Last April, President Trump appointed Neil Gorsuch as an associate justice to the Supreme Court. During his confirmation hearing, Gorsuch said, “Because of inflated legal fees, there’s now a rash of litigation pro-se in this country.” As soon as I heard that, I thought of coming out of retirement and coaching people on how to think strategically, while managing their own legal issues.
Parties representing themselves in court are known as pro se litigants; Latin for “in one's own behalf.” That might still be a good idea, but it also occurred to me that for many it would raise fears and concerns. There’s that adage, “A person who represents himself has a fool for a lawyer.” It’s tempting to save money by representing yourself, but what if you screw up? What if you lose everything? And, what would your mother say?
So let’s address these fears—they may be essential to finding creative solutions to your own conflicts. Thinking about potential mistakes is part of healthy decision making. Knowing your fears and the risks of losing, even considering what your mother might think, are all part of wisely navigating the uncertain exigencies of resolving conflicts. Finding a good lawyer you trust—assuming it’s within your budget—may feel safe initially, but let’s unpack this a bit.
Staying grounded in the midst of conflict enable acting from core values and unmet needs. A woman told me this story after she attended a program I conducted about body wisdom in Aikido, the martial art. While cleaning up after dinner, she heard her son arguing with his dad about TV or study time. The clashing of dishes reflected the support she felt for her husband, and then she stopped in self-reflection, dried her hands and focused on her embodied feelings. Her weight shifted, slowly finding center, and her attention dropped into that still point in her belly.
A quieter sound emerged from resuming her dishwashing. As her son reach into the fridge for a soda, she asked, “What’s your dad’s unmet need?” The cold bubbly silently quenched his fire and quieted his mind; when he returned to the living room, she heard, “Dad, what’s your unmet need here?” The dad responded, “I want to be a good father, so I want you to apply yourself.” More silence, and then the father asked, what’s your unmet need, son?”
“Well Dad, I’m 15 now, and a competent student; and I’d like your respect for deciding when I’m prepared and may be due for a break.” Dad replied that would make him feel proud and successful as a father. Charlie added, “I’ll even tell you when I’m slacking and need to be treated like a kid again.” At which point, Mom entered the room with hot buttered popcorn, just in time for the beginning of a great movie on TV.
Now let’s elevate this family matter to a business partnership dissolution and a dispute over the interpretation of a contract. If you hire legal counsel to argue your case, you may relinquish navigating the course should your interests and needs change? When someone drafts a pleading, or makes a demand for you, a certain job is defined. You may stop thinking about the details and attend to other matters, since you are now assuming a supporting role, providing evidence or testimony.
If this conflict arose out of your own behavior, it will reflect your interests, needs and values, but also your limitations and shadows. What might you learn or heal if you were to stay involved? Perhaps you value that relationship; lawyers seldom work to preserve relations. If the conflict arose because an old wound was triggered, are you likely to create another similar conflict if you don’t explore healing that shadow? Will winning the conflict leave you in some other form of darkness?
If you’d like to have a strategy that respects your legal interests, it may warrant speaking with a lawyer. But you don’t have to turn your affairs over to professional management. Just as asking a doctor for his diagnosis without seeking treatment, you can get ideas from lawyers, often for free if you meet to consider hiring them. You can meet several lawyers this way, and perhaps retain someone as a coach. If their rates are pricey, find a retired lawyer at half the cost, and pay the pricey one for 10-minute calls. And sometimes it doesn’t hurt to know what your mother thinks. Remember, you don’t have to do what either of them tells you.
Jerry Green, J.D. is a retired lawyer-mediator, now consulting and living in Sebastopol. For details about seminars and self-help clinics that apply legal and dispute resolution strategies to individual interests and needs, email Jerry@GreenerMediations.net.
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