I’ve discussed some of the background realities of talking with judges and the attorney for the other side when you’re representing yourself as a defendant in a suit for debt in “Real Words about Talking to Judges and Lawyers.” There, I mentioned that you face systemic discrimination as a pro se defendant because neither judges nor the lawyers will respect you. The judges don’t primarily for classist reasons, but the lawyers for the other side have various reasons. There’s a bias against you, and that means certain things we’re going to talk about.
It means, above all, that you have to be better than the lawyer for the other side to receive appropriate respect. There are reasons this is possible, but it’s primarily because of the business model of the debt collectors. They take a factory approach, and that means that your case will simply get very little individual treatment from the company – it just isn’t profitable for them to do that. Nor is it profitable for them to hire lawyers from the Ivy Leagues, let’s just say. Their whole approach is to bug you into paying without suing you and then to file huge numbers of suits knowing most people won’t defend themselves at all and will allow a default judgment.
Defending yourself takes you way out of the “ordinary.”
And it’s a start, but you also still have to put in enough work to be better than the other side, and that’s what we discuss here.
Because of the general lack of respect for pro se defendants, when you say something, you will be more likely to need to cite controlling authority than a lawyer would. They can make references to “black letter law” (which is just legalese for “generally obvious”), but you will do better, if the issue is important at all, by citing a case that supports it. That means research is going to be important to you.
One thing non-lawyers seem to have trouble with is keeping things “relevant.” If you’re arguing about whether the debt collector has proof they own the debt, some things will shine a light on the issue, but the fact that the company has been sued by the federal government for collection abuses will not be, for example. Because of the way the court sees you, it will have very little tolerance for any straying off topic – it (the judge) will think you’re wasting time and often tune out. Therefore, make sure everything you say relates to exactly the issue you’re discussing.
A related issue is keeping things brief. Again, the court will quickly sense that you’re wasting time if you veer away from the most important things at all. The judge doesn’t need to know why you thought something or planned something, it needs to know what the law requires. Pro se defendants seem to have a tremendous difficulty with this – you want to tell your story, but let me tell you that the court could not give one damn about your story. Legal talk is very different in this respect than regular human talk. Do NOT waste the court’s time.
Don’t whine. This is probably self-explanatory, but it’s part of the other things I’ve mentioned. Because the court does not care about your feelings, it will regard anything you say or insinuate about your feelings as a waste of time. And whining is irritating and unprofessional.
Know when to hold and when to fold. This is part of maintaining self-discipline and paying attention to the judge. When the judge says they’ve ruled, you are on extremely borrowed time. Ordinarily you should shut up and sit down. As I point out in “Real Talk,” you do that by saying, “Thank you, your honor.” But sometimes you don’t think you’ve had a chance to raise a crucial point. In that situation, you say something like, “I hear that, your honor, but I wanted to make sure you knew that they caught the defendant red-handed holding the knife with blood all over him…”
What I’m saying here is that if you want to say something after the judge has already ruled, it had better be damn good, and even then you’re on thin ice, but sometimes you have to say something to preserve the record. Judges can be hasty, and specially so with pro se debt defendants, so sometimes you may feel you have to point something out, but make sure it’s good – otherwise you’re just going to make the judge mad.
And speaking of anger, you must ALWAYS keep your feelings in check when you’re talking to the judge. If you raise your voice you could get thrown in jail for contempt of court, but of course it’s much more likely that the judge will just stop listening to you for the rest of the case. Baseball coaches seem to think it helps sometimes to get kicked out of a game, but this is never going to be a good strategy for you. Shut up, collect your thoughts, and be ready for the next thing.
And now just a few words about the lawyers. First, keeping your cool is just as important with them as it is with judges. They can’t throw you in jail, but they can certainly tune you out in lots of ways. It won’t be good for you if they do.
Because you’ll be negotiating in various ways with the other lawyer, you need to remember one thing: talk is cheap. Because they don’t have a lot of respect for you, if you tell them “we should settle this thing now, or I’m going to file a motion for summary judgment next week…” they’re just going to ignore that. They don’t think you’ll do it. Any similar threats are pointless and more harmful than good. Instead, do the work first and let your actions speak for you.
Incidentally, a lot of lawyers try the same trick with the same results (nothing), but whereas I could probably draft a motion for summary judgment and send it to the other side saying that if they don’t settle I’m going to file the motion, you probably couldn’t even do that. There’s a chance they’d read it if a lawyer wrote it, but they probably won’t read anything you send until you file it. So go ahead and file what you’re going to file. Let your actions do your talking.