Self Representation: Blessing or Blunder

 Most people who follow the news in Utah are familiar with Jeremy Johnson, a man indicted for, among other things, some 86 counts of conspiracy, bank fraud, wire fraud and money laundering.  A self-made former millionaire who admits that he was lucky to graduate from high school, Johnson’s decision to represent himself has garnered him a great deal of press coverage and raised more than a few eyebrows.  Some see Johnson’s decision as self-sabotage (his judge described his decision as “stupid”), while others – including Johnson himself – feel that only he knows enough about his own case to properly represent his position before a jury.

                Regardless of how Johnson’s decision will actually impact the outcome of his case, it does provide the opportunity for a closer examination of the notion of self-representation itself.  By understanding the role a defense attorney plays in the courtroom and by considering what might be expected when a layman represents themselves, this article intends to establish once and for all whether or not there is wisdom behind self-representation.



                For all the negative stigma attached to the word “lawyer,” the fact remains that attorneys – in particular, defense attorneys – are the oil that allows the machine of law to operate smoothly.  Through professional relationships, experience with the legal system and, above all, knowledge of the law, experienced attorneys can bring an air of professionalism and confidence to a courtroom that is generally only obtainable by working in such an environment for many years.  To understand how, each category will be briefly examined here:

                Professional Affiliations

In law, as in most professions, careers which last for several years inevitably generate familiarity among colleagues.  Most defense attorneys will make many appearances in the same courtrooms over and over again, and as such, will become familiar with the clerks, the prosecutors and the judges who work there.  These relationships allow a defense attorney to work much more efficiently behind the scenes than any non-attorney ever could: they might have a direct number to a particular judge’s clerk, a friendly history with a prosecutor on a case, or the respect of a judge thanks to a series of earlier trial victories.

Such relationships invariably translate into a positive effects in the courtroom for the defendant, be it by having warrants recalled in an hour thanks to a cooperative clerk, securing a more tolerable plea agreement from a prosecutor, or persuading a judge to dismiss a case, to name but a few.  As the old adage goes, it’s not just what you know, but who you know which gets results.  This is as true in the world of law as in any other profession.

Experience with the System

Like professional relationships, defense attorneys typically have a far greater understanding of the inner workings of the legal system when compared to the layman.  Most attorneys will file tens of thousands of motions over the course of their career, for example, and they become very proficient at it as a result.  They will know in when documents are to be filed, how the documents are to be formatted and where they are to be sent.  Experienced attorneys will know how to access court records, determine which judge is assigned to a given case, identify the proper prosecuting agency, and much, much more.  Moreover, defense attorneys will often have support staff to assist them in expediting all of their efforts – what might take the lone defendant hours or even days to decode and prepare might take a law office only a few minutes.

It is worth noting that this experience is often acknowledged by the court system itself: most who have had an experience in the courtroom will know that defense attorneys are usually afforded preferable treatment simply because they are more efficient.  Just one example of this involves the order in which cases are called: defense attorneys are normally given the opportunity by the court to call their cases before others.  Defendants appearing without an attorney are usually required to wait in the courtroom until all defense attorneys – both public and private – have called their cases.  Only then, often after hours of waiting in the courtroom, are the cases of self-represented defendants addressed by the court.

Knowledge of the Law

Perhaps most importantly, experienced defense attorneys bring with them knowledge of the law: not just knowledge of the Utah Code per se, but knowledge of how it is currently being interpreted and, therefore, how it is being enforced.  This understanding enables defense attorneys to quickly identify weaknesses in a case which a defendant might otherwise miss, or to rule out apparent weaknesses as actual strong points for the prosecution.  It can give attorneys knowledge of whether an objection is warranted during a trial and arguments as to why the objection should be granted.  It enables attorneys to know if and when an appeal from some unjust ruling is worth pursuing and how to go about doing so.  In short, the advantages garnered by such understanding are almost endless.


                Like operating any machine without some kind of lubrication, representing oneself in the courtroom without a defense attorney is liable to seize up the system, with generally negative results.  The fact remains that, for most people, the courtroom experience is not a particularly enjoyable one – the judge and prosecutor are usually as eager to get a case over with as a defendant, and when this effort is hindered, frustration is liable to mount.  Be it the clerk who might have to instruct a defendant on how to file a particular motion, the prosecutor who might be required to attend an unnecessary hearing because the defendant was not prepared, the judge who might have to explain court rules over and over, or the jury that is forced to wait while the defendant attempts to learn, it is not difficult to envisage growing hostility toward the self-represented defendant.  By the time a case is finally resolved, this hostility is likely to translate into merciless plea agreements or extremely harsh sentencing.

                An examination of the progress of Jeremy Johnson’s case reflects this very process in action.  In a recent article, Mr. Johnson is said to relish “small victories like the judge granting him extra time to file a motion.”  While Johnson might believe that this “small victory,” has in some way brought his case benefit, in fact it is likely to have roused the ire of all professionals involved in his case.  Now the clerks must deal with the scheduling of an additional hearing in coordination with all other hearings on the court calendar, the prosecution must wait on Johnson’s unpreparedness and the judge must tolerate a less than professional performance in court.  How exactly this delay will ultimately impact the resolution of Mr. Johnson’s case is of course unforeseeable, but it is doubtful to have any positive effect.

                In short, regardless of how a defendant might esteem their own particular lawyer at any given moment, a defendant is surely better off with an attorney representing them than they are in representing themselves.  Indeed, the advantages of being represented by an attorney are such that the court will actually appoint an attorney to a case as a public defender – though perhaps more for the relief of the court than that of the defendant.  While self-representation might sometimes seem a romantic or even courageous statement about a defendant’s resolve, ineptitude and inconvenience are rarely appreciated, least of all in the courtroom.

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