“Yes”, you can represent yourself individually. If you represent only yourself and do not represent another person or entity, you can litigate to your heart’s content. You can sign and file documents in court. You can stand up in court and argue your case to a judge or jury. This is called appearing “pro se.”
This right does not exist for an entity (corporation, LLC, partnership). No entity can represent itself in North Carolina, except in small claims court where the rules allow corporations to appear through representatives who are not licensed attorneys. It does not matter if you own all the stock or membership interest because you are acting as a legal representative of someone other than you. The same rule applies if you want to represent your spouse, a family member, or a friend. If you are not licensed in North Carolina to practice law, you can’t do it. It is not uncommon for financially stressed entities to file an answer in a lawsuit through an owner or officer. The opposing party will likely file a motion to strike the pleading and to enter default, which will be granted, or rarely a Judge may provide a short window of time for the offending party to retain counsel.
As mentioned above, small claims court is different. We’ll have a separate article on small claims court in a future newsletter, so stay tuned. Civil claims in small claims court involve claims for $10,000 or less, a lot of landlord-tenant issues, and other matters where individual and corporate parties often proceed “pro se.”
But should you represent yourself? Certainly not if the dispute involves significant financial considerations or other consequences. But if it is a small claims matter, then “maybe.” Representing yourself can work if you have the confidence and ability to speak in public, and you know what you need to talk about. Neither is easy. Most are scared to death to talk in any public forum, like court. Public speaking is the number one fear, above even fear of spiders and snakes.
If you are going to represent yourself in small claims, you should review some good online resources (we’ll mention those in a future article). Even though these resources can help you understand some basic procedures and rules for small claims court, they alone will not prepare you to represent yourself. You should consult with an attorney even if you are not going to hire the attorney to go to court and speak for you. You need to understand the claims involved in your dispute, how to argue them, how to present documents as evidence, and how to deal with the Magistrate and other party. Magistrates are friendly, considerate, helpful, and good at what they do. But they don’t represent you and can’t give you a road map. It’s much like getting directions before you head off in your car for a trip. There is no Google Maps or other GPS that will tell you everything you need to know to perform like Perry Mason. A meaningful consultation with an attorney can provide you directions for your legal trip and may enable you to proceed “pro se.”
The same issues above apply to preparing documents or providing other legal services. You can go online and find many businesses that sell forms and supposedly a road map on how you can just walk through some steps with their computer driven checklist to get a first-rate document at a fraction of the cost an attorney would charge. There has been litigation and disputes about whether these companies are in violation of North Carolina law, but the current status is that some online resources are legal. The problem is similar to going to WebMD to get a medical diagnosis. It’s the questions not asked and the information not known that makes a huge difference. Good legal advice requires communications that are filtered through legal knowledge and experience that no computer can replicate. It’s not the form the attorney is selling. It’s knowing what part of the shoe fits and what doesn’t.
At the Armstrong Law Firm, we don’t handle most transactional matters and we rarely go to small claims court, so we’re not protecting our turf with this article. However, we do consult (for a reasonable fee) with a lot of individuals who need an understanding of the situation they face, what documents they should consider having drafted, direction of where they should go, and if we don’t handle the specific document preparation needs a referral to someone who does. If someone wants to serve as his or her own Perry Mason, it is gratifying to chart the course for them so they can take a shot at resolving their dispute without incurring substantial attorney’s fees.
In summary, going it on your own entirely is not wise. Understanding your situation through legal consultation and determining whether you can effectively address your situation “pro se” is a good first step.
– Lamar Armstrong, Jr.
P.S. Please call us at 919-934-1575 if you need advice concerning small claims. Feel free to email us at Lamar3@armstronglawyers.com if there is a topic or issue you’d like us to address in a future column. Thank you!