The short answer is “you can”. There’s technically nothing, legally, that prevents you from doing so. There’s even a term for it – “pro se defense”. And I know that it’s tempting. I mean, you’re a smart person. You’ve probably watched television, and have some idea how the legal system works. It doesn’t look that hard, and, well….you’ve seen what lawyers charge.

I understand. 

The thing that’s worth noting is that when a lawyer gets in trouble, the first thing they almost always do is consult with a lawyer. Another lawyer, not themselves. In fact, Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said “a lawyer who represents themselves has a fool for a client”.

Why would this be? Let’s look at some reasons.

First, a lawyer is experienced in the details of the law. “The law” is a big area, which is why lawyers specialize in smaller areas. I’m a criminal defense attorney, with some very particular practice specialties in the areas of OWI defense, defending people charged with drug crimes, and rape / sexual assault defense.

If a lawyer who specialized in corporate law were to be charged with an OWI, they’d be very smart to give me a call. And if I were going to grow my firm by hiring a dozen employees, I’d be very smart to consult with a corporate lawyer.

It’s not that either of us are bad lawyers. It’s not even that we don’t know something about the other areas of law. It’s that “the law” is so large and complicated as a whole that neither of us could possibly know everything about all of it.

Second, people representing themselves can develop a sort of “tunnel vision”. They get wrapped up in their own head, and can miss the larger picture because they’re the one involved in the case. This even happens to lawyers, which is where that quote above comes from – “a lawyer who represents themselves has a fool for a client”. Even when practicing in their specialized areas of law, lawyers defending themselves can make obvious mistakes. Having somebody who’s not emotionally involved in the case is a pretty big deal.

Third, lawyers know procedures and have relationships. Even if you study all the law books, and memorize all the exceptions, you won’t know that (for example) Judge Jones hates it when court goes through his lunch hour. Or that he looks down on last-minute filings. And even though some defense seems – on the surface – to be a great legal strategy, you may not know that the last dozen times somebody has tried arguing it in front of Judge Smith they’ve lost their case. On the flip side, you won’t know that the person prosecuting your case, historically, has been more than willing to cut a particular type of deal in the case you’re being charged with. You just have to know what to ask for.

Fourth, speaking of “asking for”, your communication with the prosecution can actually be hindered by the fact that you’re representing yourself. The prosecution treats communication with you differently than communication with your lawyer. This isn’t discrimination; they legally have to do that as you’re a person charged with a crime. There are laws about what they can say to you, what they have to do with information you give to them, and even the odd possibility that they might become a witness to something that you’ve said. It’s much easier for a defense lawyer to communicate with the prosecution.

These are all things that trip seasoned lawyers up when they’re representing themselves, even in their own practice areas. Non-lawyers have all of those same challenges, plus the fact that they’re far less likely to even know the applicable laws and precedents.

Other than the cost, I think the reason some people go with “pro se” defenses is that they have an idea of how they believe their defense should proceed, and they don’t agree with the strategy the lawyer wants to take. That can potentially be a great reason to switch lawyers, but you probably don’t want to go that route without at least understanding why the lawyer doesn’t want to go with your suggested defense. The defense that seems ridiculous to you may, in reality, be your best option for beating the charges against you.

It’s also a great reason to hire a lawyer yourself. Since legal defenses can be deeply personal, it’s important that you find a lawyer that you can trust. Having the comfort level to share your story is absolutely vital to your defense – and you don’t want any trust issues getting in the way of that. Once you feel confident that you can share your story, you’ll also want to make sure your lawyer can explain your options clearly, and that can understand and address all of your questions and concerns. Ensuring that you and your lawyer are on the same page is a vital part of getting you the best overall outcome for your unique situation!

I know it can be pricey. And for minor charges it may not be as big of a deal. But if you’re looking at serious jail time, or a conviction for an OWI where your future freedoms could be severely limited, it’s worth at least making the call and consulting with a qualified lawyer that specializes in cases like yours. It’s what I would do if I were in your situation, and at the end of the day you’ll be glad you did!

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