As I wipe down my kitchen sink, I look at the faucet and think for the millionth time how I truly loathe the leaky, stained, outdated fixture.
Maybe it’s time to do something about it. How hard can it be?
I quickly take a mental survey. I have seen replacement faucets in all styles and brands at nearly every major hardware store. I look under my sink. It isn’t like the faucet is welded into place. I just need something to fit my specific sink configuration. I watch a few You Tube videos. It took the guy maybe five minutes start to finish.
Now, some of you may be thinking why not just hire a plumber and let someone else figure it all out. Well, like many “do-it-yourselfers” there is a method to my madness. First, there is the cost. At the hourly rate most plumbers charge, I just can’t justify the cost for such a non-emergency event. Don’t get me wrong, if I had a broken pipe and my home was flooding, I would call the plumber without hesitation. But, there is no flood or rush in my current situation. Second, I would rather spend the money I have on a really nice faucet. I see this as providing more value to the project because, in this case, I could get a fancy faucet that turns on when I touch it. Third, I am pretty sure I can figure this out. It may not be my area of expertise, or even experience, but there are enough resources available to help me. Perhaps, naively, I feel fairly confident in this undertaking. After all, I am not trying to re-plumb my entire house for goodness sake. It’s just a simple home improvement project. This leads me to the fourth, and possibly most important, part of my decision to do-it-myself: I am in control of the entire process. Ultimately, the successful completion of the project will be more satisfying because I will do it myself.
This “do-it-yourselfer” was off to my local hardware store armed with a picture of my sink on my phone and my You Tube list of necessities. Once the shiny, new faucet was selected, I drove home eager to get this five-minute project underway.
Alas, like many “do-it-yourselfers,” the project I undertook quickly became more complicated than any You Tube videographer predicted. My particular faucet seemed to be installed in a way that no one on You Tube had ever seen. Now what? Do I give up and resign myself to a lifetime of doing dishes in the tub? Maybe. Is it time to call in the professional?
No. It’s time to call in other resources. I go back to the hardware store and ask for some advice–a fool’s errand. Although exceedingly polite, the best advice they could offer was the name of a local plumber or the possibility of returning the faucet for a full refund.
So, I called my dad. He was gracious enough to come over with some heavy-duty tools. Between the two of us, we got the job done. It took the better part of an hour, but my shiny new faucet was functional in time for me to make dinner and do the dishes, and no, we did not make a You Tube video of the suggested process.
Is there a lesson learned in all of this, you ask? Will I call a plumber next time? No. I won’t. Although it took more time than I thought it would, and I did end up asking for some help, I am exceedingly proud of that faucet. This brings me to the real point.
As a family law attorney, I realize that, to many, I have become the plumber. Attorney prices are high and many have begun to question if the value is worth the buck. There is a growing desire to “do-it-yourself.” In fact, I see the sink as a metaphor for the larger conversation and movement we see happening in today’s family law courts. It is, perhaps, an over simplification, but strikingly similar just the same. According to a recent study, litigants who choose not to hire an attorney to represent them in their family law cases echo the very same “do-it-yourself” motivations that I explained above.  They are considering the cost versus value, and determining that the resources they have are best allocated elsewhere.
The question then becomes, how do we, as a legal community, support the “do-it-yourselfer?” We adapt and provide the services the clients need. In order to stay relevant and, above all, useful, we must provide the tools and general guidance to get a “do-it-yourselfer” started. If the situation develops into something requiring specialized knowledge, we provide that guidance as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. You see, unlike the kitchen sink scenario, our goals are much more aligned with the self-represented litigant. Helping a self-represented person achieve her legal goals means much more than a shiny, functional faucet. It means functional co-parenting, functional property settlements, and functional, non-clogged court dockets. It means changing the perception of the courts and the lawyer’s role in the process. It means assuring access to justice equals access for everyone, not just those who can afford it.
Like many people who go to law school, I was motivated by the hope of helping others. With numbers of self-representing “do-it-yourselfers” continuing to increase, it’s time to listen to the message they are sending. The “do-it-yourselfer” is saying, “I think I’ve got this, but can you help me make sure I do it correctly?” The “do-it-yourselfer” is not going away, and it’s time to adapt.
 IAALS recently released two new reports focused on the experiences of self-represented litigants in the family court system. Cases Without Counsel: Research on Experiences of Self-Representation in U.S. Family Court which explores the issues from the litigants’ perspective. Cases Without Counsel: Our Recommendations after Listening to the Litigants outlines recommendations for courts, legal service providers, and communities to best serve self-represented litigants in family cases.