A person who represents themselves in court without the assistance of an attorney, whether as the defendant or the plaintiff, and whether or not the issue before the court is criminal or civil, is said to be operating pro se (a Latin phrase meaning "for oneself"). In the United States, at least, the right of a member of the public to represent themselves predates the existence of the U.S. Constitution, and it is generally considered a part of the protected right to seek a redress of grievances.
In general, most legal professionals consider a person going to court without the aid of an attorney to be a really bad idea, even when the litigant is an attorney themselves. Not all attorneys are versed in all forms of law; how many alleged murderers does the average tax lawyer defend in their lifetime, after all? Furthermore, even if said attorney is an expert in that precise field of law, being that close to the matter at hand is a great way to lose sight of the big picture. There is a reason why the adage in full often reads as some variation of "The man who represents himself has a fool for a client and an ass for an attorney."
But of course, something being a really bad idea has never stopped anyone before, even when the charge is only a parking violation.
Almost always lampshaded by someone asking the character if he is aware of the adage. Naturally this appears quite often in Courtroom Drama. In comedies, the pro se character often engages in Courtroom Antics that would get him thrown into jail in Real Life, but because it is Played for Laughs, the character will often get away with itnote . Often involves Holding Both Sides of the Conversation when the character cross-examines himself. And it is almost guaranteed that, in response to the judge telling the character that he is "out of order", the character will yell back at the judge, "No, you're out of order!" because apparently a lot of comedy writers are also Al Pacino fans.
It may happen when The Main Characters Do Everything, as this trope saves the need to create a new lawyer character.
- In the 2011 Daredevil series, this actually becomes attorney Matt Murdock's new business plan. Since Matt Murdock is widely suspected of secretly being Daredevil, it becomes difficult for him to represent clients effectively. So he and his partner Foggy Nelson start a new business — coaching clients who can't afford or don't want to hire counsel to effectively represent themselves in court.
- In the 2015 Free Comic Book Day strip for Atomic Robo, Dr. Dinosaur represents himself in court. Since it's Dr. Dinosaur, he doesn't exactly impress anyone: he carries his papers in a briefcase labelled "My Law Box" and calls a Surprise Witness who happens to be a laser-shooting dinosaur. The judge is right in the middle of holding him in contempt when all hell breaks loose.
Dr. Dinosaur: (waving around his papers at random) You are dazzled by my array of very legal documents.
- One of Charles Addams' comic strips featured a man climbing over a witness stand and a caption reading something along the lines of:
"Mr. Smith, I have no problem with you representing yourself, but would you please, for the love of God, stop jumping in and out of that chair!"
- The Addams Family: "They say a man who represents himself has a fool for a client. Well, with God as my witness, I am that fool!"
- Fielding Mellish does this in Bananas. His self-cross-examination is actually one of the less absurd scenes in this movie - except for the fact he's his own hostile witness.
Fielding: DOES THE TERM 'OPERATION SAPPHIRE MEAN ANYTHING TO YOU?!?!
- Fracture: Ted Crawford decides to represent himself in an attempted murder trial, and he does it very effectively. He manages to get himself acquitted despite a signed confession, a murder weapon, and motive. The way he was able to do this was that the investigating detective was sleeping with the victim (the killer's wife) making the confession suspect when the detective's testimony of it was undermined, and the murder weapon had never been fired (he had switched it with the detective's weapon as they were identical models). As for motive, without evidence it's useless. This was helped by the fact that the prosecutor had his foot out the door as he was about to get a job at a prestigious law firm and wasn't taking the case very seriously due to the mountain of evidence. Crawford also purposely used an Obfuscating Stupidity angle to appear like an easy win to the haughty and uninterested public prosecutor. When the prosecutor then finds a way to try Crawford for murder, Crawford hires a defense team of 4+ lawyers. He no longer has the tricks available that got him acquitted the first time. Both times rely on Hollywood Law.
- Inverted in Law Abiding Citizen in that he does insist on defending himself but he's also highly intelligent and he did do research on it beforehand. They find books on law at his home when they arrest him. He's not a lawyer, but he's smart enough to handle his defense purely on what he taught himself. Also, he never goes to trial, it's just at his bail hearing, and he mocks the judge for accepting his legal arguments to provoke her into sending him to jail. All part of his plan.
- Robert Kearns defends himself in Flash Of Genius in his 1980 lawsuit against Ford, which ends with $10.1 million in damages, after his attorney Gregory Lawson (Alan Alda) withdraws from the suit. He then sues Chrysler in 1992, receiving $18.7 million. In Real Life, he was represented by Gregory Lawson in the suit against Ford, but did represent himself against Chrysler. It's possible this was changed to have a scene where he examines himself in the witness stand in homage of the King of the Hill episode below.
- Oh, God!: Jerry Landers represents himself when he's sued for slander by the Reverend Willie Williams, whom Landers has called (at God's direction) a "phony," despite the Judge advising him that a lawyer would be "most helpful" to him. Then he calls God as a witness, and God appears and takes the stand...
God: If it pleases the court — and even if it doesn't please the court — I'm God.
- Find Me Guilty: This movie loosely portrays the real life trial of the Lucchese Crime Family in the 1980s, where gangster Jackie DiNorscio decided to defend himself in court after getting fed up with his previous lawyer, starring Vin Diesel as DiNorscio.
- In Big Eyes, after the Gannett lawyers leave him, Walter megalomaniacally decides to represent himself, guided only by his vague memories of Perry Mason episodes. This works out as well for him as you'd expect.
- Mr. Toad acts as his own defense in his trial for car theft on the The Wind in the Willows segment of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. He is so confident that his star witness Mr. Winkie will exhonerate him that he's already making his way out of the courtroom in mid-testimony when the duplicitous Winkie claims that Toad tried to sell him the stolen motorcar, and the doors slam shut right on Toad's face.
- At one point in The People vs. Larry Flynt, Flynt fires his lawyer and represents himself. He fares better with an attorney. See also Real Life below.
- Howard Roark from The Fountainhead. Unsurprisingly, given the book's message of individualism and objectivism, it works.
- In the G. K. Chesterton story "The Ecstatic Thief", the eponymous thief defends himself successfully.
- In the first Tim Dorsey novel, a high school student represents himself and his friends on drunk driving and possession of alcohol charges, despite having never once even looked at a law book before getting arrested. He succeeds in getting them all off on a technicality, and grows up to be a DA.
- In the third book in the Babylon 5 PsiCorps trilogy, Bester defends himself in a war crimes trial. His closing statement actually gets an ovation. While he doesn't get himself completely off the hook, his sentence is reduced from death to life in prison while on sleeper (telepathic suppression) drugs.
- The backstory of Mr Slant the zombie lawyer in Discworld is that he defended himself, lost, and was executed. He cannot rest until his descendants agree to pay the bill.
- Don't Go to Jail!: Saul Goodman's Guide to Keeping the Cuffs Off is a non-fiction book of criminal defense advice written in the voice of Albuquerque's most infamous CRIMINAL lawyer. Part I is "How to Be Your Own Attorney", and of course the very first heading is "Why You Shouldn't Be Your Own Attorney". Ultimately, the book advises against pro se, advises how to pull off pro se anyway, and describes historical pro se hits and misses, as much as it does explain how to work with a defense attorney. The "fool for a client" quote is mentioned right up front, and it's even implied that the phrase is really meant to warn lawyers against the temptation to represent themselves.
- The eponymous character from The Drew Carey Show represents himself in court against a charge of sexual harassment. He sent around a cartoon of a caterpillar having sex with a French fry, and one of the female employees took offense to it. In the end, while the judge admits that the person who did the most damage to Drew's case was Drew himself (to which Drew replies by suggesting one of his friends had an even worse performance), he dismisses the case.
- Harmon Rabb had to defend himself a couple of times in JAG.
- In Matlock, the eponymous Simple Country Lawyer did this a couple of times.
- In one episode, a defendant decides to do this in order to delay his trial, giving him a chance to escape from custody.
- Another episode has the defendant dismiss his lawyer and represent himself with plenty of pork; he takes particular pleasure in cross-examining a man he stabbed, pressing to know what he was feeling as he lay bleeding out.
- Michael Bluth represents his family in a mock trial on Arrested Development. His family mocks him, assuming he only thinks he's a lawyer because he portrayed one in a grade-school play, The Trial of Captain Hook, once upon a time.
- Law & Order: Special Victims Unit:
- One episode involves a man who has this trope quoted at him by the judge. This client wasn't so foolish — he walks away with an acquittal, although he is later rearrested.
- More than once, SVU has also had the particularly nasty variant where the person representing him or herself is a rapist or pedophile, and gets to cross-examine their own victim, over the strenuous (but usually futile) objections of the ADA.
- It's actually subverted in Law & Order Prime. Defendants will occasionally represent themselves, but rarely to their own detriment. When they are convicted, it is for the same reason the represented defendants are. Some notable cases are Phillip Swann, Marty Winston, Victor Vargas Moreno, Richard Morriston, Catherine Waxman, Drew Seeley, Susan Boyd, Phil Christie, Harold Jensen, Mark Paul Kopell, Mousah Salim, Simon Vilanis, Leland Barnes, Davey Buckley, Gordon Samuels, and James Smith.
- Law & Order: UK:
- James Steel successfully defends himself against charges of "perverting the course of justice". Of course, James is a brilliant lawyer who spent many years in defense, so it wasn't exactly a terrible decision to begin with anyway.
- The plot of "Defence" also mirrors that of "Pro Se" in the original Law and Order, although the mentally ill defendant here is much Darker and Edgier, showing no remorse for his murders, even though they occurred amidst a schizophrenic delusion.
- This happens in Red Dwarf, allowing the setup of the following gag:
Rimmer: If only I'd hired a smarter lawyer, instead of the brain-dead, pompous, stupid-haired git I ended up with.Lister: You defended yourself!
- It also happens in "Justice", again with Rimmer, who kept attempting to object to Kryten's statements despite Kryten being his defense attorney. Though it's a bit more understandable this time around, as Kryten's defense consisted of "Rimmer is too stupid and incompetent to have been responsible for the crime he's been accused of."
- In a Clip Show episode of Dark Justice, the team is accused of being "The Night Watchmen," the accomplices of the eponymous vigilante. They are tried in front of Judge Marshall (who is secretly Dark Justice himself). They plead not guilty, represent themselves, and ultimately do not even mount a defense, arguing instead that the prosecution didn't make its case that they are the Night Watchmen (which is perfectly acceptable, though inadvisable, in Real Life trials).
- In an episode of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon defends himself in traffic court for running a red light. He fails and gets himself thrown in jail for contempt of court, though this is due to him being an insufferable ass and insulting the judge rather than his lack of qualifications.
- In one episode of Sledge Hammer!, Sledge gets accused of murder and decides to defend himself. Right before the big surprise reveal at the end, the judge asks the Prosecution if they have anything to say and the prosecutor responds that Sledge has already made all their points for them.
- Subverted in the season 5 finale of Bones: The Gravedigger, a former prominent prosecutor, represents herself on multiple murder charges; she consistently out-maneuvered the prosecutor (Caroline) for most of the trial and didn't make any obvious legal mistakes (with the possible exception of acting way too smug for someone who is on trial for kidnapping and first-degree murder—in a jury trial no less) and is convicted.
- The Mentalist:
Cho: "If you represent yourself, you're an idiot."Jane: "Actually, it was 'a man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.'"
- In the season 4 premiere, Jane chooses to represent himself, in a trial for a murder that he freely admits to. He's acquitted.
- Before that, the phrase itself is briefly mentioned-
- William Garrow in Garrow's Law does this during his potentially ruinous criminal conversation trial at the King's Bench. He manages it successfully to the point where, although the jury find in favour of Sir Arthur Hill, Hill is only awarded damages of one shilling.
- One Kenan & Kel episode featured Kenan suing a tuna cannery for 10 million dollars after finding a screw in his tuna. Wanting to keep all the money to himself rather than paying a percentage of it to any lawyer, he represented himself. Assuming a lawyer could have persuaded Kenan to settle for one million dollars as the cannery proposed, Kenan was really a fool in that case since it turns out the tuna company was innocent, and the real culprit -if by accident- was actually Kel.
Kel: (crying on the stand) I DID IT! IT WAS ME! I...DROPPED THE SCREW...IN THE TUNA!
- In Trailer Park Boys, Ricky does this twice; the first time is offscreen and... doesn't exactly go in his favor, whereas the second time is onscreen and somehow works perfectly for him.
- Married... with Children: Al was sued when his children caused a car crash and he decided he didn't need a lawyer. The judge ruled against him and he was forced to pay for damages. To avoid being arrested for not paying, Al decided to go into hiding but was run over by someone who, according to the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue, paid Al's debt as a way to settle.
- In another episode, a burglar broke into Al's house and Al punched him. The burglar sued Al for $50,000 and Al considered the case too much of a Frivolous Lawsuit to hire a lawyer. When Al lost, he decided to make it $100,000 by punching the thief again, which allowed Al to sue the thief, claiming to have broken his hand at the thief's face. Completely Hollywood Law, of course.
- Shark: Sebastian Stark prosecuted a serial killer who decided to defend himself and got Off on a Technicality because the key witness died before he had a chance to cross-examine her and another technicality prohibited Stark from proving the defendant induced her into suicide. The killer became his own client again when he was accused of killing another woman. He was convicted but Stark told him the victim had actually killed herself and he made it look like a homicide just to get him convicted for it. The killer later represents himself again at his appeal, but knows he can't win- it was only cover to escape.
- Subverted in The New Statesman - B'Stard sacks his counsel, his fellow MP and usual lackey Piers Fletcher-Dervish, and does a better job representing himself because Piers is an idiot who only qualified as a barrister through family connections. And the whole case was a sham anyway.
- It is revealed on Star Trek: Voyager that the Klingons have a variation on this; at one point, B'Lanna Torres relates to the Doctor the Klingon proverb "The doctor who operates on himself has a p'tahk for a patient."
- In The Odd Couple's many court episodes, Felix always wants to represent himself in court and was nearly always incompetent at it, with one spectacular exception while questioning an assuming accuser, Mr. Hugo, in "The Dog Story." His accused crime was "dognapping"; Felix showed how much of an abusive trainer said accuser was to the dog in question, that the court only fined Felix one dollar (on the grounds he had pure motives for keeping the dog from the trainer, hence "mitigating circumstances" for Felix's ruling of "guilty" from Oscar's admitted "guilty" plea that cost three hundred dollars).
- In 1995, Saturday Night Live did an opening skit parodying the Real Life pro se defense of Colin Ferguson, who was then on trial for murder (referring to himself in third person throughout). The actual defense was, if anything, more ridiculous. Not surprisingly, given the overwhelming evidence against him, Ferguson was convicted.
- Eli Stone: One episode featured a lawyer who sued a law firm for not hiring him. The lawyer represented himself during the lawsuit, claiming he didn't need another lawyer. Perhaps no lawyer would support an African-American suing another African-American for racism.
- In the All in the Family episode, "Archie's Civil Rights," Archie is charged with possession of a tear gas weapon and tries to defend himself at his arraignment hearing without a lawyer. Of course, not only does this irritate the judge for being out of order, but his typical bigoted and dimwitted blathering leads to him admitting he used it in an offensive manner, leading him to be almost charged with an assault felony. Only when the judge learns that the weapon was found by the police office after an illegal search does the charge get dismissed.
- Equal Justice: Averted in "Sugar Blues" (1x10), where a prisoner defends himself on a murder charge. While he ends up losing, he gives the prosecutor a very hard time. He turned himself into a jailhouse lawyer inside and had apparently won previous cases at trial, so it's justified. An old woman who comes just to watch trials claims he's her favorite, since he's that good.
- On My Name Is Earl, Joy cannot afford an attorney when she faces charges for grand theft auto and kidnapping, and life in prison (because of this being her "third strike.") The court appoints an attorney for her, but Joy doesn't want this attorney because a) the attorney is a woman and b) she's deaf, and insults her. Joy decides to represent herself, but finds that she doesn't understand criminal law. So she decides to go back and beg the attorney to take on the case.
- On Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Reverend Wayne represents himself. His defense consists almost entirely of Courtroom Antics, but since the prosecutors are even more incompetent it seems to be working out for him until Kimmy figures out how to get to him.
- Better Call Saul: Jimmy decides to represent himself, despite being warned against it and knowing full well about the reputation doing so has. In this case at least he is a lawyer, and has done criminal cases, but even so. Downplayed as he teams up with Kim.
- The Escape Artist: Will defends himself when he's charged with Foyle's murder. Since he's a skilled barrister already, plus has set things up to make it look like self-defense, it works.
- Blue Bloods: When Jamie and Edie are accused of misconduct, they decide to fire their lawyers then just represent themselves (well, in practice Jamie represents both of them) after each puts the blame on the other. This succeeds, and it's partly justified as Jamie is a lawyer himself (he just didn't practice before, having chosen to go into police work instead of that).
- Suits presents a corollary to this: if your wife is suing for divorce, do not hire your brother as your lawyer. When Marcus, Harvey's brother wants Harvey to represent him in his divorce, Harvey points out that it is a horrible idea but Marcus guilts him into taking the case. Harvey is too emotionally involved in the matter and tries to approach it as a concerned brother rather than a lawyer. Reality Ensues and he is promptly sanctioned for trying to talk to his sister-in-law without her lawyer present. It does not help that once Harvey realizes what really prompted the divorce, he sides with his sister-in-law despite being ethically obligated to side with his brother, the client.
- The Practice: Joey Heric decides to defend himself in his second murder trial after growing unhappy with Bobby. The judge permits this, although with Bobby staying to counsel him if necessary. At first he does well, though later he gets outmaneuvered by Helen, with Bobby taking over as his lawyer again.
- Calvin and Hobbes: Referenced in one strip: after Calvin nearly hits Susie with a snowball, he defends himself by saying "I didn't do it! I never threw that! You can't prove I threw it! Besides, I missed, didn't I?" Cut to Calvin face down in the snow after Susie clobbers him with the tagline "The defendant petitions the court for a new trial on the grounds that his lawyer is incompetent" (with Calvin, of course, having been his own "lawyer").
- In one of his monologues on My Word, Denis Norden describes defending himself on a charge of assaulting his ballroom dancing partner (he was just trying to get his contact lens back). He lost, he thinks chiefly because he didn't realise how short the lunch break was and gave himself hiccups by eating too fast when he saw they were starting again. You can't advocate and eat at two.
- In GURPS, defending yourself in court is problematic for two reasons. One, depending on the campaign and your character plans, you probably won't be trained in the Law skill, while the opposition almost certainly will be. Two, even if you conveniently are trained in Law, anyone trying to defend themselves with the Law Skill in an official legal capacity suffers an inherent -3 penalty to their Skill roll.
- Obviously, Ace Attorney has had this. For the most part, however, the client is also a lawyer trained in criminal law (with experience in first-degree murder cases), at a criminal-law trial involving first-degree murder.
- To wit: This happens in the final part of Case 2 of the first game, where the defendant's role is switched from Maya to Phoenix, due to a false accusation. He knows it is a bad idea, but moves forward anyway and wins the trial. In this case he doesn't have a choice. Redd White used his connections to make sure no defense lawyer in town would want to help him, even going so far to suggest that the only state-appointed lawyer Phoenix would get would be so incompetent that Phoenix would look good by comparison.
- It also happens in Ace Attorney Investigations, though there's no trial here: Edgeworth has to clear his own name in Case 2, where he faces the stewardess Rhoda Teneiro in order to convince her to release him and allow him to examine the rest of the airplane to find the true culprit. And do the same thing when Franziska enters the investigation.
- In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Dual Destinies, Athena Cykes indirectly plays this role in Case 5, Phoenix Wright is still the main defense attorney but she goes to the assistant side in both defending Simon Blackquill and confronting Fulbright. The Judge reminds her to go back to the defendant seat after it is all over.
- Dai Gyakuten Saiban has Ryuunosuke as this in the first case. Bonus points for not even being a lawyer yet at the time.
- This occurs in Chapter 4 of Tales of Monkey Island, and features the question of whether the defendant is aware of the maxim, the "I am that fool!" response, the "You're out of order!" exchange, and the Holding Both Sides of the Conversation bit. The whole thing ends with a fistfight between the pro se lawyer and his own client.
- This is the solution to one of the "puzzles" (more a scripted event than a puzzle, really), namely how to break out of jail. The "lawyer" calls for the guard to let him out because "his client" is assaulting him, and the guard does so.
- It's also worth noting that the PlayStation 3 download has a trophy if you try out all of the possible conversations between Guybrush and his client. Said trophy is actually called "Idiot for a Client".
- In Knights of the Old Republic, after you cause a disturbance at the Sith embassy on Manaan, you're brought before the judges for threatening Manaan's neutrality. Contrary to the saying, your only hope is to dismiss the arbiter they appoint for you and argue your case yourself; if you let the appointed arbiter argue for you, you'll end up being executed. Later, after the events at the Hrakert Rift, you're brought before the judges yet again, again on your own. It helps that the way out of both cases is to exploit the Manaans' local politics and violations of their own neutrality rather than any actual knowledge of their legal system.
- In Neverwinter Nights 2, the player character is put on trial with a competent party member acting as the defense attorney. Naturally, the player can also opt to self-represent, and with a strong score in diplomacy, bluff, or intimidate skill, can verbally tear the prosecution's testimony to shreds. Or engage in typical Courtroom Antics for the same end result, which is probably even more fun.
- In Case 4C (Fraternité) of Aviary Attorney Leonie Beaumort represents themself. They don't actually expect to be proven innocent and in fact irritably 'confess' to all charges, including the trumped-up one, with the aim of getting the thing over with and, maybe, taking the fall for whoever actually did that one thing so someone will escape.
- At one point in Schlock Mercenary during the HTRN takedown storyline, Massey resorts to this when speaking for the Toughs, for whom he is their legal counsel. While Fleetmind jurisprudence doesn't allow for lawyers to represent defendants, he was also a co-defendant in the hearing.
Petey: You know, they say that a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.Massey: HAVE YOU SEEN WHO I WORK FOR?!?
- Mr. Kornada in Freefall. He's a Corrupt Corporate Executive given the boot and in trial for an attempt at a massive insider trading scam which required the effective lobotomy of almost half a billion sentients. He's such an arrogant, unrepentant jackass and a colossal idiot to boot he has the gall to declare no other lawyer has his well being in mind after his idiotic stunt, so he decides to represent himself with the aid of a robot with extremely Skewed Priorities.
- Darths & Droids has a succinct explanation of why this should be averted - also works as an aversion of Only Bad Guys Call Their Lawyers;
A trial is a contest of Law skills between the prosecution and the defence. Most people will hire a lawyer and make use of their Law skill. Do you really want to defend yourself and use Law at the default skill level?
- Red vs. Blue: Subverted/Lampshaded: After Simmons paints himself blue and temporarily joins the Blue Team, Sarge tries him for treason in a mock court. He appoints Grif as Simmons's counsel.
Simmons: Oh, no no. I'm representing myself!
- Youtuber Bitscreed, while summarizing the frivolous lawsuits from infamous developer Digital Homicide, noted that the cases were filed pro se...
"...which is Latin, for 'no lawyer was stupid enough to take this case'."
- In one episode, Johnny Bravo did this and took it way, way too far.
- Gonzo does this in the Muppet Babies episode "Weirdo for the Prosecution".
Skeeter: Gonzo's lawyer is cracked.Piggy: And his client could use a little glue, too.
- In an episode of King of the Hill, Dale represents himself while trying to sue a tobacco company for money to get Nancy a facelift, culminating in Dale examining himself in the witness stand. It doubled as a Funny Moment as well as Heartwarming.
- In The Venture Bros., the Monarch represents himself when he's suspected of murdering a police officer, and at one point called himself to testify about the events of that night. In a later episode he does it again while subjected to a "crucible" by the Guild of Calamitous Intent, and in a deleted scene directly quotes the phrase about "a fool for a client."
- The Simpsons episode "The Regina Monologues": Homer represented himself instead of hiring a barrister. Marge allowed it because she didn't think Homer's chances were good enough to be damaged by the decision. Not surprisingly, Homer managed to offend the judge, jury and British public at large even further (he was on trial for crashing into the Queen's carriage) — ending up in the Tower of London.
- In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon, a drifter who had recently taken up being an electrician, was accused of breaking and entering after a Panama City, FL pool hall was robbed of some small change and beverages. Too poor to afford an attorney, he was subsequently denied a public defender by the judge (only in capital crimes did the judge have to provide a public defender). He represented himself in his criminal trial, and although observers say he did a pretty good job for a pro se defendant, he was found guilty of breaking and entering and sentenced to five years in prison. While in prison, Gideon appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, who (in a unanimous decision) ruled that all criminal defendants have the right to legal counsel. Gideon received a new trial, and with the aid of an attorney was acquitted of the crime. This was made into the movie Gideon's Trumpet (starring Henry Fonda as Gideon).
- Comedian Lenny Bruce defended himself in several obscenity trials.
- In the late 1980s, in the largest organized crime trial in U.S. history, low-level mobster Jackie DiNorscio decided to stand trial rather than rat out other members of the Lucchese Crime Family and decided to represent himself because he was "disappointed" in his prior legal representation. Despite a lack of any tangible legal knowledge, and despite angering both the prosecution, the judge, and the other defense attorneys (and their clients, the other mobsters) with his Courtroom Antics, he was eventually found not guilty, along with the rest of the defendants, following a trial which lasted over a year (which some felt was the reason for the mass acquittal by the jury, as revenge on the prosecution for keeping them there so long).
- Serial killer Ted Bundy acted as his own attorney in his 1980 trial. The judge complimented him on doing a good job, in fact, and commented that Bundy might have made a good attorney. Even so, he wasn't good enough to keep himself out of the electric chair (Bundy had represented himself while on trial in Colorado earlier, and escaped by jumping out of a law library window where he had been allowed access to research his case).
- Caryl Chessman defended himself in his 1948 trial for kidnapping and, upon conviction, the judge complimented him on his legal skills before sending him to the Gas Chamber.
- Similar to Bundy, Mike DeBardeleben, a prolific rapist, represented himself during his rape cases. It led to a Hoist by His Own Petard moment: when cross-examining one of his victims, he led her through the rape and described the car she was raped in with such detail it was painfully obvious he had driven it.
- When Dave Barry got a ticket for driving on an expired registration, he decided to represent himself before the court with the "strategy" of groveling. He ended up paying a fine.
- Infamous Moral Guardian Jack Thompson tried this during his disbarment hearings. It didn't quite work the way he wanted, especially since he had already been declared a vexatious litigant by the State of Florida by that time and was not able to file anything without prior approval from another member of the Florida Bar.
- Courts, especially lower courts (County, District, Local, Magistrates, etc.) will bend over backwards to accommodate self-represented litigants who at least are trying to get their matter resolved. The rather amusing spectacle of a Magistrate actively helping a defendant with their case (and sometimes even Police Prosecutors, who while not allowed to directly help, may slip the defendant copies of exonerating evidence they forgot to bring to the court) is fairly common in most courtrooms. They also tend to be far more tolerant and forgiving of behavior that would usually be considered improper (as the average pro se litigant cannot reasonably be expected to have sufficient knowledge of proper courtroom behavior and procedure), but only up to a point; blatant abuse of the court's largesse or malicious, vindictive litigation will get a litigant torn apart and potentially barred from ever filing anything again without prior court approval and (usually) posting a substantial contempt bond in case the court decides to fine them.
- David Irving represented himself in his libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt for calling him a Holocaust denier. It was not a great success, seeing as how the judge ruled in Lipstadt's favor, officially declaring Irving to be a racist, anti-Semite, misogynist and Holocaust denier who associates with neo-Nazis in the final verdict. Particular lowlights included pedantically arguing with defense witness Richard J. Evans over which of them was an "expert in pit-digging" for five minutes, and addressing the judge as "mein Führer" in front of the entire court.
- Ferdinand Marcos was once accused of taking part in a politically-motivated assassination. Long story short, he represented himself and won. He became the President of the Philippines before implementing martial law and becoming a dictator. He was removed from power following the People Power Revolution (also known as the EDSA revolution) in 1986.
- Cult leader Charles Manson was notorious for demanding to represent himself at his trial for his mass murders despite the pleas of the judge to reconsider. Of course, the fact that he is completely deranged made him hopeless at doing that, making insane motions and requests.
- Legal practitioners wince when they hear in a bankruptcy court that a bankruptcy order should not be made against a debtor because... "I don't have any money." It's so natural to say it! However, that's why they're in a bankruptcy court.
- Pornographer Larry Flynt was known for defending himself occasionally, and to cause quite a spectacle when doing so, as portrayed by Woody Harrelson in The People vs. Larry Flynt. In fact, Flynt's most outrageous antics were in response to the U.S. Supreme Court not allowing him to appear pro se.
- When can you represent yourself and have two fools for a client? When you're representing yourself against yourself. See Lodi v. Lodi, 1985.
- As explained above, most pro se defendants and litigants are actually arguing in good faith, and making a genuine effort to be reasonable within the standards of the law. However, an increasingly large class of people, defined as 'OPCA litigants' by Judge Rooke (in Alberta, Canada) stand before the court on their own because their antics are so outrageous that no sane lawyer would represent them. A recent and infamous example is Ryan Bundy, who not only decided upon pro se representation, but subsequently claimed that he was incompetent to stand trial -- in his own words, declaring himself an idiot -- and attempted to charge the court millions of dollars for his time. Similar courtroom antics have led to many judges growing increasingly frustrated with pro se representation, whether warranted or not.
- Like most of his revolutionary peers, Georges Danton was a lawyer by trade and a eloquent orator to boot, so when the French Revolution (or rather, Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety) turned against him and put him in front of a Kangaroo Court, Danton - who was denied counsel - was more than willing and able to handle his own defense. His death may have been pre-decided (and indeed it was) and the proceedings may have been a farce, but by the Supreme Being, Georges Danton would not go down without a fight. He used any trick in the book and Courtroom Antics to get justice and sway the opinion of the spectators; he nearly got away with it, but when he demanded his right to call witnesses (which he clearly had according to the letter and spirit of the law), the tribunal whose only purpose was a guilty verdict had enough and denied Danton and all other defendants the right to appear before court again. The "guilty" verdict was handed down shortly afterwards, and Danton had his date with Madame Guillotine a little after that.
- Dylann Roof, the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina church shooter, attempted this in 2016 and was quickly found guilty of nine counts of murder.
- James Romine of Digital Homicide represented himself in his lawsuit against Jim Sterling for the reason that he couldn't afford an attorney. A look at the details reveals exactly why getting a lawyer is heavily advised: Romine attempted to sue in the name of Digital Homicide LLC (a company cannot represent pro se, it has to have an attorney), via a court in Arizona (Jim Sterling isn't a resident of Arizona nor does he strictly speaking conduct business in the state, so the court had no jurisdiction over him) and with poorly presented arguments that fell straight into Frivolous Lawsuit, claiming damages of $10 million which only rose as the case went on. Romine's incompetence was to the point that in Sterling's post-mortem of the case, he notes that he and his allies' reaction to Romine's antics boiled down to 'I have no idea what he's doing'.
- In ancient Athens, there were no lawyers, so parties had to represent themselves (unless they were women or children, in which case their male guardians did). They were allowed to hire speechwriters, but that was it. Naturally, this led to a lot more Courtroom Antics, and the judges too were ordinary people selected by lot. See the Apology of Socrates for a famous example of such a trial.
- An infamous discussion of the concept: During the infamously inflammatory court hearing of Denver Fenton Allen, a convict who demanded a different public defender than the one he got (supposedly because that defense attorney was demanding sexual favors from him), Judge J. Bryant Durham explicitly told Allen that his only other choice would be to represent himself, which he then explains is a terrible idea.
Judge Durham: Well, you've got two choices. One, you can go to trial with him, or, two, you can try the case yourself. Now, I definitely, completely think that that's- Wait a minute. Listen to me. That would be the biggest mistake you've ever made in your life.
Denver Fenton Allen: So, basically you're sitting here telling me you're going to find me guilty if I-if I go to trial and try to defend myself?
Judge Durham: You're probably right. That would be my best guess if you try to defend yourself. You-you don't know anything about selecting a jury, do you?
Denver Fenton Allen: No.
Judge Durham: Do you know anything about cross-examining witnesses?
Denver Fenton Allen: No.
Judge Durham: Do you know anything about criminal procedure?
Denver Fenton Allen: I know I don't have to let this guy suck my dick to get some legal representation.