Litigants Taking Law Into Their Own Hands

A man who represents himself in court has a fool for a lawyer, according to the old adage.

But perhaps not anymore. A growing number of Americans are saying they'll go it alone when it comes to standing up for their legal rights. The numbers are significant enough for some in the legal profession to take notice.

In the early 1990s, the number of "pro se" litigants, or those representing themselves, increased by almost 50 percent. That growth has continued in recent years, with an explosion of Web sites, books and other guides showing how to do it.

Some people simply don't have enough money to hire good legal help. The American Bar Association believes some 100 million Americans cannot afford lawyers. Others just aren't happy with the level of legal help available today.

"Many of these people are disgruntled," said Diane Howard, a Cape Girardeau, Mo., lawyer who is looking into what she calls a nationwide trend of court-goers unwilling to have anyone else represent their interests. "There is an increasing sense that lawyers simply aren't worth what they charge."

Several states, including Arizona, Hawaii, Minnesota, Maryland and Missouri, are making changes to accommodate more pro se litigants. In Minnesota and Hawaii, paralegals staff the help centers inside many courthouses, ready to give advice on procedures and where to go for mediation. They also assist with filling out and filing paperwork, and explain courtroom conduct.

Hawaii has already shunted those aides' services out onto the information superhighway. Calling their help centers "concierge services," they offer self-help legal guides and brochures for small-claims and family law both in the courthouse and on the Web.

"It makes you feel like you could get your nails done and get a shoeshine while you're learning how to take care of your own divorce," Howard said. "I think Hawaii is very aggressive on their Web site. They offer a complete list of qualified and disbarred lawyers. They're great with languages and even offer Lunch 'N' Learn the Law seminars."

An August, 2000 release from the Hawaii state judiciary noted that unrepresented litigants appear in 99 percent of small-claims cases, in 99 percent of requests for temporary restraining orders, and in 25 percent of regular claims cases. In the Family Court of the First Circuit, 35 percent of divorce cases involve at least one unrepresented party, the study also noted.

'People Just Stare at Each Other'

But many in the legal establishment see problems with the growth of pro se litigants.

"There's a rolling of eyes in the judiciary when you talk about pro se," Cape Girardeau County Judge Scott Thomsen was quoted as telling the Associated Press. "There are those who have everything documented, their exhibits labeled. Then there are those that sit down and look at me."

The Missouri Bar Association asked Howard to address the needs of pro se litigants and learn how other states were approaching the problem.

"The judge's perspective is a very different situation," she said. "A judge even cuing the opposite side on what their next course of action is could be unfair — no one tells me what to do next, what course of action to take."

Knowledge Is a Weapon

Lawyers themselves are well aware of what pro se litigants can do once they gain access to the system. An ABA commission report in 1994 noted the "significant development" of self-help books and computer programs for those who represent themselves, noting that many of them "provide ready-to-use legal forms accompanied by instructions on their preparation and use."

For their part, some accomplished pro se litigants are downright cocky about their capabilities.

Attorney and author David Grossack doesn't like to tout his 21-0 record as a pro se litigant. He instead refers to the case of a Pembroke, Mass., man who chose the pro se route in a false claim arrest against his town — winning a $200,000 verdict in federal court.

Books by pro se advocates like Grossack claim to be able to show the reader how to sue just about everyone — including a lawyer. In a pitch for his book, How to Win a Lawsuit Without Hiring a Lawyer ... a Course in Pro Se Justice, on his Web site (, he invites potential buyers to "find out when and how you can sue prosecutors, judges and other public parasites."

Pooh Pooh on You

Still, many practicing lawyers remain confident in what they call the irreplaceable nature of their services.

"Most people are not astute enough to do all of the paperwork involved," said Earl B. Jann, Ph.D., who specializes on divorce mediation. Jann says that "mediation is becoming much more popular," calling it a "non-adversarial alternative." He has his own Web site at

Jann said he believes only about "2 to 3 percent of people can do a divorce on their own. It's too complicated," he said. "I don’t think it's practical that they can get it done."

Other attorneys seem more concerned about the hurt feelings of pro se litigants who come up to the plate not properly prepared.

"The judges tend to want you to get an attorney, because judges think you're going to get hurt," said David Chaiken, a Chicago attorney who concentrates in real estate law. "Especially in a divorce. They want you to end up well."

Still, he concedes that he still knows why pro se litigants still, and always will, abound. "Litigation is expensive," Chaiken said. "Very, very expensive."