Why You Need a Lawyer
By Alicia Hutchinson, Esq. (Marlton, NJ Office)
In my time as a Judicial Law Clerk I learned a lot about the law, but I also learned through real-life examples why you need a lawyer to represent you in court.
After a year of watching self-represented litigants struggle with the Court system, here are my top six reasons why you should consider hiring an attorney to represent you in your Post-Judgment motion.
1. You won’t have to face your ex-partner’s attorney in Court. Self-represented litigants are expected to know the case law and court Rules, just like an attorney. A good attorney will point out every single mistake or omission their self-represented adversary makes. They will also be prepared to dismantle your case on procedural grounds. Attorneys and their staff know what the filing deadlines are, what sorts of material must be included in a motion packet, what forms of response can be considered, who has to get copies of all that, and what the page limits for everything are. If you slip up on any of those points and that can be used to get an application denied without even reaching the merits, an attorney will fight for that outcome.
2. You won’t have to figure out what sorts of information and proofs are helpful to the Judge. It can be very difficult to for a self-represented litigant to understand what sort of information is useful to a Judge when assessing their requests for relief. I often saw people focus on things that seemed relevant to them, but were actually not related at all to what they were asking for. Part of what a good attorney will do for you is tailor a concise, strong certification which addresses the facts and legal authority that entitle you to relief without going into unnecessary information that is at best useless, and at worst potentially damaging.
3. That friend who worked for an attorney can’t represent you. Neither can your brother, your mother, or that poker buddy of yours who is very smart and has seen every episode of Boston Legal. I got many calls from litigants who would say: âI’m going to put my friend on the phone, she used to be a legal secretary and she’s going to help me with my motion and she has some questions for you.â And I would have to quickly say âSorry, but if you put her on, I have to hang up. I can only talk to parties and their attorneys, I can’t talk to friends.â There are rules about the unauthorized practice of law, not just in New Jersey but in every state. You have to have finished law school and be admitted to the bar in New Jersey in order to represent another person in a legal proceeding. That means that unless they are a lawyer who is Â admitted to the New Jersey Bar, nobody is supposed to help you prepare your motion papers, and nobody can speak up for you at oral argument. Your friend can’t do it. Your girlfriend can’t do it. Your mother can’t do it. You have the right to proceed self-represented, but it means you are on your own.
4. Court staff will not be able to help you nearly as much as you hope. Many self-represented litigants wanted me to tell them how to succeed in their motion. I was absolutely not allowed to tell them that. Of course I knew what kinds of things the Judge would want to see. It was my job to know exactly those things. However, as a member of the Court staff, I was allowed to give procedural help only. What litigants really wanted me to give was legal advice. I couldn’t give that kind of advice and neither could anyone else on the court staff. Court employees are prohibited from doing so.
5. You are more likely to get the result you want on your first try. Often, a litigant needs a particular result by a particular date. For example, you might need a college contribution before the first semester’s tuition bill comes due. There are certain things you need to show the Court to demonstrate you are entitled to relief, and you are expected to know what those things are when you fileâeven if you are not a lawyer. If your filing is insufficient, you will get denied. Meanwhile, college tuition bills will start coming due that you will have to figure out how to pay, not to mention the fact that each time you file a motion you have to pay the filing fee. It was sad and frustrating to watch people appear in Court multiple times because they didn’t know what proofs to provide or what legal points they should be addressing. A good lawyer would have made sure all of that was addressed from the very start, saving time, money, and frustration.
6. If your matter requires a plenary hearing, having an attorney makes that process go more smoothly and successfully for you. There are many forms of relief that require a plenary hearing, which is a kind of trial in front of a Judge instead of a jury. This always surprised people who were representing themselves. They looked crushed when the Judge would announce that he was going to have to do a full hearing and started to set discovery periods and deadlines for additional certifications. I understand why. Plenary hearings can be complicated proceeding that can take weeks or months to complete and often entail a discovery process, additional certifications, finding witnesses, and sometimes even depositions or subpoenas. If you’re self-represented, you’re going to have to figure out how to do that all out on your own.
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The above is not specific legal advice nor does it create a lawyer-client relationship. Do not rely upon it without consulting an attorney to see how the information presented fits your unique circumstances.