” to the judge. But what a party does not often appreciate is that the story they have to tell the court is often not what the court needs or wants to hear before making a decision on their case.
An experienced attorney will listen to the client’s story, ask questions of the client to gather the information which is pertinent to the client’s case, advise the client, and then prepare the case to be presented to the court. This will include information elicited from the client, and will omit that information offered by the client which is not relevant–and therefore not helpful to the court in making a decision. An experienced attorney will also know not just what to say, but if and when to say it.
So, if you ever find yourself asking, “Do I need a lawyer?”, the odds are that you probably do.
There are many benefits to speaking with an experienced attorney. By speaking to a legal counselor that you trust, you are able to benefit from both a professional opinion and an additional perspective. Based on what information you receive, should you decide to walk away from your legal issue, you can do so with an informed mind, un-bothered by what-if’s. On the other hand, should you decide to move forward, you can walk out of the office with a load off your back–you will have placed your burden on the shoulders of someone much more capable of bearing that load.