Tools of the Trade

Tips for Dealing with Pro Se Litigants in Family Law
guest author: Kay Redburn, TBLS-BCP

Texans have a constitutional right to represent themselves in legal actions. The term "pro se" (proh say) is Latin for "for himself", i.e., a party to a lawsuit who represents himself. Using Texas as an example, the 2014 "Annual Statistical Report for the Texas Judiciary" states that in 2014, district and statutory county courts reported 73,550 family law cases equaling 20.9% of new or post-judgment family law cases filed in which the petitioner was self-represented at the time of filing. This number has increased steadily each year since 2011, when the percentage was 15.9%. In 2012 the percentage was 17%, and in 2013, 17.9%. This does not take into consideration the Respondents who represent themselves, which is also becoming a much more common occurrence.

Unless the party is also an attorney, dealing with pro se litigants (or "PSLs") offers a host of challenges for the Court, for the opposing party's attorney and for the paralegal working for that attorney. This tips are primarily for cases where one party has representation and the other is pro se.

Tips/comments from Judge Dean Rucker, Presiding Judge, Seventh Administrative Judicial Region, Senior Judge, Midland, Texas:

  • Be patient. PSLs may test your patience, but do your best to maintain an aura of calm.
  • Treat everyone with respect and kindness regardless of the nature of their appearance in the Courtroom.
  • The increase in the number of PSLs in Midland has created a lot of extra work on the Court Clerks and staff.
  • Most of the PSL cases involve small estates, if any, and the most troublesome cases involved child issues.
  • Have the PSL witness a few uncontested prove ups at the Courthouse. This will give the PSL an idea of what happens at the prove up and they may be more prepared to answer the necessary questions to prove up the matter. Some judges have a prove up script they use and ask the PSL the prove up questions from the bench.
  • There are limits to what a Judge can do from the bench to assist PSLs.
  • Some Judges have separate "pro se dockets" so those prove ups don't hold up the litigants represented by attorneys.
  • Judges usually allow the PSL to vent a little, but then may tell the PSL "Here is what I need to know..."
  • Judges need to make it clear that it is OK for the lawyers to speak with the PSL, and vice versa.
  • If the PSL is really lost, the Judge may request an attorney to help the PSL on a pro bono basis. Typically attorneys do help where they can when asked by the Court.
  • Pro Se Litigants take more of the Judges' time, the Clerks' time, and the attorneys' time.

The non-lawyer paralegal needs to tread even more carefully when dealing with a pro se litigant. The paralegal will have to be in contact with the PSL just as he/she would with opposing counsel in a case. Following are tips/suggestions for the paralegal who has to deal with the PSL on the opposite side of a case:

  • From the very beginning of contact with the PSL, ascertain how the PSL wishes to be contacted: email, fax, regular mail, hand delivery, etc.
  • Avoid phone conferences if at all possible. If the paralegal does have a phone conference with a PSL, assume the call is being recorded by the PSL. The paralegal should take very detailed notes. After the phone conference the person who talked to the PSL should prepare a detailed memo to the file that states what was discussed.
  • As much as humanly possible, get everything in writing.
  • An experienced paralegal can usually deal with pro se litigants in a professional manner, so let the PLS work with the paralegal first. This will keep the client's costs down, and free up the attorney=s schedule. Just be sure to know what the boundaries are, and if at any point the paralegal becomes uncomfortable, assess the situation and proceed from there.
  • Send correspondence/notices/pleadings etc. to the pro se litigant via Fed Ex, email, CCMRRR with a copy by regular mail, hand delivery, carrier pigeon, or any other method that may be successful.
  • On the law firm billing, if listing opposing party's name put "pro se" after it, so six months later you can determine that the communication was during time opposing party was not represented by an attorney.
  • Be sure documents produced are properly redacted (assume they may be made public knowledge by pro se litigant).
  • Use as little "legal-ese" as possible. It is to your client's benefit to make everything as easy as possible (within reason) for the PSL. Provide stamped, self-addressed envelopes if you need a signature. Don't let them use the excuse to the Court that they didn't know what they were to do because the instructions were too difficult to understand.


Kay Redburn, TBLS-BCP is a senior paralegal with the Webb Family Law Firm,P.C. Ms. Redburn was board certified in family law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in 2003 and was paralegal of the year in 2006. She was awarded the Dallas Area Paralegal Association President’s Award by the Texas Academy of Family Law Specialists. Ms. Redburn's most recent office positions held and committee affiliations were the ethics and professional responsibility coordinator, the National Federation of Paralegal Associations, and the founding member of the Paralegal Advisory Commission, Family Law, Texas Board of Legal Specialization. Ms. Redburn is a member of the Paralegal Division in the State Bar of Texas, the Texas Academy of Family Law Specialists, the Family Law Section of the State Bar of Texas, the Family Law Section of the Dallas Bar Association, the Texas Family Law Foundation, the College of the State Bar of Texas in the legal assistants division as a charter member, and the Dallas Area Paralegal Association. She has been the author and speaker in a number of presentations and articles in her area of practice such as, "Ethical Billing Practices - A Paralegal Perspective" Texas Forum XXXI; and "Screening Clients, Collecting a Fee, etc.," with Natalie Webb, TCFLBA Family Law in Review 2012, October 2012.

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