If you’re being sued for debt, do you need a lawyer? Or can you defend yourself? Obviously lawyers can be very expensive, but there are times when the expense is well worth it. Here are some pros and cons of going pro se in debt law. We think it can make sense for a lot of people.
Some Pros and Cons of Pro Se when You’re Sued for Debt
Pro Se means “for or by yourself” and refers to representing yourself in a lawsuit. If you are being sued by a debt collector this can be a good choice because lawyers are expensive and often would either cost more than the amount in dispute or are in any event unaffordable for ordinary people. So it may be practically necessary, and it can also be effective because the same thing that makes hiring a lawyer to defend yourself uneconomical also makes hiring a lawyer to sue you uneconomical once your defense requires individual attention by the debt collector’s lawyers. The fact that debt suits are for small amounts of money (considering typical lawsuits) and that people owing money may not (or usually do not) have the money to pay makes it unwise for a company to spend a lot of money trying to obtain the right to try to collect that money from you.
If you are suing the debt collector under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) or other statute that includes a right to attorney fees if you win, it may be more practical and possible to find a lawyer to represent you. This is because, if there is a chance the lawyer can force the debt collector to pay, the lawyer can spend more time on the case without worrying so much about not being paid. That is the purpose of “fee-shifting” statutes, and it reduces the pressure to keep attorney fees to an absolute minimum. On the other hand, even where you are suing the debt collector it isn’t always possible to find a lawyer who will represent you for an amount you can afford, and that can make going pro se the practical choice.
When debt collectors file cases they usually do so “in bulk,” filing many cases at the same time – this allows them to divide the cost and risks of the cases among all the cases. The first trick to representing yourself pro se, therefore, is to do it in a way which forces the debt collection lawyers to spend time specifically and exclusively on your case. I call this “intelligent” defense because it raises the price of suing you and increases the chance that any money spent will be lost even if the debt collector wins the case. That makes walking away and leaving you alone the best economic choice for the debt collector.
And then the second trick, of course, is to do the things that give you a chance to win the case if it goes to trial.
Debt collection cases tend to be “document-intensive,” meaning that the evidence of the case is much more likely to be documents than anybody’s testimony, provided you do not admit owing the money. This means that the case has a better chance of ending before trial, but that if it goes to trial there will be less emphasis on managing witnesses or testimony, reducing the advantage of having a lawyer.
In lawsuits, the only person who can actually speak for any other person is a lawyer, and so this means, for example, that spouses cannot speak for each other (even when they are both parties to the suit), and parents and children cannot speak for each other. Non-lawyers are not allowed to address the court on behalf of any other person, and “person” includes separate business entities.