Why You Should Never Be Your Own Lawyer (Especially in Divorce)

Halle Berry recently decided to represent herself in her divorce from Oliver Martinez. The couple married in 2013 and separated in 2015. News outlets reported their divorce was finalized in 2016. However, by 2018, it was reported that a final parenting plan had never been filed with the court. To date, the divorce remains unfinished.

Berry Seeks New Attorney

In August, Berry filed a petition with the court seeking to represent herself in the remaining phase of the divorce. Her attorney, Marina Zakiyan Beck, also signed the petition, agreeing to it. Martinez is represented by Laura Wasser, often called the Disso Queen, because she ruthlessly handles many celebrity divorces (dissolutions). 

Berry’s decision is not an uncommon one. Clearly, the couple has been working through their divorce for at least four years. Berry no doubt is feeling tired of the process and frustrated with the system. Her attorney may not be a good fit for her, or perhaps she and her attorney have some basic disagreements about how the case should be settled. Berry is likely also tired of paying legal fees (note this is her third divorce). 

While Berry may be justified in choosing to part ways with her attorney, deciding to represent herself is without question a tremendous mistake. Most likely, her divorce has not concluded because her former spouse and his attorney’s tactics, which have delayed the process, with an intent to build up the pressure and force her to capitulate on certain points. 

Rules About Firing Your Attorney

Although Berry has filed a petition seeking to fire her attorney and represent herself, that decision is ultimately up to the court. Once you have appeared in court with an attorney, you must ask the court’s permission to fire that attorney. In general, your attorney is asked to agree with the decision (and Berry’s attorney has agreed). The judge will decide whether or not to accept the attorney’s resignation from the case. 

If a case is very near to completion, the court could choose to refuse to allow the attorney to withdraw since doing so could delay the conclusion of the case. Some people hire and fire attorneys as a delaying tactic and a way to increase their spouse’s attorney fees. If you wish to fire your attorney and represent yourself (call “pro se”), the court will likely warn you about the dangers of doing so, but ultimately cannot prevent you from doing so.

Dangers of Representing Yourself

If you’ve been dragged through a very long divorce (like Berry), or if you’ve been through more than one divorce (again, like Berry), you may feel familiar with court procedures and processes. You might think that you’ve been engaged in so much litigation that you could represent yourself competently.

Unless you are a divorce attorney (and even then, representing yourself is a bad idea), you should not walk into a courtroom without competent counsel by your side. There are a whole host of reasons why representing yourself is a mistake you will regret:

  • While you think you’re familiar with court procedures, any small mistake could cost you everything. Missing a deadline, failing to file the correct form, forgetting to check a box, or misunderstanding what the forms say and mean could result in a catastrophic loss
  • Representing yourself is like chum for your spouse’s attorney. When you fire your attorney and try to manage the case on your own, this can send the other attorney into a feeding frenzy. They are likely to deluge you (“paper you”) with hundreds of motions and documents you don’t know how to handle, which are designed to overwhelm and confuse you so that you miss the important ones. They are also then able to operate nearly unchecked in the courtroom, without another attorney to object to their tactics, mistakes, and shady behavior.
  • While some people think a judge is more likely to take pity on them for representing themselves, the truth is that anyone who can afford a lawyer and refuses to use one simply makes the judge’s life harder. The judge will feel frustrated by the delays and challenges this decision is likely to cause and is likely to take it out on the person who has created this problem.
  • You have no idea what a fair settlement looks like for your case because you don’t have the years of experience litigating this kind of case. You are likely to miss opportunities to settle the case. If you do decide to settle, there is a high probability that you will not achieve an optimum settlement. 
  • Even if you believe a large portion of your case has been settled or decided before you step in to represent yourself, much of it can be reopened at any time with petitions for modification from your spouse’s attorney. It’s also possible you could unwittingly reopen a portion that has been settled without intending to.
  • In all likelihood, if you represent yourself, you will, at some point, need to hire an attorney to fix all the problems that were created by your self-representation, either during the case or afterwards. It will be much more expensive to attempt to fix all the problems than it would have been to just use an attorney for the case. 

How to Switch Attorneys Successfully

If you are truly unhappy with your attorney, you are completely within your rights to switch to another attorney. In general, it’s best to speak to some of the attorneys you are considering before you fire your existing attorney. You want to be sure they are someone you feel comfortable with, who is knowledgeable and experienced when it comes to the issues in your case, and most importantly, that they have the bandwidth and time to take on your case. 

You do not want to fire your current attorney until you know you have someone who can step in immediately to fill the void. You do not want to have to make court appearances on your own until you find the perfect attorney. 

You must notify your existing attorney that you are terminating their services and request that they formally withdraw from the case. You should ask for a final accounting for your legal fees and a refund of any outstanding retainer still in their possession. Your new attorney will request your files on your behalf, utilizing a signed release that you will execute. 

Walking into a courtroom without an attorney is a massive mistake that will cost you time and money and likely result in an outcome that is not favorable for you. 


Dror Bikel

Dror Bikel co-founded Bikel Rosenthal & Schanfield, New York’s best known firm for high-conflict matrimonial disputes. A New York Superlawyer℠ and twice recognized (2020 and 2021) New York Divorce Trial Lawyer of the Year, Dror’s reputation as a fearsome advocate in difficult custody and divorce disputes has led him to deliver solid outcomes in some of New York’s most complex family law trials. Attorney Bikel is a frequent commentator on high profile divorces for national and international media outlets. His book The 1% Divorce - When Titans Clash was a 5-category Amazon bestseller.

To connect with Dror: 212.682.6222 | [hidden email] | Online

For media inquiries or speaking engagements: [hidden email]