February 28, 2009 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
Last week we looked at the ways in which personal appearance — clothing, tattoos, piercings — have the potential to influence the outcome of your case. Today, we’ll look at behavior, how exhibiting the right behavior can improve your chances of winning in court.
Testifying is understandably a nervous experience for many people. However, a courthouse is not the only place where the average person will be involved with our legal system. Unemployment insurance hearings, labor commissioner issues, Social Security disability matters, traffic and small claims court are all examples where, generally, lawyers are not involved, where the parties represent themselves.
In fact, if you have your own lawyer or will be representing yourself, it’s knowing what not to do that can easily contribute to improving your chances of a favorable outcome.
“Proving your case, is much more than having the facts on your side,” Hanford attorney Ron Jones maintains. “Witness credibility has an enormous impact on how facts are viewed,” he added.
“Credibility is only enhanced by mature, serious, respectful behavior. The judge is going to be positively impressed by issue-oriented, adult-like, professional behavior,” he strongly believes.
As in most things, preparation is the key to success. In law, it is critical. Attorney Jones offers these sound recommendations:
“It is so important to understand your case. This seems obvious, but without a clear picture of the facts and what you’ll need to prove the case, then failure is almost guaranteed. Early in their career, young lawyers often learn this truth the hard way. If you are representing yourself — especially if it is Superior Court — then you will be held to the standard of a lawyer. Don’t expect pity from the judge if you arrive poorly prepared, without witnesses or documentary evidence you feel is important.
“If there are documents that you plan to show the judge, have three sets prepared; one for the court, one for the opposing side and one for yourself. Use plastic sheet protectors for each document. If there are many pages, consider a small binder with a table of contents. This reveals consideration for the judge — and will be appreciated.
“Well in advance of court, meet with your witnesses, review the facts, take notes on who could honestly testify to what, and be sure they all know when to come to court. It is generally a good idea to subpoena your witnesses, even those who promise to appear voluntarily.”
It is important to understand that even before you testify, while waiting for your case to be called, the judge might be in the early stages of forming an opinion about you.
As one Northern California judge told me, “The best advice I can give anyone waiting for their case to be called is to not attract my attention through juvenile or sarcastic behavior. Never forget that judges react to what happens in the courtroom, and quite independent of the facts of a case, we can influenced on some level, by the behavior of parties and witnesses.”
Los Angeles-based attorney Jill Rawal agrees with that statement. She writes extensively on manner of dress and behavior, telling her clients, “No matter how upset or worried you are, before walking into the courthouse, take a deep breath, slow down, calm down.”
Experienced trial lawyers and judges will tell you that facts alone do not “win” the case. Rather, “It’s a combination of facts and the credibility of parties and witnesses. Where judges have latitude to go in either direction, it’s that gut level issue of belief that is so often the deciding factor,” my Northern California judge friend acknowledged.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.