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Yesterday, while sitting through a criminal session in district court, I saw a 30-something-year-old woman called before the judge for a pretrial hearing. 

A court-appointed attorney rose to speak on her behalf.  However, before he could say a word, the woman said, loudly and forcefully, “You’re not my lawyer.  I can represent myself.”  The lawyer stepped aside and the judge addressed the woman. 

The judge acknowledged that the woman had every right to represent herself.  But first the judge needed to ask a few mandatory questions.  One of the standard questions was “How far did you go in school?” 

In response to the question, the woman went into a lengthy, detailed description of her academic accomplishments—finishing college (magna cum laude) and completing two master’s degrees. 

When the judge finished the questions, the woman began to speak in her own defense.  It was disastrous.   

After interrupting the judge several times, the woman was held in contempt, handcuffed, and placed in a holding cell.  I left the court shortly after this took place.  So I don’t know how things turned out.  Regardless, it’s safe to say that the woman—with all her academic success—would have been far better off if the court-appointed lawyer spoke on her behalf.

It seems counterintuitive, but “highly educated” litigants are especially bad at representing themselves at court.  I say “highly educated” for lack of a better phrase.  What I’m referring to are people with advanced degrees: master’s degrees, doctorates, etc.  Most people with four years of college or less typically have enough common sense to know that they lack the competence to represent themselves.

So why do the M.A.’s, M.B.A.’s and PhD’s think they can do a better job than a professional attorney?  I believe there are at least two reasons.

The first is hubris.  Educated people consider themselves to be intelligent.  And, in many cases, they truly are smart.  In fact, they may even be much more intelligent than the average lawyer.  They think “I’m smarter than the lawyers I meet.  So I should represent myself.”

This confidence (or haughtiness) is often very obvious and obnoxious to everyone in the courtroom, including the judge.  It also stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what a lawyer actually does.  This brings me to the second reason why educated people fail to successfully represent themselves.

They assume that the law is an academic endeavor.  It’s not.  The law is a vocation.  Yes, some lawyers are highly intelligent and possess the ability to read and comprehend tough statutes and cases.  Yes, many lawyers can write and speak persuasively about complex matters. 

But these skills—which apply to some academic fields—are only a small part of a lawyer’s job.

Your average trial lawyer will probably argue before the court once or twice week.  And the amount of time spent arguing probably won’t last longer than ten to fifteen minutes.  Similarly, a litigation attorney will submit only a handful of written motions or pleadings to the court on any given month.  There are exceptions, of course.  Trials themselves can last for days or even weeks.  But trials are rare and most attorneys won’t have more than a few trials a year.

Instead, most legal work involves navigating clients through a labyrinth of bureaucracy and regulation.  The vast majority of a lawyer’s time is spent dealing with government officials—the probation officers, the clerk’s staff, the prosecutors, etc.  Lawyers are typically on a first-name basis with these people and know just how to interact with them to get what’s needed.  This is where the lawyer’s true value lies and it’s what the “well educated” fail to understand.

Ironically, it’s often the least educated people who know the most about the courts and the criminal justice system.  It’s not uncommon for a criminal to spend most of his adult life going in and out of the system.  These “frequent fliers” have first-hand knowledge of probation, parole, trial, sentencing and prison.  They know the judges, the ADA’s, the probation officers.  They’ve been through the rehab programs, the batterers programs, etc., etc.  And they know the judicial process as well as anyone.

These semi-literate criminals also know, intuitively, that anyone who represents himself at court has a fool for a client.