Representing Yourself in Your Family Law Case
Representing yourself in your family law case can be not only overwhelming but downright terrifying. For many, this will be the first time you have ever stepped into a courtroom, spoken to a judge, filled out court documents, or participated intimately with the legal system. A daunting task, while going through one of the most difficult and emotional times of your life. Here are some particular tips to help you get through the process. (NOTE: These tips are not legal advice and are not designed to replace legal advice.)
1. Set your emotions aside and get your head in the game
I know easier said than done but this is important to do. It’s also one of the hardest things you will have to do. Divorce is hard. It’s an emotional roller coaster. It’s a challenge in life no one expected they would have to prepare for. It comes with an array of emotions, sadness, depression, relief, hatred, happiness, and regret but with all these emotions it’s hard to focus. Unfortunately, focus is exactly what is needed the most. The best thing one can do is set aside a full day, two if you can manage it, and pull together what is going to be needed for the dissolution.
To put it bluntly, go into robot work mode. Make a list of what needs to be done (if you need help with this list see other articles in my website or check out your local court website), gather your paperwork, documents, make proper phone calls, set up appointments, and get organized. Judges like people who are organized. Jot down a timeline of dates for the future and other notes that later you might forget. This will be helpful during the times when emotions are running high and you will not be able to think straight.
2. Be organized! Be organized! Be organized!
And I will say it again, be organized! Find a place to put all your court documents, paperwork, and dissolution (divorce) or family law materials in one spot. The legal process is daunting. Judges like things a certain way, courts like things a certain way, the business office likes things a certain way, the Department of Child Services likes things a certain way and they all aren’t the same way. Catch my drift… Nothing worse than thinking you have a document and can’t find it.
3. Go check out your judge
Before your court date, go check out the judge that you have been assigned. It’s your prerogative to sit in your assigned judge’s courtroom unless he/she has a closed trial. Choose a time that matches your assigned day and time and watch cases that are similar to yours. As lawyers, we often do this when we are new to a courtroom so we get a feel for how the judge runs his/her courtroom.
Take a notepad, and jot down notes, how does she/he make rulings regarding issues that are similar in your case, does the judge allow speaking, has the judge given the impression they have read the pleadings before the hearing or do they rely on the testimony when making their decisions, how much time do they alight to each case? Not only does this give you a familiarity with the actual courtroom so there are no first-time jitters but some familiarity with your judge’s personality.
4. Dress snappy casual
Courtroom attire when you are self-representing should be respectful but not overdone. Remember this is not your job so you are not required to wear a suit and the judge understands this. In fact, it might backfire if you do. Likewise, don’t underdress to make a statement about how poor you are and that dirtbag ex-husband of yours should be paying you more support. That to will backfire! I always say PTA, closed toed shoe outfits. Turn off your cell phone.
5. Don’t involve your children!
As a practical matter, do not bring your children to court unless the Judge has specifically asked you to do so. Find Grandma, Grandpa, Daycare, babysitter, church, the teen down the street (kidding unless you know them well) but this is a sure way to get a Judge really mad at you. Judges believe that courtrooms are for adults and children should be nowhere near them, even outside in the halls. On a similar matter, Judges live in the dark ages and believe children (even old ones) should know nothing about what is happening to them during a divorce or custody battle.
This is changing somewhat with the Elkins laws in California but very slowly and depending on your Judge I wouldn’t risk it. So tread lightly when bringing up children in the courtroom and NEVER associate them with money. Obviously, if your case is about custody and the children’s well-being then this cannot be avoided. What can be avoided is the he said/ she said scenario. Remember you may be wrapped up in your own drama 24/7 but Judges hear how many of these cases a day? Be mature… In most cases, a Judge will default to the posed, non-emotional, no drama parent.
6. Listen to what the judge is asking you
Listen carefully to what the Judge is asking you. Judges are attorneys that have been trained to speak in a different language. They have used this language for a very long time. They have forgotten to speak in plain English. So what you think you hear them asking you might not be what they are really asking you so you must listen very carefully. Judges also have a very limited amount of time to get a vast amount of decisions made therefore they are direct in the questions they are asking. Often times they want a specific answer or a yes or no. Give it to them. Do not offer any more information unless it is absolutely relevant to the issue you are trying to persuade.
If they ask for a number, give them a number. Do not qualify your yes or no unless they really need to be. Do not speak to the other party only speak to the Judge. This is for practical reasons in that the court reporter can only hear one person at a time. Often times a Judge will allow a short time for you to state your argument and then give the other side to state theirs. Then he/she will ask direct questions to clarify so that her decision is cohesive with the law. There are times when the Judge has misunderstood or does not have knowledge of something important and you must speak up.
7. If a judge decides against you don’t throw a tantrum
Once a Judge has made his/her order, it’s an order and arguing with them will only make things worse. Judges take notes about you too. They have a special section in their file that only they see with other Judges. This is helpful to them to know what kind of person you are next time you are in front of them. The thing is other Judges can read them too. So say you’re having a bad day and scream at a Judge it just isn’t fair and ten months later you’re in front of a DCSS Judge and they have your file. Well now you’re pegged as being difficult. Not a reputation you want to start off with. Be a zealous defender of your rights. Protect the rights of your children. But when that hearing is over, it’s over. Take a breath and scream in the parking lot.
8. Stick around and pick up your minute order
After it’s all over, most people feel numb and in a daze. Some have even told me that don’t remember even driving home. When I ask them, “Did you remember what the Judge ordered?” They mumbled something like of course I got everything I wanted or it was the worst experience the Judge hated me but never any specifics. You can get a Minute Order after the hearing is over.
When you are finished talk to the bailiff and let him know you would like a minute order of the Judge’s orders from today’s proceedings. The clerk will copy one for you or direct you to where you can get one. In any case, do not leave the courthouse without one. The alternative is very expensive in that you must order transcripts of the hearing and/or hire someone to write an order up. Do not rely on memory. It’s not legal anyway.
9. Follow through
A dissolution, custody battle, family law problem is exhausting and going through the process is like climbing a mountain. You’re not going to be able to do it in a day. It’s important to take time to set aside fun, relaxation time so that you’ll have the strength to get through. You know all those “friends” that tell you their divorces lasted 10 years, some of those were because of procrastination and others were because of high conflict. Either way, to get through this process you are going to have to do things in spurts. Finish a project (and for those procrastinators out there you must actually finish or it will take 10 years) then take a break away from it all. Enjoy your kids or you’ll miss out. Be able to compartmentalize. Know when to say “I don’t want to talk about this today” and then don’t.
10. You know your story the best
Many of my clients start out as self-representing and turn to mediation because they become too overwhelmed with the whole legal process. Of course, I can go on and on about how I believe mediation is the best solution but that’s not for this article. What I will say, is that no matter what you eventually choose, mediation—an attorney or self-representation—YOU know your case better than anyone else. You have lived it. Someone else can tell you what the law is but that cannot tell you what you have experienced, what you have gone through, how you felt, what your children’s needs are, how they should be feeling, what their best interest are and how you should be dealing with all of this. You in every way are your best advocate and no one is going to work harder than you.
About the Author
Candice Brenner is a certified family law mediator and child advocate with CMB Mediation. She has worked in the family law field for over 10 years. Her main focus is helping self-representing individuals navigate their way through the family law court system. She also has a passion and detailed focus on the security and well-being of children. Candice graduated from Chapman Law School with honors. She received 3 degrees at University of California, Los Angeles. She holds her teaching credentials with a specialization in writing and reading with title V participants. Additional credentials include a specialization in family law high conflict arbitration.
On a personal note, Candice lives in North County San Diego. She has raised 3 beautiful children as a single mom. Candice is a published author and sits on the board of the UCLA Parent/Alumni Council.
To contact Candice for speaking engagements or other inquiries email at: firstname.lastname@example.org