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Chuck’s recipe for stuffed bagels, other DIY lawyering tips | Marcel Strigberger

Friday, November 19, 2021 @ 2:37 PM | By Marcel Strigberger

Marcel Strigberger %>
Marcel Strigberger
Do it yourself lawyer? As Abraham Lincoln once said, “A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.” 

But are all the self reps, a.k.a. pro se, inundating our courts, fools? Many simply cannot afford lawyered access to justice. Nonetheless they create problems for the justice system, as in addition to not knowing the ropes, they lack objectivity often allowing emotions can run wild.

I recall a cruelty divorce case where my client’s husband, Chuck, a bit volatile, fired his lawyer. During a court session, (one of several as Chuck wasn’t behaving) while in the hallway, I asked the gentleman a question about his financial statement. This did not sit too well with Chuck, and he lunged at me, shouting, “That’s none of your business.” (Actually he did have an adjective describing said business. Elaboration not necessary). Fortunately, security was nearby.

We lawyers however are expected to act civilly. As Shakespeare said, “Strive mightily but eat and drink as friends.” I can say indeed that this wisdom worked for me, even in the most acrimonious matrimonial cases, resolving disputes over some coffee and bagels. I got the feeling however that Shakespeare’s strategy might not exactly have worked with Chuck. I sensed that this suggestion would have led Chuck to tell me where to stuff those bagels

In another matter I wrote to the husband something like, “Hi Bill. Martha retained me to try to amicably resolve this matter with you…”

I was non-judgmental and polite. Mahatma Gandhi could not have sounded more conciliatory. However self-represented parties often view their spouse’s lawyer with daggers in their eyes. He e-mailed me unleashing a tirade, saying something like, “Don’t call me Bill. You don’t even know me. It’s all my wife’s fault, that vixen. You should know better than to be her lawyer. See you in court.”

At least Bill wasn’t violent. Still I got the feeling I had best not suggest the bagel route.

Judges often cut self reps slack they would not accord lawyers. I once witnessed a woman hand a document to the judge. She hand wrote the words on the page in a circular spiral layout, like a snake coiled up. To read the document the judge had to turn it around and around, like a steering wheel. When questioned by the judge, the lady said, “I’m just a poor artist. Unlike my rich husband, I cannot afford a lawyer. Alas.”

 Not surprisingly the judge was patient. I dare any lawyers to try that stunt. If so, the lawyer had better tender that document to the judge pinned onto a lazy Susan.

My first contact with self reps was during my early weeks as an articling student when a judge cajoled me into assisting one. I was sitting quietly in the body of the Small Claims Court simply watching. The judge was a colourful elderly lady fondly known as “Ma Henderson.” She had a penchant for moving cases through efficiently, sometimes in an unorthodox manner. She loved to see parties arriving with lawyers or at least students and she usually urged litigants to retain one.

One case Involved a self rep calling himself something like “Henry the Upholstery Doctor.”

He was defending a claim where the plaintiff insisted he returned to her a different chair than the one of great sentimental value she had entrusted to him. During the plaintiff’s testimony, he would jump up and shout, “Edna, you know that’s a lie.”

The judge, after admonishing him repeatedly, suggested she adjourn to enable him to get legal advice. She said to him, “If you were sitting in your den watching hockey and one of your eyeballs popped out, would you try to put it back yourself?”

Henry agreed that he would not attempt the fix pro se. (To me this was totally understandable as he was an upholstery doctor, not an ophthalmologist).

Ma Henderson then suddenly set her sights on me, minding my own business. (This business was definitely different than the one I was minding with Chuck.)

Her Honour said, “You look like a law student”

I confessed, noting I was “just observing.”

She said, “I’m holding this case down. Can you give this man some basic trial advice?”

Given my trial experience, I accepted the honour, but with trepidation. Fortunately, I managed to calm the “doctor” down. But I’ll admit my mind was more focused on that straying eyeball. This incident happened over 40 years ago. I still visualize it.

(I shall also add that I since had to reupholster my lovely study recliner. However, I thought it best not to chance it and engage Henry.)

Many lawyers also provide unbundling services, doing some work and showing the clients how to perform other tasks themselves. Does it work? Though well-intentioned, unbundling always raised potential malpractice red flags with me. Would a surgeon hand a scalpel to a patient and say, “Appendectomy is a piece of cake. We’re now a team. Let me know how it works out. And oh yes; do remember to first wash your hands.”

Unlike many other callings, a legal action can be complex and lengthy. The public’s exposure to justice is generally what they learn from watching lawyer flicks. After all, all you have to do in a courtroom is talk. Most people are good at this, often not knowing when to stop.

Everybody should have access to justice. However, we lawyers should appreciate it when both sides are lawyered up. Then we can indeed follow Shakespeare’s advice.

I like my bagels sesame, toasted, with marmalade.

Marcel Strigberger retired from his Greater Toronto Area litigation practice and continues the more serious business of humorous author and speaker. His just launched book Boomers, Zoomers, and Other Oomers: A Boomer-biased Irreverent Perspective on Aging is now available in paper and e-book versions where books are sold. Visit Follow him @MarcelsHumour.

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