More litigants becoming their own lawyers

When Marsha and Larry Lipsky wanted to evict a troublesome tenant from their home in Arlington Heights, Ill., they consulted a few attorneys but couldn’t afford fees that ran from $500 to $5,000.

So they did what a lot of people with legal trouble are doing these days: They became their own lawyers.

“I was a nervous wreck,” Marsha Lipsky, 67, said after presenting her case to a judge and winning an order for the tenant to leave.


Legal service has never come cheap. But lawyers, judges and other experts say that for many people, the recession has made it a nearly impossible expense. So more litigants are navigating the often-bewildering justice system by themselves.

Advocates and court officials have responded with expanded advice desks, instructional websites, even plans to connect litigants with law students by computer. But the trend still alarms many observers, who say courtrooms weren’t made for amateurs.

“In a complex domestic-relations dispute or commercial dispute, it’s kind of like trying to do surgery on yourself,” said Bob Glaves of the Chicago Bar Foundation, which funds numerous legal assistance programs. “If you’re not trained in these things, you have no chance.”

Anyone facing jail time for a criminal offense is guaranteed legal help, but that is not true for civil cases, which include foreclosures and lawsuits over unpaid credit card bills.

Many low- and middle-income people have been left to square off against professional attorneys who represent banks, collection agencies and other deep-pocketed organizations.

Cook County Associate Judge Thomas More Donnelly, who until recently ran a courtroom for those fighting wage garnishments and frozen bank accounts, said such contests were often stark mismatches.

He recalled cases in which defendants didn’t know about a state law that allows debtors to keep up to $4,000 safe from creditors.

He would tell them about it, but if they didn’t understand what he was saying, he would have to drop the matter because he had to remain impartial.

“It would be so distressing to me,” he said. “There are things that are known to everyone in the courtroom except the debtor.”

The Chicago Legal Clinic, which runs a free advice desk for people facing foreclosure, has seen its clientele explode over the last two years. Wait times to see an attorney have risen to about two hours.

Anntoinette Brown, 47, had to take the entire morning off from her job as an administrative assistant to ask which opaquely titled piece of paper she needed to file to stave off the loss of her home: Was it a “verified answer to complaint to foreclose mortgage” or an “appearance and jury demand”?

It would have been an easy question for a lawyer -- the answer, she was finally told, was to file both -- but Brown said: “As soon as you call an attorney, they want this and that. If I had the money, I could have used it to pay the mortgage.”

Many people have no choice but to go it alone, but the Internet can help.

Four years ago, Illinois Legal Aid Online established a website to educate people entering the system. Traffic has increased steadily, and the site has as many as 80,000 visits a month.

The website will evolve in September, when volunteer law students will be available for online chats, Executive Director Lisa Colpoys said.

The organization also has helped establish computer-driven self-help centers around the state, where law librarians and others answer queries.

Many people, however, are still learning about their rights and proper court procedures from the judge hearing their case.

Carol Butcher, unable to afford a lawyer, represented herself in a lawsuit against an insurer she said wasn’t offering enough money to replace her stolen car.

The case went to trial last month, and though Judge Thomas Roti was patient with Butcher’s occasionally rambling narrative, his tolerance ended when she interrupted him several times.

“I’ve shown you how to lay a foundation in the case,” he said.

“I’ve bent over backward for you. I’m not going to give you a law school lesson on evidence. You argue with me continually. . . . If you were an attorney, you would be in contempt of court.”

Butcher won the case, but the jury awarded her only $50. She had been seeking $10,000.

As any lawyer would, she said she might appeal that amount.