I didn’t need a case manager the first time I represented myself in court.
It was a simple traffic ticket, part of an effort to enforce North Carolina’s new seatbelt law. At 3:00 am on a weekday, on the five-minute drive to my home from a university lab, a police officer had pulled alongside, seen me driving without a seatbelt, and turned on the flashing lights.
He was nice enough that night, but I felt I’d been searched and seized unreasonably. I fought the ticket and got a traffic court judge to agree with me. While he wasn’t authorized to overturn the law, the judge let me go without a fine.
There have been plenty of times since then where I could’ve used some support in court. It took me years to discover there was actually a thing called “civil procedure,” a playbook on how to maneuver in a civil case.
It took many more years to recognize that legal authorities had real influence on a judge’s rulings. The notion that anyone needed to point out statutes and appellate opinions to a judge was simply beyond me.
The Internet made it easier to find those authorities online, but learning the methods of legal research took even more experience in court. And to choose the right laws, I had to learn to analyze a case from both sides.
Over time, through loss after loss at the hands of lawyers on the other side, I also learned the value of legal writing — of crafting an argument to support my positions. Turns out judges are trained to receive written and oral arguments in very peculiar ways. There’s an art to making those arguments, but it’s something anyone can learn.
As a founder at Burlington Avenue, I spend a lot of time in courtrooms, doing what the startup philosophers call customer discovery. My job is to discover the things self-represented litigants need to help them win. I could rely on my own experience, but the biggest mistake a startup founder can make is to assume she knows her customers.
Still, what I’ve learned from watching and chatting with people in court is that my experience is not that unusual. I’m just further along the learning curve. I see people at various stages of understanding what’s necessary to succeed in court without a lawyer. They’re filing the wrong documents, using the wrong terms, feeling anxious and alone, frustrated.
I see people learning by doing, the way I did. I see people failing, and occasionally winning, the way I did.
So why did Debra Slone and I build a case management solution for self-represented litigants?
Because even though we’ve had more experience than most of the people I see in court, we still face judges in our own cases who, at first sight, expect nothing but foolishness from us. We see it on their faces, hear it in their voices, detect it in their questions and comments.
Judicial bias against the unrepresented is real, but it’s sometimes justified by all the nonsense judges hear from non-lawyers. I’ve spewed enough nonsense in my old cases to feel some empathy for them.
But what that means for those of us who are capable of representing ourselves is that we sometimes have to work harder just to overcome judicial bias. Our strategies have to take a judge’s bias into account, and that often makes us do things in court that a represented party wouldn’t.
For instance, we may need to file an appeal in the middle of a case — win or lose — just to let a judge know we can.
We built Courtroom5 because we need more self-represented litigants to know what they’re doing. When the courts get used to seeing knowledgeable, organized and effective pro se litigants, we’ll all see less judicial bias.
From what I’ve seen and heard in court, self-represented litigants need three things to start winning:
- We need to get up to speed fast by understanding the basics of civil procedure, the standard elements of claims and defenses, and the rules governing whether a court can consider a piece of evidence.
- We need to get people to help us with legal analysis of our cases, with finding relevant research, and with preparing good written and oral arguments.
- We need to get it together with tools for managing a case and staying on track.
That’s what Courtroom5 is meant to offer — the tools, training and community to help us do a better job in court. Our product roadmap will take years to mature, but we will get there with your support.
If you’re in court without a lawyer, you owe it to yourself to take a look around, free for 7 days.
Even if you decide it’s not for you, at least take the introductory civil litigation course that’s part of every subscription. I’m willing to bet you’ll learn something that helps you on your case, and you’ll give a judge one less reason to be biased against us.
I’d love to hear what you’ve found useful as a self-represented litigant. Share in the comments below!