Every state regulates the practice of law within its jurisdiction, and, with some exceptions for small claims courts or landlord-tenant matters, for instance, restricts the commercial practice of law to lawyers. In recent years, various groups have questioned and even formally challenged the legal profession’s monopoly on the practice of law, at least for certain seemingly routine or simple matters. Despite the restrictions against representing other parties, a mentally competent individual is universally free to represent him or herself in legal matters, whether it involves drafting a will, negotiating contracts, suing someone in court, or defending against a criminal charge, for example. (The right of indigent criminal defendants to state-appointed defense counsel, after all, was the end result of Clarence Gideon’s handwritten jailhouse petition to the United States Supreme Court to review his trial conviction.) Critics ague that the restrictions are little more than self-serving justifications for creating monopolies which result in inflated legal fees for lawyers which are beyond the abilities of many to pay. They also argue that lawyers typically work off of forms when they draft contracts or wills; or, that often very little money is at stake in a legal matter, anyway, so little harm can be done if something is overlooked.
However, there is a major difference between representing oneself (and therefore only having oneself to blame when things go badly) and representing someone else’s legal interests, especially in a court proceeding. The higher amount of money or value of assets involved, or the greater the importance of the subject matter (child custody, e.g.), the greater the justification for educated, trained, experienced lawyers. Specialized rules in trial and appellate courts (all of which exist for good reasons) make it exceedingly difficult for a pro se litigant to prevail against most attorneys in the court room or on appeal. Keep in mind, that although Mr. Gideon was successful in catching the attention of the Supreme Court, he was seeking the right to representation by an attorney to defend him in his criminal trial, and his successful appeal was ultimately handled by a future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas. // Michael Racette