If you’ve been summoned to appear in court as a witness, or must make an appearance for your family law case, it’s understandable that you may be feeling a little nervous. Everyone will be looking at you and listening to your words. How you appear and what you say – and maybe as importantly, how you say it – is going to have a big impact on the judge or jury in determining their decisions.
There are some common-sense guidelines that most people probably should have figured out beforehand, like don’t wear flip-flops to court or forget to turn off your cell phones. However, I’m always a little surprised by the inappropriate attire that I see being worn in court, so it doesn’t hurt to go over dress code rules.
First, a few of the don’ts: No low-cut blouses or short skirts, flip-flops, house slippers, or T-shirts with obscene slogans. More appropriate attire shows respect for the court and will make a better impression. For men, this would be a suit or, at least, a dress shirt, slacks and tie. Women should wear a conservative dress or pants outfit. No spiked heels, please, or bra straps that show.
Being prepared for questioning as a witness also is important. I like to prepare my clients for this because I know that they’ll be better witnesses and also will be more comfortable. One of the resources that I show them is a DVD from the American Bar Association about how to act and what to say when testifying in court.
The key is having an understanding about how to answer questions in a way that is clear, concise, truthful and straightforward. Your demeanor as you talk also will be important; this influences how your words are perceived and whether you are seen as credible and trustworthy.
In the DVD, trial consultant Jan Mills Spaeth recommends a three-step process for answering questions from an opposing attorney:
- Listen to the question without interrupting or rushing to reply. Stop talking if any of the attorneys say they object and then wait until the judge says to continue.
- Think before answering. It’s okay to pause. You’ll need to be sure that you understand the question. If you don’t, ask that it be rephrased or repeated. A polite way to make the request is to say, “I don’t understand your question” or “I’m not certain I understand your question.” Be aware that every question that an attorney asks is important, so don’t dismiss it or let your guard down.
- Answer. However, confine your answer to the specific question – don’t give more information beyond this. Expanding your answer may give the attorney an opening for a further line of questioning you might not have been asked otherwise.
More tips from Spaeth: Keep your answers short and be clear and concise. This should go without saying, but don’t make things up. If you’re caught in an inconsistency or lie, it will hurt your credibility. Don’t guess at an answer; if you don’t know something, it’s okay to say that. On the other hand, come to court prepared. Know important dates and other facts of your case.
And keep your cool. You may feel rattled but stay calm. Don’t lash out at the attorney who is asking a complicated series of questions or putting you under pressure. Be as polite to the opposing lawyers as you would be to your own attorney; this creates a good impression in front of jurors who are more likely to react to you positively. If you become argumentative and say something like “Why do I have to answer that again?” you may look hostile and be viewed unfavorably.
Lastly, be confident while still being respectful. This will show in your body language as you sit up straight, make good eye contact and refrain from fidgeting. Speak up and answer in a clear voice. You’ll have greater impact.
If you have a legal concern, working with an experienced attorney is always recommended for the best outcome. Call the law offices of Jeanne Coleman for expert representation in all aspects of family law, military divorce and Social Security disability law.