To be successful, plan to spend significant time preparing your case for trial. This is true whether you are the person who first filed the court case (the plaintiff) or the person who was sued (the defendant).

What you should do before the day of the trial:

  • You read the complaint and have taken notes on what it says.
  • If there was a contract or any other written communications between you and the other side on the issues in this case, you have copies and have read those documents, too.
  • You analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of your argument and the other side’s argument.
  • You identified and collected all relevant documents.
  • You have identified and prepared any witnesses who could speak on your behalf.

Now you are ready to plan how to present your case to the judge.

1st Tip – Don’t lie. Don’t exaggerate. Not even a little.

The judge who will hear your case listens to people tell their stories all day, every day. S/he sees all sorts of people – many tell the truth, some “exaggerate,” some lie. Don’t be fooled into thinking that no one can prove you are exaggerating a bit. A judge becomes good at hearing any “false notes” in a story. It is the job of the judge to decide who s/he believes, even if there is no “proof” that one side is lying. The judge is an expert in making these decisions. Don’t jeopardize your case by lying or exaggerating. If you lie on something small, the judge may not believe you when you tell the truth on a key point.

2nd Tip – Tell the facts in a logical way. Tell a story.

Judges are people, too. It helps to have the facts presented in a framework that makes it easy to follow. Usually this means telling the facts in chronological order (in the order that they happened). It also means presenting the “headline” first. Just like a newspaper story; start by giving the judge a quick summary at the beginning. For example, you might start with “The defendant has not paid me the $850 that she owes me for a dress that I made for her daughter. Here is what happened…”

3rd Tip – Be brief. Know what is important to tell and what is not.

Not everything that happened between you and the other side is legally important. Everyone’s time is limited. Research the law in your case and make sure all of the legal points are addressed in your story. You can ignore all of the parts of the story that are not legally relevant. For example, you may not want to tell the judge that you and the other side ”go way back” or that you babysat her daughter or that she has not paid you for other bills that you did not include in this court case. You can tell a more complete story later if the judge asks you to but start with proving what you need to prove under the law.

4th Tip – Present your evidence in a way that supports your story.

Don’t wait until the end of your story and then shove a bunch of papers at the judge. Organize and label the documents that you want to submit to the court. Put the documents in the order that they support your story. Mention the documents in order. When you mention a fact supported by a document, offer the document to the judge and the other side. Make sure to bring enough copies for both the judge and the other side.

5th Tip – Prepare for the unexpected and remain focused

What is the worst that the other side could say? What are the weakest parts of your case? Prepare for the other side to try to prove these. Don’t wait until after the hearing to say, “I should have said…” First, decide if the worst that the other side can say is legally relevant. If it is just a complaint about you, ignore it. If there is a weakness in your case, prepare by deciding how you will respond when they bring it up. Practice what you would say and ignore the emotions.

6th Tip – Hold on to your original documents unless the judge asks for them.

Only you can keep track of your documents. Your documents are some of the evidence in your case. Evidence could be any documents, such as receipts, photographs, contracts or letters that support your claim. It can be easy to lose documents. You should keep the original documents in your file. Give copies of important documents you plan on using as evidence to the court. Only pass along the original document if the judge requests it. Make sure you have a copy to keep for yourself and for the other side, if needed.

How to Remain Calm When In Court

Calming Tip # 1 Prepare for the way that you act when you are nervous.

When I am nervous, I... I will deal with this potential problem by...
...can't stop talking.

Using notes on what I need to say. After my key points, I will put a note to myself that will say STOP. When I see the note, I will stop talking and take at least 2 deep breaths. If someone asks me a question, I will answer. Otherwise, I will wait.

...am "tongue tied."

Writing short reminder notes to myself…not a script.

  • Reviewing my notes in the stall of the bathroom before I go into the court. I will say my first few sentences softly to myself.
  • Reminding myself that this is my story. I know that I am going to say.
  • Practicing my story aloud (in advance) until it is very familiar.
...lose my focus.

I will deal with this potential problem by …

  • Writing up short reminder notes to myself (in advance) about the key points in my story.
  • Going into the bathroom stall at the courthouse and looking at my notes before I go into the courtroom.
  • Looking at my notes periodically. The notes will be brief and written or typed in a big letters.
...talk too fast.

I will deal with this potential problem by …

  • Writing a bold note to myself that says SLOW in my presentation notes. I will put this note after my first 2 key points.
  • Forcing myself to stop and breathe after the first 4 sentences whether I need to breathe or not! I will count slowly “one thousand one – one thousand 2” while I am breathing (and no one will notice).
  • Listening to myself. I will stop talking once I have covered all of the issues in my notes.
  • Watching the face of the judge. If s/he looks confused, I will slow down. Maybe say, “I am nervous and can I repeat anything?”
...have a dry mouth.

I will deal with this potential problem by …

  • Arranging to have a drink of water before I go into the court room. (I will bring a water bottle or locate the bathroom or water fountain)
  • Having a single piece of hard candy under my tongue to help lubricate my mouth when I need it. I will be discreet about this.

Calming Tip #2 – Know what to expect

Read all of the information about the court on this website.

If at all possible, plan to take time off and go to court. Figure out how to get to the court and what the security arrangements are. You probably will not be able to take your cell phone into the court.

Watch other cases in the court for an hour or so to see what happens. Ideally you should find out when the same judge assigned to your case will be sitting on the bench or the same type of case as yours is being heard. Plan to take notes. Watch carefully to see what works and what the problems are.

Calming Tip # 3 – Have your papers ready to present

Nothing makes you more nervous than having to sort through your papers to find the one receipt that will prove your case. Eliminate this cause of stress by organizing your documents.

At least 2 days before the hearing, find all of your documents. Make at least 2 copies of each document. Attach the copies to the originals with paper clips. Stack the papers in the order that you plan to mention them in your story. You may even want to number each document. Put them in a file folder and label the file folder. Add your notes. Maybe use a binder clip to hold the documents together and attached to the file. Put the folder by the door or in your car so you do not forget it. You are ready!

Calming Tip #4 – Once you are prepared, think about something else. Arrive early.

Once you have done your best to prepare, force yourself to think about something pleasant. Think about your upcoming vacation. Think about your sister’s birthday party. Think about the joke somebody told you yesterday. Thinking about other topics will help you to remain calm. Most importantly, arrive early. Rushing in the door makes everybody (even attorneys) nervous. Make sure that you do not have this extra pressure.

Source: 

A special project of the Eastern Shore Regional Library under a Library Services Technology Act grant from the Division of Library Development Services/MD State Department of Education (author: Ayn H. Crawley)

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Is this legal advice?

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