Do-It-Yourself Lawyers

Do-It-Yourself Lawyers

March 22, 2001

By DENISE LAVOIE
Associated Press Writer

BOSTON (AP) - Four months after Joe Keane-Comella decided to sue his former bosses for discrimination, he decided to become his own lawyer after dozens of attorneys told him he had no case and others asked for a $10,000 retainer.

Keane-Comella, 30, spent two weeks in a law library and drafted a six-page complaint accusing his former employer of making it so difficult to get time off for treatment for his HIV that he had to quit his telecommunications sales job.

"I think I can do it," he said of the legal work. "I will stand up for this until everyone who's had this problem gets what they deserve."

Thousands of people walk into courts across the country every day hoping to win a case without ever spending a day in law school.

Just how many isn't tracked nationally, but court officials say the number of "pro se litigants" (pro se means "for oneself" in Latin) has been on the rise.

"There's a sense of self-confidence, a sense of competence that they can go in there and do this on their own," said Kathleen Sampson, who tracks pro se cases for the American Judicature Society, a national court improvement organization based in Chicago.

"It's like the do-it-yourself movement - the Home Depot approach," she said.

The sheer volume of these do-it-yourselfers puts pressure on the courts. Clerks have to answer basic questions a lawyer would not need to ask. Judges say pro se litigants constantly ask them for help, raising questions of impartiality. Legal aid advocates fear pro se litigants may not receive the same shot at justice because they're naive to the system.

"They say, 'What do you want me to do?' That's how many cases begin," said Sean M. Dunphy, chief justice of the Probate & Family Court Department in Massachusetts.

Judicial officials are trying to make it easier for people without lawyers.

Assistance programs to help fill out forms for divorce, landlord-tenant disputes and other cases are offered in many states, including Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico and New York. Many judicial Web sites provide court forms that can be downloaded.

In Minnesota, officials in the state's largest county have set up a self-help center staffed by attorneys and court personnel.

"We started looking at litigants as customers - that's a totally different concept," said Edward Toussaint Jr., chief judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, where approximately 20 percent of cases include someone who is representing himself.

Massachusetts judicial officials are so concerned that they recently held a statewide conference to try to come up with a plan for dealing with the volume of pro se litigants. Already, many of the state's probate and family courts have programs where lawyers volunteer their time helping self-represented litigants.

"They don't know what to ask for, so many times (they) may wind up agreeing to things that any competent lawyer could tell them they ought not to," said Lonnie Powers, executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp.

Not being able to afford a lawyer is still the main reason people decide to represent themselves.

But others simply believe they can handle their cases themselves, using advice gleaned from dozens of legal Web sites and television shows like "Judge Judy," where people represent themselves.

"The fact that you can turn on the TV and see someone standing up and in 15 minutes purport to solve their problem is a big factor," said Ralph Warner, publisher of Nolo Press, a publisher of self-help law products.

Former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who presided on "The People's Court" from 1997 to 1999, acknowledged that these shows may encourage some people to represent themselves.

But he said many people would be better off hiring a good attorney.

"Those are small claims court cases, they don't involve a lot of money, and also on those shows generally the program pays the bill, so you have nothing to lose," Koch said. "But when you go into a real court and you lose, you pay."

(Copyright 2001 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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