Even Lawyers Use Lawyers: The Risk of Self-Representation at Trial

Submitted by New Jersey Civil Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

We have all heard the cliché, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client.” Nevertheless, there are those who find the prospect of representing themselves appealing to save them money or make them look more genuine to a jury. Obviously, we would not perform our own surgery!!!  The major misunderstanding is personal injury cases are not won with mere “general ideas” by non attorney pro se claimants. Cases are won by attorneys who have specific knowledge, skill and training with the Rules of Court and Civil Procedure. It is nearly impossible for a laymen with no experience to stand up against even the most inexperienced attorney who has been formally trained in the practice of law.

In DePietro v. Allstate, that’s exactly what Mr. DePietro tried to do when he was the plaintiff suing a defendant for allegedly causing a car wreck. He is an elderly, hearing impaired, veteran, with a squeaky clean driving record. Unfortunately, the moment you step out of the plaintiff’s or defendant’s chair and into the role of your own lawyer, all sympathy and social status that may have benefited you is lost. The formalities and strict procedure of courtroom proceedings have no room for rhetoric, “real” talk, and putting the jury “in your shoes.” In fact, the judge held Mr. DePietro to the same level of knowledge and skill as an experienced lawyer. All Mr. DePietro’s court room behavior was considered antics and were prohibited by the Rules of Evidence. The Rules of Evidence are a long list of rules that exist in a federal and state version that law students spend at least a year studying in school and often years to master in practice. Both criminal and civil cases often hinge on a Rule of evidence–Evidence for Dummies won’t cut it!

Mr. DePietro had trouble from the beginning: delays in the trial, no expert witness, and a misunderstanding of civil procedure and evidence. All of these could have been avoided with an attorney who had rapport with reputable expert witnesses, understood the local court system, and knew the law. As the trial proceeded Mr. DePietro made numerous mistakes including:

  1. improperly explaining why he was representing himself
  2. telling the jury to “put themselves in [his] shoes”
  3. mentioning his military service driving a tank (irrelevant to the case)
  4. accusing the defendant of parroting her lawyer
  5. leaving in the middle of cross-examination
  6. testifying as to his own medical damages (when the trial concerned liability only)
  7. and various other prejudicial statements

As a result, the judge approved the defendant’s motion for a new trial even though the jury placed 75% of the liability on her. DePietro’s sabotaged his own trial amounted to a miscarriage of justice and improper influence on the jury. On appeal the trial judge’s decision was affirmed on October 26th. The aforementioned mistakes were not Mr. DePietro’s biggest errors however. Even if he was an expert on the law–in fact even if he was a practicing attorney–it would still be a mistake to represent himself.

Hark & Hark represents injured citizens all the time. This is very important. At Hark & Hark we have the understanding of the court system that can only come with decades of experience.

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