“He who represents himself has a fool for a client.”
“The mere truth won’t do. You must have a lawyer.”
The statement suggesting that a person who represents themselves in court is foolish for doing so is often repeated in movies, television and literature. Although frequently attributed to Abraham Lincoln (who may well have repeated the line), it actually first appeared in print in the early 19th Century, in a collection of proverbs, at a time when Lincoln was just a boy. It has been equally applied to a lay person who does not have a lawyer and to a lawyer who chooses to represent themselves when their own interests are on the line.
But like any axiom, the truth is far more complicated. Some people who represent themselves — even when opposed by major corporations — have gotten great outcomes in their cases. Perhaps the most famous example of that involves Ford, Chrysler, and the only feature that I absolutely insist on having in a motor vehicle — intermittent windshield wipers.
Bob Kearns, a WWII veteran with an Ohio connection (he got his PhD at Case Western Reserve University), would later say that his inspiration came from a champagne bottle. It was his wedding night, in 1953, and the popped cork smacked him in the eye. Left legally blind in that eye, he later found that the movement of windshield wipers aggravated his vision and wondered why the wipers didn’t work the way the blinking human eye did, with a pause in between each swipe of the blades.
Kearns set out to design a mechanical system that would mimic the eye. He succeeded and, in 1967 the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued him patent #3,351,836 for a system that improved wiper operation in “wet/dry” conditions and also provided “relief from monotony of wiper motion.” Kearns’ patent also called for an automatic sensing system that would determine the amount of liquid on the windshield and change the wipers from intermittent to regular operation and back again.
Convinced that he had a marketable idea, Kearns went to multiple automakers to try to sell them on adopting his invention. Rather than simply granting them the rights, however, Kearns insisted that his own company would produce the wipers and the auto makers could buy them. Largely because of that stipulation, the auto makers all passed. But within a few years, intermittent wipers began appear on vehicles and Kearns, convinced he had been wronged, filed lawsuits, first against Ford in 1978 and then against Chrysler in 1982.
Unable to find a law firm that believed he had a valid case, Kearns largely represented himself (ironically, Ford was represented by one of the firms that turned Kearns away). The cases became an obsession for him. Chronicling the case for The Los Angeles Times in 1993, writer Reed Johnson called Kearns “a kind of middle American Captain Ahab.” But his devotion to the case cost him dearly. His wife divorced him after 27 years of marriage and one of his sons said, “we all got to the point where it was either him or us.”
The patent infringement case against Ford dragged out until 1990, and the one against Chrysler until 1995. Kearns had some legal help in winning $10.1 million from Ford, but was largely his own attorney when he got $30 million from Chrysler.
Even with that success, it could have been better for Kearns if he had expert help. He originally sought $50 for every set of wipers from Ford and Chrysler — which would have totaled over $1 billion in damages. And he represented himself in later cases against GM, Mercedes, Toyota and others, and lost every single one of those cases, many times because he missed filing deadlines or failed to follow procedural requirements.
Kearns died in 2005, at the age of 77, of complications from cancer. After his death, his children discovered that a collection of stained glass windows that Kearns had purchased from his childhood Catholic parish in Michigan, had been stolen. They discovered the windows, valued at $3.5 million, for sale on Ebay, and brought a lawsuit (and later criminal action) against an antique dealer who claimed he had purchased them legitimately. Fortunately for Kearns’ children, they decided not to represent themselves, and ultimately regained possession of the windows in 2014.
In an article about the window case, Kearns son, Dennis, told the “Baltimore Sun,” “My dad believed that people shouldn’t get away with doing bad things.” Indeed, that belief was so strong that Robert Kearns devoted decades of his life to acting as his own lawyer — a crusade that earned him more than $40 million.
David Hejmanowski is Judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.