First the obvious points: Law school is three years of post-graduate education after the four-year college degree. Then there’s the bar exam. And there’s the matter of experience. This comes only by working “in the trenches,” so to speak, representing real people facing real problems.
None of this is to say you can’t go “pro se” as your own attorney.
Plenty of people do, or at least attempt to go it alone, at first. It’s self-serving – on a lawyer’s blog – to claim that people can’t go it alone. With enough time and resources, many people are quite capable of representing themselves.
But be warned: There are pitfalls.
What does ‘pro se’ mean?
Pro se is Latin for “on one’s own behalf.” In law, there is generally no requirement that a person be a fully licensed attorney to handle his or her own legal matter (though handling another person’s case as their legal representative is out of bounds).
Going pro se as your own attorney has a long history in the U.S., dating back to the Founding Fathers. It is, essentially, a person’s right. Of course, like so many other things, exercising this right depends on the facts and circumstances of the given situation, but it’s a right nonetheless.
Knowing what you should know – but don’t
The essential pitfall is that you don’t know what you don’t know.
This can be a problem for lawyers themselves, the newly minted ones fresh out of law school. It’s tied to experience (or lack of it). Inexperienced lawyers don’t know what they don’t know. They can only make up for it with extensive time and research figuring out what they should know. Even then, they’re often not sure whether they got it 100 percent right.
Those representing themselves pro se are in the same boat as newly minted lawyers. And it’s worse if your spouse has legal representation. Your spouse’s lawyer does not represent you, and in general has little to no obligation of paying attention to your interests in the divorce.
Example: Retirement accounts
Case in point: Dividing retirement accounts with qualified domestic relations orders (QDROs). This task is notoriously tricky, largely owing to the formulas involved and the parties’ respective interests in the funds based on the years of marriage and a small army of other potential factors at play. Getting this wrong can mean you get short-changed, perhaps significantly.
Other pitfalls of going pro se include surprise tax liability that comes from bungling retirement funds and other investments, as well as the practical matter of presenting yourself – past mistakes and all – in the best possible light. Alleged domestic violence, as one example, will put the accused party at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to child custody and parenting plans.
In an uncontested divorce, for example, going pro se could be a perfectly reasonable solution, especially with no children and very little in the way of property and financial assets.
Ultimately, it’s your decision to go pro se or not. Beware of the pitfalls. And if you’re on the fence, consult with a divorce lawyer first.