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What is a Pro Se Attorney?

By Dale Marshall
Updated May 17, 2024
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A pro se attorney is generally a participant in a legal proceeding who represents himself. Although most commonly civil or criminal defendants, pro se attorneys also represent themselves as plaintiffs in civil cases, especially in family court. The term itself is Latin, pro and means “for oneself.” In some jurisdictions, the status is called “per,” short for the Latin “propria persona,” or “in one's own person.” Most participants in legal proceedings who represent themselves are not lawyers; however, a lawyer who represents himself is still considered to be a pro se attorney.

The tradition of pro se representation was strong in American jurisprudence even before the Constitution was written, and was one of the first legal rights of Americans protected by statute, even before the adoption of the Bill of Rights. The right to self-representation at trial is guaranteed by most state constitutions in the United States, and the legal establishment officially endorses the practice. Despite this, substantial evidence suggests that many in the legal establishment actually frown upon the practice, especially when criminal defendants decide to conduct their own legal defenses. In addition, the evidence strongly suggests that at least in criminal matters, pro se attorneys are not as successful as defendants who hire counsel.

In the Unite States, pro se attorneys are most commonly found representing themselves in civil law, especially in family law, which includes divorce. In some jurisdictions, far more than half the family law cases have at least one pro se attorney, and the percentage of cases in which both parties are proceeding pro se approaches 50 percent. Other areas of civil law also have a significant percentage of pro se representation, especially contract law and torts. In fact, one area of civil law — small claims court — is specifically designed for the “do-it-yourselfer.”

Self-representation in criminal cases does not occur at the same rates as in civil cases. There are a number of possible reasons for this, arguably the most serious of which is the fact that the pro se attorney who loses a criminal case is likely to face significant penalties, including possible incarceration. On the other hand, in both civil and criminal cases, the quality of the case itself may be influential in the participant's decision whether or not to hire an attorney; that is, it may be that if the case is considered “open and shut,” a participant may decide not to spend the money on a lawyer.

Successful self-representation requires hard work and preparation. Many jurisdictions publish legal self-help guides and provide additional resources, and surveys indicate that those who represent themselves in court spend a significant amount of time researching the relevant law and preparing for their cases. Other sources for pro se attorneys are court websites, the court clerk, attorneys and libraries, as well as friends and relatives.

In addition to the obvious professional and educational limitations of the pro se attorney, there are legal limitations as well. The owner of a company, or a partner in a partnership, can represent the business pro se, but a corporation may not have pro se representation. Pro se attorneys may only represent themselves; no matter how successful they may be, they may not represent others. Except for relatively narrow circumstances where the pro se attorney is actually licensed to practice law, he cannot receive compensation, even if the type of case customarily provides for an award of attorney's fees, although other costs may be recovered. In addition, most federal courts won't permit a pro se attorney to file an appeal.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By Vincenzo — On Mar 25, 2014

@Melonlity -- there are a lot of reasons someone might choose a pro se defense in a felony matter. The defendant may have some legal training and is confident he or she knows the law well enough to provide a defense. Often, people who are appointed a public defender are of the opinion the attorney isn't trying hard enough to win because the case is just one of many the lawyer is handling. That notion is incorrect more often than not, but that is what some defendants do believe.

In other words, if a defendant believes he knows the law and isn't comfortable leaving his fate in the hands of someone else then that person may decide to represent himself.

For the record, that is often a very bad idea.

By Melonlity — On Mar 25, 2014

Why would someone chose to represent himself or herself in a criminal proceeding? In felony cases, courts will appoint a public defender who knows the law, the judges and the prosecutors involved. Why not take advantage of that?

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