The 3 things a Self-rep needs to be successful

To be successful in handling a family law matter, whether you’re in court or negotiating with the other side, you need to know these 3 things:

  • What you want
  • How to get it
  • How to be realistic

One without the other won’t work.

1. Know what you want

“Action to be effective must be directed to clearly conceived ends.”  – Jawaharlal Nehr

Nehru had a point. In order for anything you do to be effective you have to know what you want to achieve,

Steven Covey, the renowned author of the fabulous book 7 Habits of Highly Successful People set out as his 2nd principle “Begin with the end in mind”. He said that you needed to picture the future result you wanted so you could know what specific and concrete things you needed to do to make it a reality.

If you’re acting for yourself in an access issue, it’s not enough to say you want more access. That’s too vague. You need a clearly conceived end. You need to be able to tell the judge that the order you want is for access to your children every Tuesday and Thursday from pick up at school until return at 6:30 p.m., after dinner, and on alternating weekends from pick up Saturday morning at 9:00 a.m. until return on Sunday at 7:00 p.m., unless Monday is a school holiday, in which case the return is on Monday at 7:00 p.m.

You can’t expect a judge, or the other party with whom you’re negotiating, to understand what you want if you don’ t know and can’t express it.

So knowing what you want in clear and concise terms is fundamental.

You need to be able to write it down. A judge will write his or her order. The negotiations will end up with a written agreement. Beginning the process by writing down the order or term you want will help you to be clear and understandable.

2. Know how to get what you want

This isn’t easy. I like to ask clients to say over and over: “What do I most want out of this process and how can I best help myself get it?

Step One is what you want and Step Two is how to get it.

If you’re negotiating the matter, you don’t help yourself get it by being a bully or insisting on getting everything.

Look at the issue through the eyes of the other party. What do they need to get out of this negotiation? Can you let them have that if you get what you want?

What we need is usually different from what we want. And usually, while it sounds as though both parties want the same thing, they actually may need different things. So see what you can give up in exchange for getting what you need. Insisting on getting everything isn’t a good tactic to get what you really want.

In court, things work differently. Here it’s the judge with whom you’re trying to make a deal. In court you need to convince a judge that of the 2 different orders being requested, yours is the more sensible. It makes more sense for the kids. Or it best represents the law. You need the judge to accept your version of the facts and your interpretation of the law.

You do this most effectively by presenting your written material in a straightforward and understandable way. Don’t exaggerate in your favour or try to belittle the other party. And in your oral argument, remain clam and unemotional, except, of course, for making it clear how much you love your kids.

Knowing how to get what you want will also involve effective courtroom conduct. Consider going to spend a day in family court a week or so before your won case. Watch the presentations of lawyers and people representing themself. Listen to what they say and what the judge eventually decides. See what sort of performance is effective and what isn’t.

We’ll be writing about tips and techniques for effective presentations a lot in this Blog. Keep checking back. Check out the Tips section of the Coach’s Corner at The Family Law Coach website.

3. Be realistic

One of the chief difficulties self-reps encounter in court is that of over-optimistic expectations. That prevents them making effective settlements and encourages them to press the wrong points with the judge, It prevents the person acting for themselves from considering other options and encourages them to have a judge make a decisions only to find that it isn’t the one they wanted.

One of the chief difficulties family law lawyers have is convincing their clients to have “realistic expectations”. This is because too often what’s “realistic” will be seen a “loss” or as being “defeatist” by the client.

When a self-rep does research for their case online the results tend to be filtered through their view of what does and doesn’t make sense or sound reasonable. But since most self-reps aren’t experienced family law lawyers, their view of sensible or reasonable may not be the same as that of a judge.

Knowledge is power – Francis Bacon

To deal with this the best advice we can give is for the self-rep to get some relevant information. See about retaining a lawyer just to get some information and advice. This is called getting “unbundled legal services ”.

There are 2 ways to get this.

One is to check around with the local lawyers and see if they’d be willing to meet with you to go over your case and give you the information and advice you need without getting more involved in your case.

The other is to look up the services offered through The Family Law Coach to see if one of them will be of use to you.


In family law the facts of each case are really important. Knowing what facts to present to support the end result you want, knowing how to go about presenting your facts, and keeping your request for an order to something that’s realistic, give you a big boost forward.

Without these three – a well-defined primary objective, a clear understanding of how to best help yourself get it, and a set of realistic expectations – you’re unlikely to find success in the family court system.

But if you know what you want, how to get it, and are being realistic, you’re on your way to being successful.

Joel Miller
Miller Family Law Services
The Family Law Coach