"One of the basic principles, one of the glories, of the American system of justice is that the courthouse door is open to everyone," a federal court proclaimed in the 1985 cases of NAACP v. Meese.
Unlike defendants in criminal cases, litigants in civil cases (including personal injury lawsuits) do not have a constitutional right to legal representation. The parties must hire an attorney or act as their own lawyer. Self-represented parties are said to be acting “pro per” or “pro se.” Both terms come from the Latin “in propria persona” or “for one’s own person.” In this article, we'll discuss the potential benefits and detriments of handling a personal injury claim yourself, versus hiring an attorney to represent you.
What Are the Pros of Self-Representation?
Parties often choose to self-represent in an effort to save on attorney fees. Win or lose a personal injury case, attorney fees (a personal injury attorney's contingency fee percentage, for example) are rarely recoverable from the other side as part of a judgment, so money spent on legal representation is usually money lost (though a strong argument could be made that a lawyer will get considerably more value out of a personal injury claim than would an inexperienced claimant; more on this later).
In cases where damages are limited, self-representation is most practical. Indeed, most small claims courts, where disputes may not exceed a certain dollar value (usually around $10,000), do not permit representation by an attorney.
And with some cases, it's very unlikely you'll end up in court. In car accident claims with no significant injuries and where the vehicle can be repaired, you might file a claim with the car insurance company and work with adjusters to determine a fair settlement value. As long as you're comfortable with the process (and willing to stand up for yourself if the adjuster doesn't seem to be taking your claim seriously), you might consider handling a smaller-value claim on your own. But where damages and legal issues are more complex, parties must decide whether self-representation will save them money.
What Are the Cons of Self-Representation?
A Legal Crash Course
Courts and opposing counsel expect self-represented parties to file all legal papers within the appropriate deadlines, to be familiar with all rules of civil procedure and evidence, to recognize the main legal issues, and to raise all necessary arguments. Attorneys have years of training and experience. Self-represented parties must learn fast or risk prejudicing their cases.
Upfront Case Costs
Personal injury attorney will typically advance the day-to-day costs associated with pursuing a client's case. A self-represented party will need to pay upfront for all case costs, including fees for copying, filing, and serving pleadings, transcribing hearings and depositions, and retaining medical experts and other consultants. Costs in personal injury cases can add up very quickly.
Lower Settlement Values
A self-represented plaintiff may face an uphill battle in terms of resolving the case for its full value. Attorneys know how to evaluate a case and how to negotiate with insurance carriers. They know when to settle and when to take a case to trial. They know how to try a case. A self-represented party will often resolve a case for a much lower value than what an attorney could obtain.
A Lien Law Maze
In nearly every personal injury case, the settlement of a claim requires the resolution of one or more healthcare liens with private health insurers or government programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, or the Veterans’ Administration. Depending on settlement terms, applicable laws, and past and future medical costs, personal injury lien resolution presents many challenges -- and regulatory traps -- for self-represented plaintiffs.
In sum, in more complex cases, what money is saved in not hiring an attorney may be lost in limiting the potential for recovery. A party considering self-representation should at least meet with a personal injury attorney to fully evaluate all options.