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Should I get an attorney or represent myself?

October 31, 2011

2. Law

Should I get an attorney or represent myself?

It’s no different than being sick and deciding whether to see the doctor.  You got a sniffle?  Deal with it.  Is your arm hanging on by a thread?  Maybe you should see a doctor.

First, you have the right to defend yourself all the way through any case – regardless of the severity.  At most, if you’re facing the death penalty, the court may appoint “stand-by” counsel.  They sit in the first row of the galley ready to enter the case at a moment’s notice.  I’ve been appointed stand-by on certain felony cases because the judge was concerned the guy was going to trip head long into 40+ years.

If you want to represent yourself, go for it.  I mean that.  I have no issue with it whatsoever.  Recognize, however, that the judge will not cut you a break.  You’ll be assumed to know the Rules of Evidence, how to properly direct and cross, how to open and close, when to make objections to preserve the record for appeal.  All the happy stuff.

I’m not trying to baffle you on the complexity of it all.  But consider this:  There’s a few papers that need to be filed shortly after Arraignment.  Assume I filed it, but you did not (because you don’t know about it and no one told you – which no one will).  Trial comes up.  The DA pulls a fast one – tries to sneak in some evidence.  Since I filed that paper, the evidence goes away.  Since you didn’t, you’ll get some time to review it, but it’ll probably get in.  That’s a bit of an over-simplification and some different outcomes could occur, but it’s accurate enough for this discussion.

So let’s get back to the doctor analogy.  If you’re not facing any jail time then you’re not that sick.  Most Summary offenses (traffic tickets, etc.) don’t carry the prospect of incarceration.  If you’re facing jail time, you’d better think seriously about getting an attorney.

And even on speeding tickets, some attorneys make a living on them.  They know the ropes.  If you’re facing a license suspension because of a ticket, remember that driving while suspended just adds to it.  I had a 21-year old client once whose license was suspended for 35 years when he came to me.  35 years.  I just shook my head.

The other danger you have is that you may not know just how sick you are.  Driving While Suspended – DUI Related is just a ticket … with a mandatory minimum 90 days in jail.

A lot of attorneys – including me – give a free initial consultation.  I don’t know why other attorneys do that.  I suspect for some it is because it puts you in the audience so they can dance for you, instill fear in you, and let you know that only they can get you out of the jam you stumbled into.  A friend of mine saw an attorney a little while back.  He wanted a signed payment agreement and said that unless she signed it in a few days, the Sheriff may come and sell her belongings.  He was complete BS, and he was completely overpriced.  A complete joke.

I do free initials because I build relationships with my clients.  We’re gonna spend time together over months or years.  Just because I’m an attorney doesn’t mean you want to retain me.  And just because you have money doesn’t mean I want your case.  We need to talk, scope each other out, see if we’re comfortable working together.

But free initials are not going to prepare you for representing yourself.  Don’t be cute and try to bleed an attorney for information.  If you want to review your case with an attorney and plan to do it yourself, tell her that.  I’ve done it on the Small Claims side a lot – I’d charge a client by the clock to help them get their evidence together, teach them how to question a witness, etc.

The decision to retain an attorney is just like any other important decision.  Research it.  Know your options.  Get as informed an opinion as you can.  Then make your decision.

Need some more proof?  A good rule in cross-examination is to never ask a question to which you don’t know the answer.  Check this out:

Philome Cesar, representing himself in a case in which he’s charged with robbing 25 area hotels, convenience stores and other businesses in a three-month period last year, asked Daryl Evans to describe what the robber sounded like.

“He sounded like you,” said Evans.

Case closed.


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About Clyde

Clyde is the lead attorney in the firm. Licensed to practice in 1993, he's also taught Constitutional and Criminal Law for several years at a private university, primarily at the Master's level.

View all posts by Clyde

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