When you walk into a courtroom for your divorce or custody trial, you are literally placing your future, and everything that is important to you, in the hands of a stranger. The judge doesn’t know you, but over the next few hours she/he is going to listen to your testimony and consider the evidence you present – and weigh it against the testimony and evidence presented by your opponent. Then the judge will make a ruling that could alter the course of your life in a good way – or maybe a not-so-good way.
Obviously, having an experienced, skillful attorney is critically important. But is there anything that you, personally, can do to increase the odds of winning your case? The answer is a resounding "Yes."
Here are five tips for making a good impression in court:
- DRESS NICELY: All your life, you’ve heard about "the importance of making a good impression." It has been repeated so often that it has pretty much become a trite phrase. But ignore it at your peril – because that old, worn-out saying happens to be true. Judges are human. Your judge will form an impression of you, and the initial impression might be based on your appearance. Whether that is fair or unfair - right or wrong - doesn't matter. It's a fact. So, why take a chance? Dress nicely. You don’t need to (and shouldn’t) look like you’re ready for a walk down the "Red-Carpet" – that would be overdoing it. Just a clean, attractive attire is sufficient. Something a judge would see as appropriate and respectful. Why should you care? Because it is the judge who will decide your fate.
- BE PREPARED: There is no substitute for being prepared when you take the witness stand. In Arizona, Family Law cases are tried to the judge. In other words, your judge will be acting as both judge and jury. The Family Court judge's role is not only apply the law, but also to determine the facts. You can increase your odds of prevailing by being well-organized and well-prepared. If you are represented by counsel, your attorney will assist you in preparing for your case. He or she should spend a great deal of time, before the trial, discussing your objectives, and preparing you for your testimony, so that you can effectively tell your story. The attorney should also prepare you to withstand the opposing attorney’s cross-examination. If you are well-prepared, you will be more confident, and you will be much more likely to create a good impression.
- BE ATTENTIVE: Paying attention to the proceedings, and listening to what the attorneys and the judge are saying, can give you an important edge in your court case. Trying to follow what is happening in the courtroom can give you important clues into what the judge is thinking, and the type of evidence that he or she is looking for. When you know how the judge is leaning, or what she/he wants to hear, then you can make adjustments "on the fly" and tailor your presentation to achieve the best results. Not uncommonly, it is the client who picks up on something important that her (or his) ex- says on the witness stand – and by pointing it out to the attorney, the client might be able to change the outcome of the case. An attentive and engaged client can help the attorney immensely. So be attentive.
- CONDUCT YOURSELF APPROPRIATELY: How you conduct yourself in the courtroom can determine whether you win or lose. Keep in mind that throughout the proceedings, the judge is sitting up there on the bench looking down at the participants -- and watching you. Your attorney may be making a strong legal argument, but if you are slouching in your chair, signaling to a spectator in the gallery, sending a text message on your cell phone, not paying attention, or acting in a manner that the judge feels is inappropriate, you are undermining your lawyer’s efforts to represent you. There is one particular type of behavior that judges roundly hate: and that is when a client sits at the table and makes faces as the opposing party testifies from the witness stand. If you think that vigorously shaking your head or laughing derisively will help the judge understand that the other party is lying, you are dead-wrong. This type of behavior is much more likely to turn the judge against you. So when in the courtroom, conduct yourself appropriately at all times.
- CREDIBILITY IS THE KEY. The most important asset you have in a court case is your integrity and your credibility. Where two parties to a litigation are telling stories that are contradictory, a judge will tend to rule in favor of the litigant that is the most believable. Have you ever watched Judge Judy, or another of the TV judge shows? While those shows are not at all similar to a real court case, there is still something that can be learned from watching them. The lure of these shows is that when you are watching the people present their cases, it is as though you are seeing the matter from the same perspective as the judge. Two people come before the Court. Each has a completely different story and we, the viewers, are the "trier of fact." We know that one of the parties is twisting the facts, but we don’t know which one. We listen intently and try to determine the truth. If one of the parties is caught in a lie, or if a party is unprepared and doesn’t seem to be consistent in reciting the facts, then we start thinking that this person cannot be believed. On the other hand, if a party is well-organized and appears sincere, we tend to lean in her favor. In the end, we will rule in favor of the person who seems to be telling the truth. And that is what the judge will tend to do in your Family Law case. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of telling the truth; of being well-prepared; and of dressing and acting appropriately and respectfully. It all comes down to credibility. When you step into that courtroom, make sure that you are the one the judge sees as being the most credible and believable litigant.
Hiring a strong, experienced attorney to represent you is important -- but always keep in mind that you and your lawyer are a team. You can help yourself, and increase the odds of winning your case, by simply making a good impression.