Most people involved in litigation are represented by counsel. Litigation can be very confusing, and untrained individuals usually want to hire someone who has the knowledge and experience needed to properly handle a lawsuit. Every so often, litigants decide to represent themselves, usually either to save money or because a lawyer would not take the case. Sometimes, lawyers do not think much of pro se litigants, since these individuals did not attend law school and may have less experience in the litigation process. However, pro se litigants can make formidable opponents in a variety of situations, and lawyers should take them seriously.
One reason why pro se litigants should be taken seriously is because they generally have more skin in the game than lawyers who are merely representing a client. As such, pro se litigants are likely to research all of the legal issues and procedures involved in a case and harp on deficiencies in the positions of adversaries. Earlier in my career, a new associate at my firm was up against a pro se litigant, and this associate needed to serve a supplemental bill of particulars. However, since the complaint had been verified, the bill of particulars also needed to be verified, meaning that the client stated under oath that the bill of particulars was true.
There are some instances in which a lawyer can verify a bill of particulars, and this lawyer tried to verify the bill of particulars himself. However, the pro se plaintiff rejected the verification because the attorney was not allowed to verify the bill of particulars in his circumstance. A lawyer might have let the lack of verification slide, or not noticed the deficiency in the first place, but this pro se plaintiff was adamant that the rule be followed, and this associate was left scrambling in order to get things right.
Another reason why pro se litigants can be formidable opponents is because they usually only have one or a few lawsuits to which they devote their time. When I was a “street lawyer” handling insurance defense cases and going to court regularly, I had between 25 and 44 cases for which I was responsible. It was sometimes difficult to keep track of all of these cases since my time was spread pretty thin. However, pro se litigants can devote all of their energy to one case, and this can have positive results. Pro se litigants can keep track of all deadlines in a case, press every advantage, and have a higher likelihood of success when litigating a matter.
Moreover, pro se litigants can often be more efficient in how they litigate a case. When a lawyer represents a client, the attorney needs to rely on the client to provide accurate information about a matter. Clients are often less than forthright with information that is relevant to a case, and this can hamstring a lawyer’s efforts to best represent a client. However, a pro se plaintiff has access to all of the information related to a matter. This can help the plaintiff provide accurate discovery responses and take steps in the litigation that are advantageous because of the facts of a case.
In addition, pro se litigants do not need to deal with some of the inefficiencies that lawyers at bigger law firms need to contend with when litigating a case. Pro se litigants do not need to deal with budgets and billable hour caps when representing themselves in litigation. Such considerations can limit lawyers from pressing every advantage in a representation and pro se litigants are not so limited. Moreover, pro se litigants do not need to deal with reporting, billing, and all of the other administrative tasks of a case that might take time away from providing top-rate legal representation.
Pro se litigants can also be formidable opponents since they are more likely to take the steps that are needed to be successful in a litigation. Lawyers often give advice to their clients about how to have the best chance possible at succeeding in a case, such as refraining from talking about matters on social media, preserving all documents related to a matter, and taking other steps. However, the lawyer does not have complete control over a client, and numerous times, a client will act in a way that might be detrimental to the litigation. Nevertheless, pro se litigants are far more likely to take all of the steps that are needed in order to be successful in a matter. I talked about this phenomenon a while back when I discussed how lawyers also make formidable litigants, and people who have more skin in the game are far more likely to refrain from conduct that could be deleterious to the representation.
All told, lawyers sometimes dismiss pro se litigants thinking that pro se litigants should be no match since they lack legal training and experience. However, pro se litigants can make formidable opponents and lawyers should underestimate them at their own peril.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at email@example.com.