It is inadvisable to ever consider representing yourself in a criminal trial, but for smaller civil trials, self-representation can be effective and cheap. If you plan on going to small claims court, self-representation is very common, and this is the easiest type of trial to go through alone. Smaller civil trials, where disputes range from $25,000 to $100,000 are also candidates for foregoing a lawyer and representing yourself because of the inherent costs of employing a lawyer.
Can I hire a lawyer to help me only when I need it?
If you choose to represent yourself in court, you should seriously consider hiring a lawyer to help you at least part of the way. While you will be handling most of the tasks in your lawsuit, you can hire a lawyer to act as a consultant, explaining what needs to be done and offering advice on strategy and tactics. While this still costs you money, it won't be anywhere near the amount a lawyer would charge for taking on your case in full. Be sure to find a lawyer who is experienced in the type of issues involved in your lawsuit, because conducting a personal injury lawsuit can be significantly different than conducting a lawsuit based on a contractual dispute.
There are all these different courts, state and federal, how do I know where to file?
The U.S. court system is split between federal and state courts. For the vast majority of civil lawsuits that you would consider representing yourself in, you will likely be in state court. Federal court is usually reserved for violations of federal law (laws passed by congress) and disputes between citizens of different states (but the amount in dispute in these cases is probably too high to consider self-representation). In all likelihood, you will be in state court, and the court clerk will be able to answer whether his or her court is the proper court to file your lawsuit in.
How do I deal with all the paperwork involved?
If you choose to represent yourself in court, you will need to become friends with the court clerk and familiarize yourself with your local public law library. Court clerks can provide you with forms and instructions to follow when filing your lawsuit. Be very careful in how you treat a court clerk - they wield a lot of power and, while usually willing to help, they are not there to file a lawsuit for you. Your other source, the local public law library, will also have forms and self help books to help you file and conduct your lawsuit.
I filed my lawsuit, now what?
Once you have filed a lawsuit, there is a procedure in place (governed by federal, state, or local rules, depending on what court you're filing in) as to what happens next. Most of what takes place before a trial is typically referred to as "discovery". The court clerk can direct you to materials that outline what happens next. Some examples of what takes place before a trial include pre-trial conferences, depositions (a formal legal interview), requests to produce documents, and requests for admissions (asking a party to confirm or deny certain facts).
How do trials typically proceed?
In general, each side makes an opening statement and gives an overview of the case it intends to prove. Next, the plaintiff (the one who filed the lawsuit) typically puts on their case and presents witnesses. After a witness for the plaintiff testifies, the defense is allowed to cross-examine the witness.
After the plaintiff has finished presenting his or her case and witnesses, the defense will put on its case and witnesses. Again, after the defendant's witnesses testify, the plaintiff is allowed to cross-examine the witness. Finally, both sides make their closing arguments, summarizing their version of events and explaining to the judge or jury why they should prevail.
How do I question my witnesses and cross-examine the other side's witnesses?
When putting on a witness, there are certain "foundational" elements you need to establish before you get into the substance of your questioning. Refer to self-help materials on what exactly you need to establish, but in general you need to establish that the witness has first-hand, personal knowledge of the matter they are testifying about. This means establishing really basic facts such as where the witness was, what the witness was doing, and who the witness is.
After you have established the necessary foundation to establish your witness's credibility, you can then begin asking questions that are meant to elicit answers that support your case. Keep in mind, however, that you are not allowed to put words into the witness's mouth (this is called leading a witness), because witnesses are only supposed to testify as to their knowledge, not simply parrot information that you provide them.
I'm in court, how do I know how to act and what to do?
Most judges will be lenient towards a layman who is conducting his or her own trial. The judge will likely politely correct you if you do something wrong, but do try your best to avoid being corrected in the first place.
One of the easiest ways to figure out how to conduct yourself during a trial is to sit in on another trial. Although the public rarely exercises this right, the public is allowed to sit in on most trials. There is a box where the public is allowed to sit, and you can watch where the parties stand, how they question witnesses, and how a trial generally flows.
You should also create a trial binder that contains an outline of each of the major points of your case. By each point, you can prepare a brief statement or question meant to remind you what to say or do. Creating an outline of your case is a good way to keep your presentation focused, and can help you if you forget something during the trial.
Finally, utilize any self-help books from your public library. Self-help books can help you write opening statements, know what kinds of questions to ask, and help you understand the kinds of questions a judge might ask you.
Should I request a jury trial?
In many civil trials, you have a right to request a jury trial (although not for child support, child custody or injunctions). It is generally inadvisable to request a jury trial, however, because it greatly complicates the trial. Jury selection is an art form, and you will be at a disadvantage against a lawyer trained in picking out jury members sympathetic to his or her side. Also, the jury selection process itself can be long and complex. Trying your case in front of a judge is generally preferable, but keep in mind before deciding to go it alone that the other side can ask for a jury trial as well, so it may be unavoidable.