A Fool for a Client

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"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 The Movie

A person who represents oneself 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 himself 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 oneself. Not all attorneys are versed in all forms of law; how many murderers does the average tax lawyer defend in their lifetime, after all? Furthemore, even if said attorney is an expert in the precise field of law, being that close to the matter at hand is a great way to lose sight of the big picture.[1]

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. Often involves Talking to Himself 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.

This being television (where any matter, no matter how complex, is wrapped up within the half-hour with time left for advertisements) there's no mention that, in the real court system, many litigants are self-represented not because they want to be, but by necessity as cases can be dragged on for years as a means to push legal fees into the five-figure range (or worse), denying justice to all but the independently wealthy.

For a small claim, or a minor infraction, the cost of a senior lawyer will often exceed the amount in dispute – to the point that an honest law firm may even remind you themselves that you are free to appear pro se or with a paralegal instead... because the legal costs are high enough that if you lose you lose, and if you win you still lose. That's not this trope. This trope is the Frivolous Lawsuit pursued with endless Courtroom Antics because It's the Principle of the Thing, as typically played for laughs. The number of bitter divorce cases (or other serious matters) in real life where a victim in pauperis is forced to decide between taking on an involuntary, complex pro se case or losing whatever property they gained in court to legal fees doesn't usually get acknowledged in fiction.

See also Informed Self Diagnosis, the equivalent trope for medical doctors.

Examples of A Fool for a Client include:


Comic Books[edit | hide | hide all]

  • In the 2011 Daredevil series, this actually becomes Matt Murdock's new business plan (which is, surprisingly, perfectly doable in New York). 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. The stories make a point that this is for smaller cases and not Always Murder.

Film[edit | hide]

  • 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!"
    • One of creator 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!"

  • Fielding Mellish does this in Woody Allen's film Bananas. His self-cross-examination is actually one of the less absurd scenes in this movie.

Fielding: DOES THE TERM 'OPERATION SAPPHIRE MEAN ANYTHING TO YOU?!?!

  • In Fracture, Ted Crawford (played by Anthony Hopkins) 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.
    • 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.
  • 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.


Literature[edit | hide]

  • Roark from The Fountainhead. Unsurprisingly, given the book's message of individualism and libertarianism, 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 off the hook, his sentence is reduced from death to life in prison while on sleeper (telepathic suppression) drugs.
  • In Oh, God!, Jerry Landers represents himself when he's sued by the Reverend Willie Williams, whom Landers has called (at God's direction) a "phony," sues him for slander, despite the Judge advising him that a lawyer would be "most helpful" to him.


Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • 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, he wins after telling everyone to "lighten up."
  • 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 of CSI, 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.
  • Happens from time to time in the various Law and Order shows. This can be especially uncomfortable on Law and Order Special Victims Unit, when it involves an accused rapist cross-examining his alleged victim.
  • 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!

  • 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.
  • In an episode of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon defends himself in traffic court for a unpaid ticket.
  • In one episode of Sledge Hammer!, Sledge gets accused of murder and decides to defend himself. Right before the big supprise 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 prominent prosecutor, is their own defense attorney against multiple murder charges; they consistently out-maneuvering the prosecutor (Caroline) for most of the trial and don'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).
  • In the season 4 premiere of The Mentalist, Jane chooses to represent himself, in a trial for a murder that he freely admits to. He's found innocent.
  • 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 and Kel episode featured Kenan suing a tuna cannery for 10 million dollars. 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.
  • 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 ran 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.
  • 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.


Video Games[edit | hide]

  • Obviously, Ace Attorney has had this.
    • 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.
  • 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 Talking to Himself 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.


Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • 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. It doubled as a Crowning Moment of Funny as well as a Crowning Moment of 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."


Webcomics[edit | hide]

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?!?


Real Life[edit | hide]

  • In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was too poor to afford an attorney, and was subsequently denied a public defender by the judge. He represented himself in his criminal trial during which 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.
  • 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 Luchesse 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.
    • This is loosely portrayed in the film Find Me Guilty, starring Vin Diesel as Jackie DiNorscio.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Moral Guardians and dear friend of gamers everywhere Jack Thompson tried this during his disbarment hearings. It didn't quite work the way he wanted.
  • 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 (and sometimes even Police Prosecutors, who while not allowed to directly help may slip them copies of exonerating evidence the defendant has forgotten to bring to the court) actively helping a defendant with their case is fairly common in most court rooms.
  • Counter-intuitively, this trope might not be a complete Truth in Television. The insane Colin Fergusons aside, a recent study, found here, argues that most pro se criminal defendants are not mentally ill, and don't generally do much worse than represented criminal defendants.
  • David Irving represented himself in his libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt for calling him a holocaust denier. It was not a great success.
  • Ferdinand Marcos was once accused by taking part in a politically motivated assassination. Long story short he represented himself and won. He would continue on to become 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.
  1. Medical Doctors are admonished never to self-treat for the same reason, but they're worse than lawyers at following that rule; probably because an MD signing a prescription is a lot less visible than lawyers making fools of themselves in front of an entire courtroom