Riffin: Not your average pro se litigant

James Riffin graduated from the University of Baltimore School of Law in 1975 and received a master’s in law from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1981. But he is not a practicing attorney, saying he got his legal degrees only to “protect his legal interests.”

He tends to speak in soliloquies that are dense with details and delivered in matter-of-fact tone, much like his legal filings. And like a lawyer questioning a witness, he primarily asks questions he already knows the answer to, and that answer is almost always designed to support his point.

Riffin’s legal background makes him atypical among pro se litigants, said Pamela C. Ortiz, executive director of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission, which is examining self-representation in the court system.

Most pro se litigants “don’t know what is necessarily required of them or fully understand the consequences of their actions,” Ortiz said. “They don’t know the process.”

The lack of knowledge about the legal process can increase the workload on opposing counsel, Ortiz added. There are often problems with serving the other party and making filing deadlines, for example.

“Most attorneys would prefer to have an attorney on the other side,” she said.

Michael Millemann, chairman of the commission’s self-represented litigants committee, said a pro se litigant alters the balance inherent in the adversarial process. Where a conversation between two opposing lawyers can often lead to a settlement, a lawyer has ethical limits on what he or she can say in conversation with an opposing pro se litigant.

“You’ve got differing responsibilities. You’re more of an officer of the court,” said Millemann, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.

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