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A Fool for a Client

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You're Not Helping Your Case, buddy.

"They say a man who represents himself has a fool for a client. Well, with God as my witness, I am that fool!"
Gomez Addams, The Addams Family.

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 themself. 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.note  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 it.note  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.

See also Informed Self-Diagnosis, the equivalent trope for medical doctors. Compare The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Ace Attorney (2016) discusses this in the "Turnabout Sisters" arc, with the Judge, incredulous that Phoenix would act as his own defense attorney, asking who will represent Phoenix now that he's been accused of the crime, and Phoenix points out that he's an attorney. The judge asks if Phoenix is sure about this, and Phoenix says yes. Though, as pointed out in the visual novels folder, it's not like Phoenix had much of a choice, since Redd White, the guy currently framing him, had most of the court system under his thumb and would've made sure that Phoenix couldn't get fair representation.

    Comic Books 
  • 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 labeled "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.
  • Batman: Dark Victory: Harvey Dent represents himself when he's on trial for the Hangman killings. The prosecution objects because he's not even sane enough to confirm his own identity. It turns out to be part of a ploy to steal the evidence and escape the court.
  • 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!"
  • 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 issue 38 of Green Arrow 2016, Ollie decides to represent himself in court. While this is met with shock (and his lawyer rubbing her temples), the defense itself goes pretty smoothly thanks to the Justice League stepping in.
  • Nemesis the Warlock: During his trial for war crimes and xenocide, Torquemada defends himself and uses it to grandstand about the justness of his tyrannical regime and his obsession with exterminating aliens. Unlike most examples, it actually works for him, as the witnesses are all too scared of the former master of torture to testify against him. When the court recognizes that the trial is going nowhere, they hand him over to Nemesis instead.
  • Rocket (2017): When his lawyer runs off before the case has even begun, to go fight ninja, Rocket decides to represent himself. He pleads to being guilty... and it's only after that he's told he just admitted to being guilty of helping a megacorp try to bulldoze the land the jury live on, because no one bothered to tell him that part, and he was led to believe he was doing the exact opposite. The jury, having just heard Rocket unwittingly call them scum, go ballistic.

    Comic Strips 
  • 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").
  • One Foxtrot arc has Bumbling Dad Roger outraged at a parking ticket and decides to represent himself in court, which he will do by perfecting his Perry Mason act. Thankfully he doesn't go through with it, the last panel is his pissed-off wife digging through her purse for the relatively tiny fine.
  • In Striker, Eric Openshaw once tried representing himself in an obscenity case, with the presiding judge even invoking this trope word-for-word. Despite this, and Eric's chronic buffoonery, he actually manages to present a well-reasoned and coherent argument... which proves largely irrelevant to the case. He still wins, but because of MI5 pressuring the judge over reasons related to China.

    Films — Animation 
  • 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 exonerate 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.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 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!". We then cut to Gomez losing the case.note .
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Denial:
    • Irving acts as his own lawyer, and he does an impressive job of it... for a while.
    • This is the main reason Julius is adamant that survivors not be brought in to testify; a dispassionate cross-examination by a professional lawyer might just about be acceptable, but the thought of them being directly questioned by Irving, who is someone that will do everything he can to trip them up, humiliate them and accuse them of lying is the one thing that makes the composed Julius lose his cool.
  • 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.
  • 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 on the witness stand in homage to the King of the Hill episode below.
  • Follow That Dream: The Kwimpers have to go to court so as to not lose their wards. The judge questions where their lawyer is, to which Pop replies he doesn't believe in lawyers, so it falls mainly to Toby to represent his family in court. Things work out for them thanks to Toby's unfailing honesty.
  • 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.
  • Good Will Hunting: Will regularly acts as his own lawyer in court, although unlike in most cases of the trope, he is has a history of being able to talk his way out of trouble.
  • 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.
  • Daniel Hillard represents himself in Mrs. Doubtfire during his second custody hearing after his cover is blown. It all comes tumbling down.
  • In None Shall Escape, a 1944 film about a trial against fictional Nazi officer Wilhelm Grimm following the end of the then-ongoing second world war which is told via flashbacks from the points of view of the witnesses at the trial, Wilhelm eschews having an attorney in favor of representing himself.
  • 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 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.
    • Before God's appearance, there's a subversion of the Played for Laughs side of the trope, as the judge threatens to hold Jerry in contempt for the Courtroom Antics of calling God to the stand.
  • 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.
  • The Tattered Dress: Protagonist Jim Blane fires rival attorney Lester Rawlings and represents himself. He's a high-powered defense attorney, but he's still almost over his head.

  • Seen in Atlas Shrugged when Hank Rearden defended himself in a non-judicial hearing for violating government restrictions on the sale of Rearden Metal.
  • 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.
  • In The Dresden Files short story Jury Duty, Hamilton Luther decides to represent himself in his murder case since all lawyers he talked to wanted him to do a plea deal. He, however, wants a not guilty verdict, given that his murder of Curtis Black wasn't done in cold blood but because Black, a White Court vampire, was kidnapping an 11-year-old girl to feed on her. While Luther did a decent job, the jury was unmoved and if Harry wasn't on the jury note  and prevented the White Court from kidnapping the girl note , he would have been found guilty.
  • In the G. K. Chesterton story "The Ecstatic Thief", the eponymous thief defends himself successfully.
  • Howard Roark from The Fountainhead does this twice, once in the trial over the Stoddard Temple and once in the trial over Cortlandt. He loses the first case but wins the second.
  • The Law of Innocence: Defense attorney Mickey Haller represents himself after he is accused of murder. Mickey says "Maybe I did have a fool for a client" but still feels like he has to handle his own defense. He does at least get his law partner Jennifer Aronson, and later his ex-wife Maggie McPherson, to sit alongside him.
  • In Saving Max, Danielle dismisses Sevillas and represents herself during the hearing while she shows the court the evidence against Marianne.
  • In the first Serge Storms 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 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 realize 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.
  • Our Miss Brooks: In "Traffic Court Reckless Driving" (remade for television as "Trial by Jury", Miss Brooks defends herself in court after being given a ticket for "speeding, going through a red light, reckless driving, driving on the sidewalk, and hitting a fruit stand. Unfortunately, Miss Brooks' defense is doomed from the start as Madison High School's principal Mr. Conklin is on the jury. Still, Mr. Conklin, eager to leave the courtroom and go fishing, gets the jury to merely mete out a "rather stiff fine" and leave it at that.

    Tabletop Games 
  • 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.

    Video Games 
  • 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, to get the thing over with and, maybe, taking the fall for whoever actually did that one thing so someone will escape.
  • 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 Liberal Crime Squad, this is an available option for liberals charged with crimes. This is a very difficult path, to the point of granting Juice points for a really successful defense.
  • 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 use Unconventional Courtroom Tactics for the same result, which is probably even more fun.
  • 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 Return to Monkey Island, Stan attempts this (offscreen). Despite actually being a former lawyer himself, it doesn't work out anywhere near as well for him as it did for Guybrush.

    Visual Novels 
  • 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, in the final part of Case 2 of the first game, the defendant's role is switched from Maya to Phoenix, due to a false accusation. He knows it's a terrible position to be in, but it's his only option; Redd White used his connections to make sure no defense lawyer in town would want to help him, even going so far as to suggest that the state-appointed lawyer Phoenix would get would be so incompetent that Phoenix would look good by comparison. Then he succeeds anyway, though it helps that Phoenix is a trained (albeit novice) defense attorney.
      • In Case 1-4, Edgeworth was going to do this, but thankfully, Phoenix essentially forces his old childhood friend to let him represent Edgeworth in court.
    • 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 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, in which she is accused of murdering Clay Terran (the victim in the previous case and Apollo's Childhood Friend, which results in the latter's brief Face–Heel Turn for two cases) and her own mother. Phoenix Wright is still the main defense attorney but she goes to the assistant side in both defending Simon Blackquill and confronting Fulbright, who is guilty of both murders. The Judge reminds her to go back to the defendant seat after it is all over.
    • In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice, both Ahlbi Ur'gaid and Maya Fey, the defendants of the first and third trials, respectively, initially try to refuse Phoenix's offer to defend them in court in the Kingdom of Khura'in. Neither of them believes they can win an acquittal on their own, but Ahlbi doesn't trust lawyers due to his country's prejudice against lawyers, while Maya (who's friends with Phoenix and knows what he can do) doesn't want Phoenix to suffer under the Defense Culpability Act, which gives lawyers their clients' punishments. Phoenix ultimately convinces them to trust him and wins their cases.
    • Also from Spirit of Justice, Dhurke, a famous lawyer, defended himself in court when he was accused of assassinating Amara, the queen of Khura'in and his wife. Dhurke won, but Ga'ran accused him of forging evidence, forcing him to go into hiding and start the Defiant Dragons' revolutionary movement to overthrow Ga'ran and change Khura'in.
    • The Great Ace Attorney has Ryunosuke as this in the first case. Bonus points for not even being a lawyer yet at the time. Of course, he had the help of his best friend, Kazuma Asogi, who originally planned to defend Ryunosuke in court. However, Kazuma doing so would have come with the risk of losing the opportunity to study in Great Britain, which is why Ryunosuke chose to be his own defense. Kazuma surmises that Professor Yujin Mikotoba, who'd told Ryunosuke to announce that he was defending himself, made that decision with the expectation that doing so would eliminate the possible risk for Kazuma while still allowing Kazuma to offer his guidance to Ryunosuke.

    Web Animation 
  • 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!
    Sarge: You know what they say, Simmons: "A man who represents himself has a fool for a lawyer." And that fool is Grif.

    Web Comics 
  • Darths & Droids has a succinct explanation of why this should be averted, citing the above GURPS mechanics — 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 defense. Most people will hire a lawyer and make use of their Law skills. Do you really want to defend yourself and use Law at the default skill level?
    • Jim as Han tried playing this straight, until Ben as Chewbacca managed to talk him into letting Chewie represent him.
  • Mr. Kornada in Freefall. He's a Corrupt Corporate Executive given the boot and on trial for an attempt at a massive insider trading scam that 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. The robot would be willing to represent him, but isn't legally a lawyer; still, during the trial, everyone basically treats him as the lawyer, and he almost gets his client recused because he just cannot shut his damn mouth.
  • 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.
    [cue Raised Eyebrow from Captain Tagon, his boss]
  • Widdershins: The cheerfully egomaniacal Will Sharpe represented himself when being tried for crimes against magic since he "can't trust someone else with something so important"... leaving the characters scrambling to clear his name the night before he goes to the gallows. However, he's justified in underestimating the situation: the judge handed out a disproportionately harsh sentence to Make an Example of him and was bribed to do so.

    Web Videos 
  • 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.'"
  • Dumb Lawyer Quotes IRL but in Ace Attorney 4 casts Phoenix Wright in the role of Denver Fenton Allen from the infamous case where Allen was told exactly why representing himself would be a really bad idea and responded with heavy profanity. It also shows multiple instances of other defendants (played by the Caretaker) incriminating themselves without a care.
  • The Scott The Woz episode "The Trial" sees Scott representing himself and his friends in their case against Officer Steel Wool. When his friends express doubt in him as their lawyer, Scott reasons with this:
    Scott: Guys, I was there throughout the entire thing; I know what happened. And plus, representing yourself in court always works out, like—
    [Footage Missing]
    Scott: And—
    [Footage Missing]
    Scott: And even—
    [Footage REALLY Missing]
  • The Trial Of Tim Heidecker: After his first day in court, Tim fires his lawyer Mark Dwyer and opts to represent himself, despite Judge Szymczyk's strong discouragement and a warning that he must adhere to proper courtroom decorum. Needless to say, it doesn't happen. Tim engages in numerous Courtroom Antics and nets himself two contempt of court charges.

    Western Animation 
  • Captain Planet and the Planeteers: In "Jail House Flock", the heroes are framed by the villain and put on trial. As the trial begins, Wheeler announces he's going to represent himself and his teammates. The judge is not pleased.
    Judge: Have mercy! Another TV-taught would-be lawyer.
  • King of the Hill: In an episode, Dale represents himself while trying to sue a tobacco company for money to get Nancy a facelift, culminating in Dale examining himself on the witness stand.
  • Legend Quest: Played with in "Jersey Devil". The protagonists are accused of witchcraft. Don Andrés, one of their own, represents them.
  • Muppet Babies (1984): Gonzo does this in the episode "Weirdo for the Prosecution".
    Skeeter: Gonzo's lawyer is cracked.
    Piggy: And his client could use a little glue, too.
  • The Simpsons: In "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 the British public at large even further (he was on trial for crashing into the Queen's carriage) — ending up in the Tower of London.
  • The Venture Bros.: Tthe 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."
  • Wild West COW Boys Of Moo Mesa: Subverted in "Bulls of a Feather". When Sheriff Terrorbull is taken to court for his crimes as the Masked Bull, he doesn't have a lawyer but Judge Bulloney does the cross-examination and shows a good reason to deem the prosecution's witness unreliable.

    Real Life 
  • Slobodan Milošević defended himself in his own war crimes trial, which lasted for four years until he died of a heart attack on March 11, 2006 (leaving the trial without a verdict).
  • In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon, a drifter who had recently taken up being an electrician, was accused of burglary 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 burglary 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 adapted into a book and then later a movie (starring Henry Fonda as Gideon), both by the title of Gideon's Trumpet.
  • 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).
    • Likewise, Colombo family boss Carmine Persico represented himself during the Mafia Commission Trial, thinking that his history of convictions was enough experience to beat the case. The result? He blew his own defense by acknowledging criminal activities while being cross-examined and spent the remainder of his life behind bars until he died in 2019. Not only that, he was mocked for using street slang while questioning witnesses (partly because he dropped out of high school for a career in The Mafia).
  • 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 backfired spectacularly as the Florida Supreme Court previously declared him a vexatious litigant by then and banned him from filing suits without permission.
  • Courts, especially lower courts (County, District, Local, Magistrates, etc.) will bend over backward 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. This is often demonstrated in the popular webseries Caught in Providence, which broadcasts real court cases of the Providence Municipal Court. Judge Caprio and the police prosecutor Inspector Ziggy Quinn are both openly sympathetic to the defendants and Caprio will usually let them off if they are polite and apologetic. 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.
    • The latter trial was fictionalized in the movie Denial, although the movie does not feature the aforementioned lowlights.
  • 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 bankruptcy court.
  • Pornographer Larry Flynt was known for defending himself occasionally, and causing 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'note  by Chief Associate Justice 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 an 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 Unconventional Courtroom Tactics 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 the court again. The "guilty" verdict was handed down shortly afterward, 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. Admittedly, the evidence against him was so overwhelming that having an attorney would at best have just lengthened the proceedings a little, but the judge warned him that he should at least consider bringing in representation for the sentencing phase. Roof refused, somehow thinking that not presenting any evidence or witnesses would prevent him from getting the death penalty; needless to say, this strategy failed, and he was sentenced to death.
  • 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 do they strictly speaking conduct business in the state, so the court had no jurisdiction over them) 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, they note that they and their allies' (including Sterling's own lawyers) 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.
  • High School dropout Harold J. Stewards defended himself against a first-degree murder charge and managed to get an acquittal. He previously refused a proposition from his former defense attorney to plead guilty to second-degree murder.
  • Averted with French ''Cours d'assises'', where any accused has to have a defendant.
  • Bradley Cunningham, who murdered his wife Cheryl Keeton in 1986, acted as his own defense attorney. Given the gap between the murder and the actual criminal trial, plus the lack of physical evidence,note  a real lawyer would probably have gotten him acquitted, but Cunningham's rambling egotistical tangents about how rich he was, repeated slut-shaming of Cheryl, and total ignorance of legal procedure (he tried to argue with the judge about how things were supposed to work) utterly destroyed whatever chance he might have had of getting away with it.
  • Afeni Shakur, mother of Tupac, stands out as one of the few shining examples of this strategy actually working. Charged in the so-called "Panther 21" case, where a group of twenty-one Black Panther members from New York were arrested in 1969 for planned bombings of department stores and long-range rifle attacks on two police stations, Shakur chose to represent herself in court. As the trial went on, several sketchy things about the case were revealed that turned out in Shakur's favor; amongst other things, she had personally been openly against the plans as she didn't want to harm civilians. More importantly, however, was that three of the group's most radical members, including Yedwa Sudan, real name Ralph White, the member who had actually planned the attacks, were undercover police detectives, who had worked as agents provocateur in the group (most damningly perhaps, was the fact that, either by accident or design, the three undercover cops had apparently not been aware of each other's true identity). However, the clincher came when Shakur was able to cross-examine Ralph White on the witness stand. She spoke to White, not just as a witness in a trial, but also as a fellow comrade with whom she had spent 18 months in the same tight-knit organisation. Eventually, she got White to admit under oath that he and the other two agents had organized most of the group's unlawful activities, including procuring the dynamite that was supposed to be used in the bombing from yet another undercover agent. She also got White to admit to the court that the activism that they had done together was "powerful, inspiring, and ... beautiful". Finally, she got him to admit he had misrepresented the Panthers to his police bosses and that with his actions he had failed and betrayed the black community. This pretty damning testimony eventually led to the ultimate acquittal of Shakur and all the others accused in the "Panther 21" case in 1971.
  • Several of those involved in the Charlottesville Riot chose to defend themselves; as described here, it didn't go so well, like the time when Christopher Cantwell asked fellow defendant Matthew Heimbach about his favourite Holocaust joke. One pro se defendant in the case, Mike Enoch, did succeed in getting dropped from the lawsuit, but only after receiving professional advice from an actual lawyer.
  • An Oklahoma man representing himself in an armed robbery trial did a pretty good job right up until a witness identified him and he responded with "I should have blown your fucking head off!" He was convicted.
  • As discussed here, a Michigan man on trial for drug possession defended himself with the argument that the police officer who found the drugs had illegally searched him. In order to disprove the officer's claim that he could see a suspicious-looking bulge in the defendant's coat and so didn't need a warrant under the plain sight doctrine, the defendant handed the judge his coat for inspection. The judge noticed a suspicious-looking bulge in the coat which turned out to be a bag of cocaine.
  • During the Victorian era, a man named James Blomfield Rush was accused of murdering his landlord and the landlord's son. Multiple witnesses identified him as the killer because of his gait and distinctive style of walking, and others testified that he had previously threatened to kill one of the victims. Rush chose to conduct his own defence but hit a snag when the witness whose testimony he was planning to base his defence around refused to give him an alibi. As a result, all Rush ended up doing was wasting several hours of the court's time rambling about how he was being framed and screaming at witnesses, and further incriminating himself when he referred to the killer as "me" while questioning a witness. The jury only took ten minutes to find him guilty.
  • Colin Ferguson, perpetrator of a mass shooting on a Long Island train in 1993, sacked his lawyers after they demanded he use the Insanity Defense and represented himself. He proceeded to show exactly why his legal team thought he was insane, calling witnesses to testify that the government had made him carry out the shooting by planting a chip in his brain, rambling about a conspiracy by the Jewish Defense League to set him up which somehow involved the murder of Jeffrey Dahmer, forcing witnesses to answer the same question multiple times in the hope they would change their testimony, demanding that President Bill Clinton be called to testify and at one point attempting to cross-examine himself. He will be in prison until 2309.
  • Rodney Alcala, the Dating Game Killer, represented himself at his third trial. He only bothered defending himself against one of the five murders he was charged with and didn't even do a good job of that, cross-examining himself in a low monotone for five hours and at one point playing "Alice's Restaurant" by Arlo Guthrie in an attempt to demonstrate that he was insane like the guy in the song. He was convicted on all charges.
  • Creationist Kent E. Hovind represented himself in his lawsuit against Rational Wiki for calling him a fraudster. It never got off the ground because of Hovind's failure to understand court procedure which rendered it impossible for the case to proceed.
  • Darrell Edward Brooks Jr. was convicted on all counts after representing himself in his mass murder trial in 2022. He was tried for mass murder after driving a red 2010 Ford Escape intentionally through a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin in November of 2021. What can loosely be described as his legal strategy included arguments from the sovereign citizens movement, such as repeatedly asking the state of Wisconsin itself to appear on the witness stand, challenging jurisdiction, and attempting to waste as much time as humanly possible. He incessantly interrupted with objections (usually claiming hearsay or leading) that were nearly always overruled. He later added an additional strategy of demanding "grounds" as to why his objections were overruled. He would also attempt the "grounds" tactic when the prosecution objected to his statements despite the fact the prosecuting attorneys stated the grounds with their objections; he also often would demand the grounds for the overruling before Judge Jennifer Dorow had an opportunity to rule on the objection. He consistently displayed total incompetence with court proceedings by attempting to submit pictures that he had not shared with the prosecution, presenting an opening statement consisting entirely of emotional appeal, attempting to introduce new arguments during his closing statement, and mispronouncing "bias" as "biast." His apparent narcissism was also present during the entire proceeding and he felt entitled to aggressively interrupt the prosecution, judge, and witnesses whenever he did not approve of how he was being described or if he thought someone was laughing at him resulting in him being removed multiple times and moved to another courtroom alone where he was present on camera and could be muted at the push of a button when he acted out. At one point, he resorted to silently giving the judge a Death Glare until she halted proceedings and again had him removed from the courtroom. One of the few pieces of evidence that actually could've put some doubt on his culpability, that a recall had been sent out on the model of his vehicle related to faulty throttle control, was something he brought up constantly but neglected to actually submit as evidence. The end result of the trial was a guilty verdict for 6 counts of 1st-degree homicide and hit and run causing death, 61 counts of 1st-degree recklessly endangering safety (the people he struck with his SUV who survived his attack,) and 3 counts of domestic violence from an unrelated event. The judge sentenced him to 6 consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole plus an additional 762.5 years and $171,413.94 in restitution. During the sentencing phase, the judge gave him a long speech condemning his actions and chastising him for making a spectacle of the trial as well as somewhat debunking his mother's statement before sentencing where she tried to argue that mental health played a factor, a detail Judge Dorow refused given the numerous competency tests that Brooks underwent (and which did not find him mentally incompetent). It's telling to how the case went that Brooks is appealing the trial and asking for public defense on a new trial.
  • 19th-century Serial Killer Edward Rulloff, a certified genius, acted as his own attorney at his multiple trials, with varying degrees of success. It worked when he successfully appealed his convictions for murdering his daughter and abducting his wife, whose bodies were never found. It didn't work so well at his final murder trial, where he was more focused on begging the jury for sympathy than on actually disputing the evidence against him. When he was found guilty and sentenced to death, he appealed to the governor for clemency on the grounds that his theory on language evolution, which had been rejected and ignored by the American Philological Association, was so important that his execution should be delayed until it was completed to his satisfaction. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the governor ignored him.
  • Illinois v. Allen, the case that establishes the precedent for removing a disruptive defendant from the courtroom, involved this. William Allen was a robbery suspect who tried to represent himself with a counsel on standby but was so disruptive and confrontational that he was removed from the courtroom twice before the trial had even fully started, which led to the standby counsel fighting the case in his absence. After he was convicted, he appealed on the basis that removing the defendant from the courtroom was unconstitutional under the 6th Amendment (which gives defendants the right to be present at their own trial), and this case went up to the Supreme Court who established that a disruptive defendant can be removed if they ignore the judge's warnings (technological advancements have also made it easier to allow a disruptive defendant to continue to observe their trial, and even sometimes take part in it while being unable to interrupt it; camera observation combined with an audio feed that the judge can mute if they start acting up, for example).
  • In the 1962 case of Nance v. United States, Joseph Nance, accused of armed robbery, insisted on cross-examining the witnesses to the robbery himself. The first question he asked was "How do you know it was me when I had a handkerchief over my face?". The jury found him guilty and his appeal was swiftly denied.
  • The trial of John Thurtell and Joseph Hunt for the murder of William Weare in 1824 was one of the last cases in British history tried under the 16th-century system where defendants were forced to represent themselves. Thurtell's defence was particularly noteworthy; observers reported that he did quite a good job giving evidence and many were almost convinced of his innocence, only for him to begin rambling about his Christian upbringing, bragging about his (highly embellished) military heroism and showing off his knowledge of philosophers such as Voltaire until the judge told him to shut up. He was also widely ridiculed for calling a witness whose testimony boiled down to the fact that he kept a gig, which in Thurtell's mind made him a gentleman and therefore incapable of being considered a murderer.
  • Georgina Weldon, a Victorian woman who was falsely declared insane and almost institutionalized at the instigation of her estranged husband in 1878, represented herself in her many lawsuits against her husband and the doctors who had helped him between 1882 and 1888. In a subversion, she won every case despite having no legal training and no counsel on standby to advise her.