Jenna* had been embroiled in litigation with her ex-husband for years. Every so often he would bring some trivial matter to the court, painting Jenna as a bad parent, and always keeping her on edge.
This time, Jenna’s ex had filed a motion, complaining that Jenna was making decisions about their children’s after-school activities without consulting him. Jenna had been to the courtroom rodeo enough times to know that this motion was not a terribly serious matter, but could not be ignored.
Unfortunately, Jenna could no longer afford to pay her lawyer. She decided that, this time, she would have to handle the matter herself.
It all seemed well and good and easy at first. The hearing on the motion was set for four months later, so she had plenty of time to prepare.
But then came those wee small hours, in the middle of the night, when all was quiet and there was no activity, no voices, nothing to distract her from the imaginings that appeared and then paraded through the theater of her closed eyes: The hearing would be a disaster; the humiliating loss would be like the first falling domino in her ex-husband’s game that was calculated to take her children away from her; she would lose everything.
Suddenly her chest constricted, she couldn’t breathe, she bolted upright and jumped out of bed, the rooms swaying as she made her way to the kitchen. She gulped down a glass of water, cold enough to slice through the panic.
When Jenna first told me about the anxiety that threatened to cripple her, I seriously doubted whether self-representation was the best decision. But my thoughts, and Jenna’s own similar doubts, were meaningless. Jenna had no choice but to represent herself.
Fortunately, Jenna went on to achieve great success in her case.
I was deeply impressed by Jenna and how she overcame her anxiety so that she could focus so well on the task. I asked whether she had used some meditation technique, deep breathing, chanting, Xanax, Chardonnay, chocolate, something, anything that might help you, too.
But she said she hadn’t used anything specific to handle her fear. Instead, it was the process of preparing for the hearing that, over time, eventually alleviated the anxiety.
Jenna had quickly developed a technique for dispelling those midnight panic attacks. After drinking some water, she would straighten her back, lift her chin, look straight into the beady eyes of the teddy bear she had squished between two books on the shelf, and say, “Your Honor, my ex-husband is full of kaka!” or something along those lines.
Here are some other thoughts that Jenna has shared with me:
1. She faced the fact that no one was going to do this for her. She was it. I was coaching her, but she had to do the work. The upside was that she did not have to rely on anyone else to understand her ex-husband’s mind-set.
2. She took control. In the past, Jenna merely had reacted to and defended against her ex-husband’s motions and accusations, always being restricted by the legal fees she would have to pay. Once she began representing herself, she realized that she was free of that limitation. So she opted to take an offensive tack against her ex-husband. Not only did this strategy alter the dynamic of the case, it also made Jenna feel stronger, more empowered, and more confident.
3. She worked on her case every day. Preparing for the hearing became another job. Jenna unexpectedly found herself drawing from training she had received years before as a cross-country runner, which included the adage, “Slow and steady wins the race.” The more she worked on her case, the more able she became. With ability came confidence. As her confidence grew, her anxiety abated proportionally.
4. She organized her file. Jenna corralled every document she could find that concerned the case, and organized them so that she could find them in an instant. She read and re-read until she had memorized every motion, every order, every email, every text message, everything.
5. She practiced out loud. At first the sound of her voice making legal arguments was foreign and strange, but soon Jenna advanced from making speeches to stuffed animals to trying out arguments on friends and family, who would give her valuable feedback. She even acted out mock cross-examinations of her ex on the stand.
6. She researched. Jenna spent hours on the internet, reading articles and blog posts written by lawyers for other lawyers, until she understood how to organize the arguments she would make to the judge.
Finally, the hearing day arrived. Jenna started out early, calmly found a parking space, and made her way to the high floor of the cold courthouse.
She stood in the corridor outside the courtroom, and looked out the massive windows that faced east to the ocean, which sparkled under the morning sun. In that moment, that very moment in which even the most seasoned litigators’ nerves sizzle and urge flight, Jenna knew she was more than prepared for whatever would happen in that courtroom.
Then a spiritual conviction washed over her, and Jenna knew, without a doubt, that she would prevail in the hearing. And she did.
* “Jenna” is not an actual client, but rather is a composite of several people, both male and female, for illustrative purposes and to protect privacy. Jenna’s story is not intended to be, and is not a substitute for, psychological counseling, which can be beneficial or even vital for people in situations similar to Jenna’s.