He strode toward the witness confidently, his cordovan loafers shining and his graying hair neatly slicked back.
Carrying a yellow legal pad filled with detailed notes, the man confronted the witness, asking carefully worded questions. The man was well-prepared. He had to be. His freedom was at stake.
The man was 61-year-old Richard Hughes and the scene was the Pennsylvania courtroom of Lehigh Judge Maxwell Davison. Hughes was on trial for theft, a serious crime that carries a possible sentence of five years in jail. Yet Hughes had no lawyer. He was representing himself, depending on his own knowledge and finesse to save his good name, and his liberty.
"I rest my case," he told Davison optimistically when he had finished asking the questions he felt would prove he did not illegally withhold a commission from a salesman who worked for his real estate company.
Hughes won his case, something the Allentown, Pa., man had done many times before. Though this was the first time he had faced a possible jail sentence, Hughes was no more intimidated by the prosecutor from the district attorney's office than he has been by the private attorneys he faced in civil matters or the judges who have controlled his fate.
"A lot of people, when you say court, they immediately have fear," Hughes said outside the courtroom. "A lot of people see a judge like a god. Most people wouldn't even think of trying (to represent themselves), but a lot of people are being taken over the coals by lawyers."
In an era where there is hardly a dearth of lawyers--about 700,000, or one for every 250 U.S. residents--thousands of people across the country are going \o7 pro se, \f7 the Latin term meaning \o7 for yourself \f7 used by those in the legal profession to refer to people who represent themselves.
These are people who say they can't afford a lawyer, often people caught in the gap between those poor enough to receive legal assistance and those with enough money to pay fees that can reach several hundred dollars an hour. These are people who feel that lawyers will not give service worth their high fees. And these also are people who simply want to be in charge of their own lives.
If there is any truth to the adage, "He who represents himself has a fool for a client," these people are ignoring it. And they are supported by organizations across the nation, many of which have produced "how-to" books and guides designed to help people wade through the bureaucracy that is the American legal system.
"Law is not this mystical thing," said Leili Eghbal, publicity director for Nolo Press, a 20-year-old Berkeley-based publisher of self-help legal information. "Basically, people can do it themselves; we are making sure we can provide them with the most up-to-date information."
There seems to be little connection between the apparent simplicity of the matter and whether or not a lawyer is necessary.
Many people find drawing up a will to be their first legal task and the first time they decide whether to hire a lawyer. Consumer groups say there is no reason why a person can't write his own will, especially with the help of books like Nolo's "Simple Will Book," which even contains legal forms.
Many lawyers suggest that people work on their wills themselves, but then find a lawyer to look them over. Some lawyers will do a simple will for less than $100.
Lawyers often use the same philosophy when it comes to resolving domestic disputes such as divorce. A couple might want to try to work through some of the issues before getting a lawyer to seal the deal. No-fault divorce, however, has led many couples to do it themselves. In California, for example, 70% of divorces are handled \o7 pro se.\f7
Public-interest groups say more people would represent themselves if more attitudes changed.
"Judges are incredibly hostile and impatient with \o7 pro se \f7 litigants. They don't cut any slack," said Debbie Chalfie, legislative director for HALT, a nonprofit public-interest group that seeks to make the legal system simpler, more accessible, more affordable and more equitable.
Judges say \o7 pro se \f7 litigants put them in a jam.
"Theoretically we are supposed to treat someone with a lawyer and without a lawyer the same," said Lehigh County (Pa.) Judge Robert Young. "My experience is we end up helping the person without the lawyers. The judge is biting his tongue time and time again because it isn't fair to the other side."
Young said that he might extend a filing deadline or help a \o7 pro se \f7 litigant get something into evidence.
"Sometimes you don't want a guy thrown out of court because they don't know procedure," he said.
Young said one reason to hire a lawyer is "not because the lawyer is so smart, but because the lawyer is supposed to be detached and logical."