Can I Represent My Business in Court, Without an Attorney?
Generally, corporations and voluntary associations must retain counsel when bringing or defending a lawsuit. See CPLR 321(a). This means corporations and voluntary associations may not use non-attorney company officials to represent the company, except in certain instances, described below.
What is a Voluntary Association?
Voluntary associations are companies that have attributes of limited liability protection. These include limited liability companies, often referred to as LLCs.
However, if a company is not a voluntary association or corporation, they may not be required to hire counsel.
What Is Not a Voluntary Association?
Sole proprietorships are not considered voluntary associations. Unlike an LLC, a sole proprietorship is completely unincorporated, thus it is not a corporation or voluntary association. Therefore, courts do not require the owner of a sole proprietorship to hire an attorney to represent the proprietorship in legal proceedings.
Partnerships and Law Firms Incorporated as Professional Corporations
New York courts permit partnerships and law firms incorporated as professional corporations to represent themselves in court. Gilberg v. Lennon, 212 A.D.2d 662, 664 (2d Dep’t 1995).
Seven Exceptions Allowing Corporations or Voluntary Associations to Represent Themselves, Without an Attorney:
- Law firms incorporated as professional corporations
- Municipal corporations
- Public benefit corporations
- School districts or school district public libraries
- Claims or cause of action brought by an insurer in its own name or in the name of the insured
- A small claims commercial action; or defending small claims non-commercial actions
Small Claims Court
If a corporation sues in a New York small claims court, it must retain counsel.
However, a corporation may defend itself in New York small claims courts, without an attorney:
- In the Small Claims Parts of New York District and City Civil Courts
- In the Small Claims Parts of New York Town and Village Courts
An exception also exists where corporations may sue without an attorney in New York commercial small claims courts, including:
- Commercial Small Claims Parts of New York District and City Civil Courts
- Commercial Small Claims Parts of New York Town and Village Courts
While these exceptions do exist allowing companies to represent themselves without an attorney, the prevailing wisdom is to hire an experienced business attorney for any legal disputes.
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