From Terror to Triumph

Jenna* had been embroiled in litigation with her ex-husband for years. Every so often he would bring some trivial matter to the court, painting Jenna as a bad parent, and always keeping her on edge.

This time, Jenna’s ex had filed a motion, complaining that Jenna was making decisions about their children’s after-school activities without consulting him. Jenna had been to the courtroom rodeo enough times to know that this motion was not a terribly serious matter, but could not be ignored.

Unfortunately, Jenna could no longer afford to pay her lawyer. She decided that, this time, she would have to handle the matter herself.

It all seemed well and good and easy at first. The hearing on the motion was set for four months later, so she had plenty of time to prepare.

But then came those wee small hours, in the middle of the night, when all was quiet and there was no activity, no voices, nothing to distract her from the imaginings that appeared and then paraded through the theater of her closed eyes: The hearing would be a disaster; the humiliating loss would be like the first falling domino in her ex-husband’s game that was calculated to take her children away from her; she would lose everything.

Suddenly her chest constricted, she couldn’t breathe, she bolted upright and jumped out of bed, the rooms swaying as she made her way to the kitchen. She gulped down a glass of water, cold enough to slice through the panic.

When Jenna first told me about the anxiety that threatened to cripple her, I seriously doubted whether self-representation was the best decision. But my thoughts, and Jenna’s own similar doubts, were meaningless. Jenna had no choice but to represent herself.

Fortunately, Jenna went on to achieve great success in her case.

I was deeply impressed by Jenna and how she overcame her anxiety so that she could focus so well on the task. I asked whether she had used some meditation technique, deep breathing, chanting, Xanax, Chardonnay, chocolate, something, anything that might help you.

But she said she hadn’t used anything specific to handle her fear. Instead, it was the process of preparing for the hearing that, over time, eventually alleviated the anxiety.

Jenna had quickly developed a technique for dispelling those midnight panic attacks. After drinking some water, she would straighten her back, lift her chin, look straight into the beady eyes of the teddy bear she had squished between two books on the shelf, and say, “Your Honor, my ex-husband is full of kaka!” or something along those lines.

Here are some other thoughts that Jenna has shared with me:

  1. She faced the fact that no one was going to do this for her. She was it. I was coaching her, but she had to do the work. The upside was that she did not have to rely on anyone else to understand her ex-husband’s mind-set.
  1. She took control. In the past, Jenna merely had reacted to and defended against her ex-husband’s motions and accusations, always being restricted by the legal fees she would have to pay. Once she began representing herself, she realized that she was free of that limitation. So she opted to take an offensive tack against her ex-husband. Not only did this strategy alter the dynamic of the case, it also made Jenna feel stronger, more empowered, and more confident.
  1. She worked on her case every day. Preparing for the hearing became another job. Jenna unexpectedly found herself drawing from training she had received years before as a cross-country runner, which included the adage, “Slow and steady wins the race.” The more she worked on her case, the more able she became. With ability came confidence. As her confidence grew, her anxiety abated proportionally.
  1. She organized her file. Jenna corralled every document she could find that concerned the case, and organized them so that she could find them in an instant. She read and re-read until she had memorized every motion, every order, every email, every text message, everything.
  1. She practiced out loud. At first the sound of her voice making legal arguments was foreign and strange, but soon Jenna advanced from making speeches to stuffed animals to trying out arguments on friends and family, who would give her valuable feedback. She even acted out mock cross-examinations of her ex on the stand.
  1. She researched. Jenna spent hours on the internet, reading articles and blog posts written by lawyers for other lawyers, until she understood how to organize the arguments she would make to the judge.

Finally, the hearing day arrived. Jenna started out early, calmly found a parking space, and made her way to the high floor of the cold courthouse.

She stood in the corridor outside the courtroom, and looked out the massive windows that faced east to the ocean, which sparkled under the morning sun. In that moment, that very moment in which even the most seasoned litigators’ nerves sizzle and urge flight, Jenna knew she was more than prepared for whatever would happen in that courtroom.

Then a spiritual conviction washed over her, and Jenna knew, without a doubt, that she would prevail in the hearing. And she did.

Now that you’ve read about the connection between handling anxiety and preparing for court, stay tuned because next month we will discuss how evidence, not emotion, drives judges’ decisions.


* “Jenna” is not an actual client, but rather is a composite of several people, both male and female, for illustrative purposes and to protect privacy. Jenna’s story is not intended to be, and is not a substitute for, psychological counseling, which can be beneficial or even vital for people in situations similar to Jenna’s.

© 2016 by LawYou America, LLC

If you have an immediate need for coaching, one-on-one and small group training are available. For more information or to submit your request, visit our website at

If you would like to submit a question to be addressed in a future column, please email us at

What Lawyers Do

I was talking recently with a library specialist who helps self-represented litigants. She has frequent contact with pro se litigants because the public library at which she works houses a law book collection that normally would be found in a courthouse or law school library. I had asked her about the questions that pro se litigants ask most frequently, with the goal of creating educational materials that are focused on those matters. She surprised me when she said, “People want to know what lawyers do.”

It was so fundamental that it hadn’t occurred to me. Of course people would want to know what lawyers actually do as they are trying to fulfill that same role and be their own lawyer. Before I chose law as my career, I had sometimes wondered the same thing because to me there was a mystique about it, probably stemming in part from the long black robes that everyone wears from law school graduation ceremonies on up to the Supreme Court, part from the Latin terms and phrases legal professionals would throw around with ease and authority, and part from the fact that I had never even met a lawyer until I was in my late 20s.

The answer to the question is straightforward: Lawyers advocate for their clients.

The primary and paramount role for any lawyer is advocate. The Spanish word for lawyer is “abogado,” which translates literally to “advocate.” The word “advocate” is both noun and verb: it is what lawyers are and what they do.

Lawyer as advocate is part and parcel of our adversarial system of justice. The idea behind the adversarial system is that the truth (“verdict” or “verum” is Latin for “truth”) emerges or is determined when each side in a contested dispute puts on its best case before a neutral decision-maker. You present your case to the court, your adversary presents his case to the court, and then the jury or judge determines the truth and decides who wins. Zealous advocacy on your behalf by a skilled practitioner is integral to that system.

In fact, every single term we have to refer to a party who appears in a lawsuit without a lawyer presupposes the existence of an advocate. The terms “pro se” and “pro per” translate to “for oneself” or “on one’s own behalf.” The term “self-represented” also is used frequently. The norm and the expectation are that parties are represented by lawyers, and that expectation is baked into the vernacular. There simply are no equivalent terms outside of the legal arena. In what other circumstance does speaking for yourself require a special label?

On the other hand, our Constitution guarantees access to the courts, without reference to whether you are represented by a lawyer. The First Amendment prohibits legislatures from enacting laws that would infringe upon the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” So, perhaps we need a better term to describe people who speak for themselves and present their own best cases in court.

Back to the topic of lawyers as advocates. How do they do that? In a nutshell, they:

1.     Identify and define the dispute first by learning the facts and the applicable law, and then by pleading to the court.
2.     Gather relevant evidence.
3.     Present to the court the evidence and arguments that prove your side of the dispute and disprove your adversary’s side.

In addition to putting together your best case, lawyers also take your problems onto their shoulders. They ease your mind when you know you’re not in it alone. This is true whether the lawyer is representing you or coaching you as you represent yourself.

How you can help your lawyer be the best advocate for you, or how you can achieve those things for yourself, will be the subject of future columns. So stay tuned because we will be tackling topics including evidence, rules of procedure, legal research and writing, and discovery.

© 2016 by LawYou America, LLC

If you have an immediate need for coaching, one-on-one and small group training are available. For more information or to submit your request, visit our website at

If you would like to submit a question to be addressed in a future column, please email us at