During the matter of my divorce (that’s lawyer talk – it’s always the matter of this and the matter of that), I spent about $30,000 on three different attorneys in an extremely frustrating effort just to be able to see my own children. As each lawyer failed to obtain one single worthwhile benefit for me, I fired them and hired another one. I couldn’t help but notice that I was never allowed to speak directly to the judge and I felt that these people were not saying what I wanted them to say as well as I could. So in the end I fired them all and decided to represent myself in court In Propria Persona (as my own attorney). It was then that I learned the most important lesson of all:
The hard truth of the matter is that attorneys have to work with the judges and with the other attorneys every day. A client is just a client and when the case is over, it’s over and they need to get on with the next one. It’s really all about careers and about relationships, and the attorneys’ daily business relationships are with other attorneys. They have ethical guidelines which compel them to show respect even if they don’t like each other. But when it comes to the judges it’s not a matter of like or dislike. The judges are little gods and the reality is that they have huge case loads which just get larger no matter what they do, and the attorneys understand that the way to help the judges is to move the cases through court as quickly as possible. Help a judge do that and you’re on their good side. Take too long with one particular client and you’re not. DON’T PISS OFF THE JUDGE or the judge will find a way to take it out on you and you will not like it when that happens. One particular judge actually said to me “I don’t get angry, I get even”. Attorneys don’t have to be told that, they know it. They understand that a career can be lost by alienating a judge and that relationships can be jeopardized by alienating their peers. The vast majority of attorneys will not risk their careers or jeopardize their professional relationships for any one particular client.
So does anybody really need an attorney? The law actually implies that we don’t because we are given the right to represent ourselves in court if we choose to. Does anybody really want you to know this? Definitely not, because if everybody represented themselves, how would all the law school graduates make a living? But here’s the big problem. When you think you need an attorney, it’s almost always because you’ve gotten into some kind of serious trouble and you think that the stakes are too high if you lose. It’s kind of like needing a new roof. Nobody even thinks about their roof until it’s too late and the thing is leaking uncontrollably. And it’s only then that they find out how incredibly expensive a new roof is, and how impossible it is to educate yourself properly on the subject in order to know how to spend all that money and not get ripped off. Similarly, until you’re in serious trouble, you probably don’t even think about having to choose an attorney. And now the stakes are much higher than when you need a new roof because with the roof, the great danger is spending a lot of money and not getting what you paid for. With your legal difficulty, it could be about having to go to JAIL, not to mention spending a lot of money on an attorney and then having to go to jail. So when you’re in that situation, the conventional wisdom is unanimous – get the best attorney you can afford.
So you bust your budget and make your selection. You sit there in court and watch the attorney do his/her job. How are you supposed to be able to know whether the best possible job is being done for you? There’s no way to know because you don’t understand the game that’s being played out. After all is said and done, the judge calls both attorneys into chambers and the goal of the meeting is to find a compromise solution that will move the case out of court. The attorneys do their thing and then they come back into court and tell you, “This is the best possible deal you’re going to get. Trust me. If you don’t take this deal, you’re going to make the judge angry and you will never get this deal again.” What can you do? Nothing. You just lost.
But if you ever make the decision to represent yourself in court, you’d better understand how to behave properly or you will really piss off the judge. Here are the basics of good courtroom behavior:
1. Don’t digress. Make your points quickly, logically, and in logical order.
2. Always look the judge directly in the eyes when talking.
3. Forget your ego and just grovel. Say “your Honor”, “with all due respect”, “forgive my ignorance” and things like that.
4. Dress well. Notice that the attorneys all wear suits. Now why do you think they do that? Because they all own stock in Brooks Brothers?
5. When you do get your chance to go back into chambers, follow rules 1 through 4 again.
If you can master these basics, you will find that an amazing thing happens. The judge will be entertained by you simply because what you’re doing is very rare and it’s not what they have to sit through every day. If you’re good and stick to the basics, the judge will bend over backwards to assist you. Of course, there is the matter of knowing the law and proper court procedure. It’s possible to lose a case just by missing a trick and being beat to the punch by your opposing attorney on a simple point of order. So . . . do you need an attorney? Probably you do, but maybe you don’t. I didn’t.