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Self-represented litigants, pro se litigants and me

I am a commercial litigator. My firm’s clients range from small to mid-sized businesses to larger companies to start-ups to individuals. They hire us to solve problems, resolve disputes, negotiate deals and make sure that they are acting in compliance with the law.

In most cases I handle, the opposing party hires an attorney to solve their problems, resolve their disputes, negotiate their deals and to make sure that they are acting in compliance with the law.

Occasionally (but with more frequency), the opposing party will decide they do not need (or cannot afford) to hire an attorney and instead decide to represent themselves. What to do with a self-represented litigant?

I am always torn with how to handle myself. On one hand, I want to use all of my skills and abilities to swiftly resolve the case. On the other, I fear appearing as if I’m taking advantage of the fact the opposing side does not have an attorney.

Essentially, I need to zealously represent my client while still being an officer of the court and ensuring the matter is handled fairly and justly. Unfortunately, weighing both of these considerations can be extremely frustrating.

(As I mentioned earlier, I perform commercial litigation, so I have not been in situations where pro se litigants are handling their family law or criminal law matters, which, from my understanding, occur with greater frequency. Also, businesses are required to have an attorney in most situations, so I have recourse when an owner of a company attempts to defend or bring forth a claim).

For the most part, I try my best to be fair and to take into consideration the opposing party is not an attorney. I make sure our communications are documented, whether it is a follow-up email or a confirmatory letter. I do not underestimate a party, as on occasion, I have seen self-represented litigants do a better job than represented litigants.

I show respect (even if respect is not shown to me or the client that my firm represents). I take anything filed by the opposing side with a grain of salt (as there is the occasional motion that may not be timely filed or substantively valid).

Finally, I assume that a matter is not fully resolved unless the case has been closed by the court. Laypeople may not be as time-sensitive (neurotic?) as attorneys, so their understanding of trial dates and motions deadlines do not comport with those of a practicing attorney. Even if we agreed to enter into a consent judgment or a dismissal of the case, it’s not over until the document is filed, date stamped and removed from the docket.

Any suggestions or experiences that you would believe to be helpful with working with a pro se litigant?

One comment

  1. I received an email regarding potential resources for self-represented litigants and wanted to pass it along.

    There is a legal self-help center for civil matters in Glen Burnie that offers both in-person and chat-based assistance:
    http://mdcourts.gov/district/selfhelpcenter/home.html

    The Maryland State Law Library is also open to the public and it has a number of “hot to” books. The People’s Law Library website provided information on a variety of legal issues and serves a target audience of self-represented litigants. The website is http://www.peoples-law.org.