It is often said that representing yourself (going pro se) is never the sane thing to do. While it’s true that there are many types of cases where representing yourself is not a good idea, there are some cases in which it is a viable option.
In many types of proceedings, such as small claims court, traffic court, and certain administrative hearings, the system is specifically designed to be accessible to non-lawyers. In some of these situations, going pro se is not only a viable option, it is the only option, as some of them do not even allow representation by lawyers.
Some lawyers will represent you for free (pro bono) if you qualify as very low income. This is an option you should always consider, as any lawyer, at the very least, can navigate the legal system far more efficiently than a layperson.
In criminal cases, it is almost never a good idea to go pro se. Even if you cannot afford a lawyer, you will almost certainly be entitled to the counsel of a public defender. While they are not always held in high regard, the vast majority are dedicated, hardworking, and competent. It’s true that they are often overloaded with cases, and cannot give your case the same level of attention as a high-priced criminal defense attorney, but public defenders often have much more trial experience than a private criminal defense attorney.
Parties in civil law should also avoid self-representation under certain circumstances. Highly emotional family law cases, such as divorce or child custody, can easily cloud a person’s judgment. Areas of law which are extremely complex, such as bankruptcy or taxes, should also be handled by an attorney rather than self-representation.
Finally, there are certain phases of judicial proceedings which are harder without an attorney. Drafting a complaint or counter-claim might not seem difficult, but procedural law is not something the average person can learn in a small period of time. Likewise, a person uncomfortable with public speaking should rely on an attorney during hearings or actual trials.
If the counsel you have is ineffective, you do have the option of representing yourself. However, in most cases you should just find a new attorney and have the new one pick up where the old lawyer left off.
If you decide to represent yourself, it is always necessary to gain an understanding of the basic workings of the legal system in your jurisdiction. There are many books available written specifically to assist parties going pro se. All of these resources warrant your consideration.
Additionally, many lawyers offer their services as trial coaches, that is, they will advise a party acting pro se on how to navigate the legal system, how to develop an overall trial strategy, and on some of the finer points of the law, while the party actually conducts the trial. This often costs 10-20% of what it would cost for the same lawyer to actually represent you.