Once you file the necessary papers to begin a lawsuit, you will face several deadlines—for everything from requesting a jury trial (as opposed to a court trial in front of a judge) to telling your opponent the witnesses you plan to call at trial. Most courts have local rules posted on the court’s website. The rules will tell you everything you must do before the trial. Make careful note of these deadlines and make sure that you meet every one. The judge won't give you any leeway just because you are representing yourself—and missing a crucial deadline could result in you receiving a monetary sanction, not being able to present evidence or testimony, or your case being thrown out of court.
Certain types of cases can be heard only by judges—such as small claims cases. In most instances, however, either party has the right to request a jury trial. An attorney will usually choose a jury for a sympathetic case and a judge for a case involving complicated law or disturbing facts. The thought is that a judge is in a better position to apply the law in an unbiased manner. Even so, most people representing themselves will have an easier time presenting a case in front of a judge than a jury—primarily because jury trials are more complicated because of the voir dire process used to select jurors. However, if your opponent requests a jury trial, you’ll have to deal with a jury, whether you want one or not. If you want a jury, you must alert the court in advance and deposit jury fees. Consult the court’s local rules for the deadline to do so and the fee amount.
You won't win a lawsuit by simply striding into the courthouse and demanding money from your opponent. Each type of legal claim has several "elements" that you'll need to prove to win. It’s an all or nothing proposition. If you fail to prove an element, you’ll lose. For example, in a contract dispute, you must prove that a contract existed, that you held up your end of the bargain, that your opponent failed to meet his or her contractual obligations, and that you were harmed as a result. You'll want to plan carefully making sure that you can prove every element of your case—or, if you are defending yourself against a lawsuit, making sure that you can disprove at least one element of your opponent's case. One of the easiest ways to find the elements is by reviewing jury instructions. Jury instructions are simple statements of the law that the judge will read to the jury so the jury knows the elements that you must prove, too. Each state has a set of civil and criminal jury instructions. Look through the table of contents to find your cause of action.
Once you know the elements you'll have to prove to win your case, you can figure out what types of evidence will help you prove each key fact. However, not every kind of evidence can be presented in a courtroom. Complicated rules of evidence determine whether a particular document, statement, or item is admissible in court. Although you don't have to master every detail of these rules, you should do enough research to make sure that you'll be able to present the evidence you need to win.
During your trial, you'll probably testify, question witnesses (both those who support you and those who support your opponent), and present arguments about why you should win the case. To keep track of the questions you want to ask, the points you want to make in your argument, and the facts you have to prove to win the case, put together a trial notebook. You can use a simple three-ring binder with tabs for each section.
Lawyers spend years learning how to question witnesses, present evidence, and make arguments in court. Before you make your courtroom debut, you should learn the basic procedures and rules of the courtroom and how to prove your case. You might find some information in the court’s local rules, but the information will likely be limited to pretrial evidentiary disclosure. You’ll have to look elsewhere for help on presenting your case. The self-help book Represent Yourself in Court, by Paul Bergman, and Sara Berman (Nolo) explains how to handle every step in a civil trial.
Before your case comes up for trial, go down to the courthouse and sit in on a couple of trials involving similar issues. You'll see how to present your story and your evidence to the judge. This is especially helpful if you want to learn what to expect in a small claims trial. Because of the expedited process, you’ll be able to watch several trials within an hour or so. Other trials can take days or weeks to see to completion, so you might want to sit in on portions of several trials throughout the day. When you know what to expect, you'll be much more relaxed about your trial.
A little respect goes a long way in the courtroom, particularly when you are representing yourself. Address the judge as "your honor," not as "Judge Smith" or "Mr. Smith." Try your best to be polite to your opponent, not demeaning or petty. Showing respect for people and procedures in the courtroom will help you gain the respect of the judge, which will make your day in court a more pleasant experience.
It can be tough to sit quietly while your opponent, your opponent's lawyer, or—worst of all—the judge makes light of your arguments or implies that you aren't telling the truth. But no matter how frustrated you get, you shouldn't interrupt—especially not the judge. You'll get a chance to tell your side of the story. Remember, calm people are more believable, so it benefits you to keep your cool.
If you find yourself up against a lawyer who won't stop rattling off legal citations or won't let you get a word in edgewise, you'll have to stand up for yourself. Tell the judge that you are representing yourself without a lawyer because you can't afford or justify the expense and that you'll rely on the judge to apply the correct law and reach the right conclusions. Many judges will make an effort to keep the proceedings comprehensible to a self-represented party—and will take steps to rein in an opposing lawyer who tries to take unfair advantage.
If you’re representing yourself in a small claims action, Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court by attorney Cara O’Neill provides practical advice for every step of the process.