Pro Se Nation: Schadenfreude Don’t Pay the Bills

Desperate times call for desperate measures, so the continuing rise in pro se representation should not be a surprise to anyone. Driven partly by economic hardship and partly by social and political zeitgeist, pro se representation and self-service solutions like LegalZoom address real — and frequently profound — financial and psychological needs. Notwithstanding low probability of prevailing and high probability of costly oversights and mistakes, DIY legal work is an enduring force to be reckoned with, especially in areas like family and small business law.

The typical lawyerly response to the issue is an “at your own peril,” “pay me now or pay me later” admonition. I wonder how much business fear-mongering and shaming brings in?

But what if enterprising lawyers started treating individuals considering pro se matters with respect, empathy and a spirit of collaboration, rather than bemused condescension? They might end up developing a successful niche for themselves in a crowded and challenging market, just as we saw with the development and acceptance of collaborative law, the non-adversarial alternative to scorched-earth divorce and child custody litigation.

For a while I have been intrigued by the marketing potential of constructive engagement with pro se representation and have posted on the topic before, so I am always interested to come across content like Arizona family law attorney Scott David Stewart’s Divorce FAQ. What’s interesting and worthy of emulation is that instead of  dismissing pro se divorce out of hand, Stewart treats the subject factually and candidly, with balance and respect. Instead of baleful warnings, his Q&A simply reminds people of why they genuinely need a lawyer.

Since the perceived high cost of divorce proceedings figures so prominently in decisions to proceed pro se, Stewart straightforwardly kicks the legs out from under that myth without talking discounts: 

“The cost of a divorce in Arizona depends upon how well two people are willing to work together to resolve any outstanding issues. Ultimately, if two people cannot get along and resolve their divorce, then their attorneys must resolve every aspect of their case for them, therefore driving up the cost of their case. If two people are capable of working together and resolving outstanding issues in their divorce case, then their case can be resolved with minimal attorney involvement and minimal attorney fees.”

In other words, clients make divorces expensive, not lawyers. Only ugly divorces are expensive; well-intentioned, reasonable people with their family’s best interests front and center can certainly afford proper representation.

I think that’s a powerful and persuasive statement because it is commonsense and simple, and it could certainly form the basis for a firm’s unique value proposition. Unfortunately, that great passage is buried in a video clip. Notwithstanding, it’s an excellent example of how attorneys can begin treating the pro se “menace” as an opportunity.

If you have some success — or cautionary — stories to share about lawyers taking on “pro se nation,” I’d love to hear them.

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