What does it take to have your own “Law & Order” moment?
Photo by Kevin Winter/NBCUniversal | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2012
Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries’ divorce proceedings could last significantly longer than their 72 day marriage. According to TMZ, the New Jersey Nets baby-face has filed paperwork to represent himself in court. The site claims that this is fancy legal footwork—a way for Humphries to give his Minnesota-based lawyer authority in a California court. But Mark Solomon, a lawyer for 27 years who has handled everything from custody battles to murder trials, wishes hoopster Humphries would give representing himself a (jump) shot.
Solomon firmly believes that any Joe Schmo can be their own lawyer in cases involving divorce, small claims, traffic citations and simple felonies, and has created the website BeMyOwnAttorney.com to help them do so. For a $299 membership fee, users get access to the documents they need, as well as step-by-step instructions and email access to an attorney to pose questions that you may have regarding your case.
“You can save thousands,” says Solomon. “And you get a lawyer who really cares about their client.”
While it would be nice to see Humphries stroll into court, yell, “This woman made a fool of me on national television,” and be awarded whatever he wants, that’s not how the legal system works. Here, 10 tips from Solomon on how to represent yourself in court and actually win.
1. Trial practice is like television—you need a good plot. When you walk into court, know your goal. You need to step back from your case, look at it objectively, and make a coherent argument that proves either (a) the law was clearly broken (if you are the prosecutor) or (b) the law wasn’t broken in the slightest (if you’re the defendant). “You need a great storyline,” explains Solomon. “Make sure it’s tight and simple like Inglorious Basterds; no multilayered twists and turns like Snatch.”
2. Watch TV. You don’t need law school to learn the legal system—just turn on your television. According to Solomon, Matlock is the worst in terms of giving a realistic depiction of court, while Law and Order is generally the best.
3. Know your audience. In small claims court, divorce proceedings, and misdemeanor trials, the case is decided by a judge. “It is very easy to obtain information about that judge’s likes and dislikes,” says Solomon, suggesting a little Googling. “Play to their likes, steer clear of their dislikes.”
4. Cast your show well. In court, you will be able to call witnesses. Solomon recommends thinking of each as an actor in your production. Think about how they contribute to your overall storyline, why you are calling them, and what points you want them to establish. Then write a script of the questions that will get you there. And hey—why not rehearse? “You cannot lead your witness in court,” explains Solomon. “Keep your witnesses focused and don’t let them ramble. Warn them that the opponent will try to browbeat them.”
5. Study the rules. To play pro basketball, you need to know that there are 24 seconds on the shot clock. The same goes in court—to play well, you need to know what you can and cannot do. Each state has its own Rules of Court, which are organized by area of law (Civil, Criminal, Family, Small Claims, Appellate, etc.). BeMyOwnAttorney.com provides links to each state's laws, Rules of Court, and Bar Association. You can also purchase the Rules of Court for your state online. But because rules change constantly, make sure they are dated 2011 or 2012.
6. Don’t try to learn your lines in your trailer. Plan ahead. Most jurisdictions allow you to discover information from your opponent by submitting written questions (Interrogatories) and requesting written admissions to facts that help your case. You can also ask your opponent questions during a deposition, where they will have to answer under oath. The same goes for their witnesses. As for records and documents that support your storyline, you will need to submit those before the trial. With good prep work, Solomon says, “You can decimate an opponent before a trial ever gets started.”
7. Costuming is critical. Going flashy might seem like a good idea but it’s not. Stick with a wool suit (gray or dark blue), a white shirt, and a tie. “Unless you are in Texas or Montana, shoes should be single color,” says Solomon. “For women, pants are verboten. Wear a below-the-knee skirt, and a long-sleeve blouse.”
8. Don’t be a diva on set. Multiple viewings of My Cousin Vinnie are not recommended for learning court etiquette. (But it is recommended for some laughs. “Two yoots.” Classic!) Judges demand respect—of them, of your opponent, and of the legal system in general. Explains Solomon, “Always refer to the judge as ‘Your Honor’ and to your opponent and the opposing counsel by their surname—not ‘You Sleazy Shark.’” Never talk to your opponent directly—always go through the judge—and ask for permission to move from your desk. Nix the urge to yell or scream. It could lead to you being cuffed and held in contempt of court.
9. Be a tough director on opposing witnesses. For witnesses that your opponent calls, keep your questions simple and direct. Word them so that “yes” and “no” are the only possible replies. If they answer with anything else, immediately object. “You can attack their credibility. Question their ability to know that which they are testifying to, or their ability to tell the truth,” says Solomon. “And if there is no point to be gained from the actor, or any way to impeach their testimony, don’t ask any questions.”
10. Objections make for good drama. They are the mothers’ milk of trial practice, and a lot of fun to boot. These four should carry you through most situations: (1) “That is irrelevant and immaterial” (2) “That assumes facts not in evidence” (3) “That calls for an opinion which the witness is not qualified to make” or (4) “Its probative value is outweighed by its prejudicial effect.” Solomon explains, “Objections are extremely useful for disrupting the flow of your opponent’s presentation. A flustered person makes mistakes.”
Overall, Solomon says to stay calm and be yourself in court. “No matter the result, the sun will still rise in the east the following day,” he says. And win or lose, Kris Humphries will still be a walking punchline.