Robert A. Bonavito, CPA PC

Representing Yourself in Court

Welcome to another "New Jersey Forensic Accountant" discussion. Today, we're gonna talk about representing yourself in court, which is an interesting topic. I love to see this, and we do get a lot of clients that represent themselves in court, so I thought I would do a video on it just to give you some background information.

Every year in the United States, millions of people attempt to navigate the U.S. court system. In some states, believe it or not, as many as 80% to 90% of litigants are unrepresented, meaning they go to court without an attorney. And when someone represents themselves in court, they're referred to as pro se, which is Latin, lawyers love to have Latin terms, on one's own behalf. Obviously, you're going in and you're representing yourself.

Now, there are many successful pro se clients who were able to take on adversaries in court and win against many experienced attorneys. I mean, it happens every day. And I think that there's a movie "Erin Brockovich," I don't know if you've ever seen it. And in that movie, she's basically a law clerk in a law firm, and she takes on one of the biggest companies in the country, Pacific Gas and Electric in was an environmental damage type situation.

And I haven't seen the movie in a while, but, you know, she does work in a law firm so she does have that backing. But in real life, she did most of the work, she's the one who pushed the lawsuit forward, did the research. And, you know, obviously, she had some help. And she won in the end. You know, it just changed the whole environmental laws in the United States, and she won $133 million and became famous. So, you know, obviously, pro se clients, you can do well, even against high-powered law firms, it's not impossible.

And, you know, we have many people coming to our firm pro se. I mean, I had a client a couple of years ago. He was involved with a bank up in North Jersey. There was a lot of fraud, and the bank actually went bankrupt because there was so much fraud in the bank, and they were acquired by another bank. And he sued the bank for money that was stolen from his account. And the case went on for three or four years because the new bank didn't wanna pay the money that was stolen. And he actually had counsel, but then he ran out of money, and he took the case on himself. And he called us because it got to the point where he needed to have an expert say that, "Hey, we did an investigation. These are the damages." We did the report. They were gonna take our deposition. The last minute, they decided to settle the case. So, that was, you know, a successful pro se.

And we had another one that was an issue involving alimony and child support. I just testified on this a couple of months ago. This case, again, was lingering in a court system for years. And she ran out of money, and she had a lawyer. And she actually did the case herself, and she was pretty impressive. I mean, she had no background in law, but, you know, she was writing motions and doing complaints. And she brought us in, retained us, we went to court, testified, the testimony went very well, and she was able to get the alimony and the child support she wanted.

So, pro se, it is an alternative, it's something you need to think about. Now, you know, you really gotta think carefully about it and you wanna talk to a lawyer, but there are lots of cases that people...if they have the time and the will, you can do well. You can do well pro se. It's an option that people don't think about.

So, let's talk about if you wanna go pro se, you know, some help, right? Two sources that, if you wanna go pro se, I think you need to look at these two books, okay? This is "Represent Yourself in Court." It's by Nolo Press. And you could see the email, they're And this is "Legal Research." Now, obviously, you're not gonna be a lawyer. Being a lawyer, it takes time, it's complex. But if you just have a small part of the law and you understand your case, you can do it.

But look at these two books, go through them. I'm telling you, these books are covers, on the surface, a lot of things, writing complaints, interrogatories, why you do them, why you don't do them, depositions, why you do them, why you don't do them, how you present a case in court, how to do legal research. It gives you all kinds of stuff in there. I mean, you could really, just by looking at these two books, get a good feel for how the court system works. So, do the research. Look at this website too, that website, it has a lot of stuff on there. So, if you're gonna go to court and you're thinking of going pro se, take a look at these two books.

Another movie I wanna talk to you about is "My Cousin Vinny," which every lawyer will tell a client to look at just to get a feel for the court system, how it works. I mean, obviously, this is, you know, a comedy, but I think if you do the research, you know, read those two books, at least skim them, go through them, look at those two movies before you actually decide to go pro se.

Now, let's talk about reasons to go pro se, okay? Number one is that you know your case better than anybody. Now, I always tell this to clients. Yeah, I'm the financial expert. I know how to look at information, interpret it, present it in court, do reports. You know, I understand that in great detail. But the case itself, you lived it, okay? So, you understand it. You may not understand what's important, what's not important. People all the time come to my office, I'm like, "That's not important. This is important," and they're just shocked what is important and what's not. But they know the details. So, I always interview them extensively to understand what happened, why it happened. So, you know your case better than anybody, okay? Better than the lawyers, better than the experts.

You could spend money. Now, if you're not paying a law firm or you have them on partial retention, you have money to spend on experts and court reporters, right? You can't go to court with no help. You need some help.

An attorney will only give you the representation that money can buy. It's true for any profession. I mean, even our firm, we have clients that we've been exaggeration, okay? Litigation clients for 10 to 20 years for free because they can't afford it. So, most firms, you know, they'll give some services away for free, but we can't do it for everybody. And law firms are no different than our forensic accounting firm. So, they will only do the work until they're paid, and once they're not paid, they stop because otherwise, they don't have a firm. So, you know, that's the reason to go pro se, right? Because you realize that if you don't have enough money to pay the law firm, well, they're not gonna be your lawyers for very long.

You have the right to represent yourself in court. Now, judges and the clerks may not like it because you cause more problems and, you know, you don't understand the court system as well as seasoned attorneys, but you have the right to do it.

You're capable. You can represent yourself in court, okay? But you need to do your homework, right? If you're not gonna look at the books, and look at the movies, and think about the case on a deep, deep level, then you shouldn't do it.

You'll likely work much harder than your attorney, okay? If you get into a serious litigation matter, you're gonna be doing that 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, okay? Because you're gonna be thinking about it or working on a case, just like we do. When we get into big cases and, you know, we're on trial, it's 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. But you'll work harder than your attorneys, believe it or not. So, you know, that's a reason to go pro se.

If you can't afford an attorney. What's your choice? You either sue or you don't sue, right? Well, there's a third choice. You do it yourself.

If you're not intimidated, okay? If you're not intimidated by the legal process and you're willing to put in the time, you can do it.

You will not run out of money. This is the big thing. This is what people don't understand. I have so many cases where, you know, they fight, they fight, they fight for years, and years, and years, and they run out of money. Then, they, you know, quickly sell the case, and it's not really what they wanted. Meanwhile, they're out of all this money and time, you know? And you look back, and you're like, "Okay." I mean, if people plan it out properly, they can last the whole case, and go to trial, and get a verdict. But most people don't do that, they don't understand the complexities. You can't predict what the other side's gonna do, and everything they do, you have to do, right? And then, you're offensive too, so the money just keeps on going out. I don't care how much money you have, I don't care how much money you have, okay? You can run out of money, so. But if you're pro se, you won't run out of money.

You know, the first one is spending too much time reacting to the other attorney's motions and discovery requests. You need to be proactive. You need to be sending them, you know, subpoenas, speeding documents, having interrogatories, taking depositions, okay? You can't be constantly reacting, right? Because then what's the purpose of going pro se if you're not gonna attack, right? You can't just be defensive. So, that's important.

Lacking confidence. You need to have confidence, okay? Because, remember, when you're in court, you're gonna get yelled at by the lawyers, you're gonna get yelled at by the judges, everybody's gonna yell at you because you're pro se. But remember something. I've seen judges yell at clerks, I've seen them yell at lawyers, you know? So, even though you may make more mistakes, you gotta keep your confidence up, okay? Don't be, "Oh, I can't do this." No. Once you're in the battle, you gotta keep on going forward. And don't worry about what the judge says or what the attorneys say, okay? Because the fact is if you have good facts and you present them at least so people can understand them in an organized way, your case will be there and people will make a decision based on those facts.

Not spending money on experts. You do need to spend money, okay? Don't think that this is gonna be free. You still need to have experts, you know, if you're going to trial to testify. You can't go in and testify on the damages, you need an independent party to look at it and say, "You know what? I looked at this, Your Honor, and the damages are X, Y, Z." At least then the judge has an independent party who is representing their opinion, not you, and helping the judge understand the calculations, okay? So, you do need to spend some money. Don't think that you're gonna get off scot-free because you will not.

Overreacting to posturing. Again, don't overreact. I mean, you know, there's gonna be a lot of things... Attorneys are basically frustrated actors, right? They love to be dramatic, some of them. And depending on who's on the other side, they all have different personalities. Don't overreact, okay? They just wanna win the case, they wanna help their client just like you wanna win the case. And you just gotta stick to your game plan and carry on.

You know, you need to do some research. You need to understand, because there will be discussions in court about the law, okay? And if you could focus in on this...and this is where you may wanna have, you know, some counsel to at least steer you in the right direction and bounce some things. You know, you can hire an attorney for a specific task so that you understand the research, how to get it, what's important in this case. Because those laws mean something to the judges and to the other attorney, okay? They may not, in reality, mean much, but, unfortunately, you know, a lot of what happens in court is based on precedent. Even though that precedent may not be applicable to your case, they will apply it to your case. So, you need to understand some of the case law. Otherwise, there's gonna be some situations. You need to understand why it's not applicable. And these will mainly be argued in briefs and such.

Overconfidence. Now, when you are pro se, sometimes everything goes great in the beginning, okay? Because the judge may like pro se clients, they may like you, they may not like the other attorney. But you need to follow through, you can't just win the first and second quarter. You gotta win the third quarter and the fourth quarter. You gotta win the whole game, okay? So, don't be overconfident if things go well in the beginning because one mistake, one mistake could destroy your case, okay? And you don't even know what that mistake is. Now, lawyers make mistakes all the time, but, you know, you're even at a bigger disadvantage. So, don't be overconfident, focus on the case, you know, make sure you put all the evidence in so that the judge and the jury can rule in your favor.

The legal system is not set up to benefit pro se clients. Now, listen. Being a lawyer is no different than being in a union, okay? They don't want everybody going to court pro se, right? Because that would not be good for them or their firms. So, you know, even the judges, I mean, they're not there to help you win cases as pro se clients, okay? That's not their job. And don't expect to be treated fairly all the time, right? Because, you know, if you're giving extra work to the clerks, to the judge, to the other attorney, they're not happy about the situation as they may not get paid extra to help you. So, you know, think about that.

But the other thing is that more and more, if you go on some of these websites for the district courts or for the, you know, superior courts in New Jersey, there is some information about pro se because so many pro se clients are coming through the system, that you see more and more information that you guys can download, and use, and copies of complaints, and stuff like that.

So, listen, I hope you enjoyed this discussion on representing yourself in court. If you guys have any questions, leave them below. I will get back to you, one of my associates will get back to you. We answer every single question. Even if it's not a positive one, we still will get back to you. And if you like this YouTube video, you know, please subscribe below. Thanks a lot.

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