Lawyer Up!

Everyone knows the benefits of hiring an attorney to fight for you regardless of what side of the courtroom you’re on. However, not everyone knows the detriments of not hiring an attorney. Sure, the law can be complicated and fraught with nuances and technicalities, but can’t one just ask around to a few lawyer-friends or relatives and seek their way through?

Problem #1 – The Office of the Prothonotary (the office in which all pleadings for civil court are filed and recorded) will often accept any writing by the Defendant whatsoever and time-stamp it as an “Answer” to the Plaintiff’s Complaint. The main problem with this practice is the fact that there are very specific rules under the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure that govern the wording and structure of a proper Answer. Although it may seem counterintuitive, simply writing language to the effect of “I, the named Defendant, deny the allegations set forth in Plaintiff’s Complaint and intend to defend myself in Court” will spell certain death for your case. A quick Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings will magically twist those words of denial into a complete admission of every allegation in the Complaint. Trust me. I’ve done it. In the best case scenario and with a sympathetic judge, you may be given a period of time, 20 days typically, in which to retain an attorney and file a proper response.

And the rules governing the proper format and wording of pleadings doesn’t end with Answers to Complaints. These rules apply to every one of the myriad of pleadings filed in Pennsylvania Courts.

Problem #2 – Are you incorporated? Pursuant to Pennsylvania case law, an entity that is incorporated must be represented by an attorney licensed to practice law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This means that even if you’re the President, Vice President and CEO of your corporation, you may not appear in court on behalf of your corporation. In addition, if you would like to file suit against another entity or individual, you must hire an attorney to enter his/her appearance and sign your pleading. Likewise, if suit is filed against your corporation you may not personally file a response on behalf of your corporation. Again, you must hire an attorney to enter his/her appearance on your behalf and file your response. If you do not, the Court will grant the opposition’s preliminary objections and give you 20 days in which to retain counsel and file an amended pleading. Trust me. I’ve done it.

Problem #3 – Timing. In the law, timing really is everything. Different areas of the law have different statutes of limitations (timelines for how long a Plaintiff is able to wait before filing suit). For example, a Plaintiff in Pennsylvania has 4 years in which to file an action for breach of contract after the date on which the contract was allegedly breached by the Defendant. If you try to file an action for breach of contract 4 years and 1 day after the Defendant breached the contract, your action will be thrown out.

In addition to issues surrounding the statute of limitations, each pleading that is filed is associated with a period of time during which the opposing party must respond. In some instances, if this deadline is missed, the case may be dismissed without the merits ever having been heard by a judge.

What it comes down to is that while some people have successfully represented themselves in court, many more people have unsuccessfully done so. The first step that should be taken in any legal situation, whether you’re the plaintiff or defendant, is to hire an attorney who specializes in the area with which you’re dealing. This way, win or lose, you will do so on the merits of the case and not due to a miniscule error that could have been prevented.

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