I have my divorce (or custody) trial tomorrow! How do I prepare?
Well, first off, let me say: I’m writing this because, like you, I have trial tomorrow. (Well, at least, as of the day I actually wrote this, anyway.) When I first started here (which was over seven years ago now), I asked one of the most senior attorneys when you stopped getting nervous before court hearings.
He looked at me, completely seriously, and said, “I’ll let you know when it happens.”
One of the other attorneys in our office recently told me that she had the exact same interaction with him.
My point is that going to court is scary. It’s nerve-wracking for attorneys — and probably even worse if you’re actually the person experiencing it. If it’s your divorce or custody case, you’ve got a lot on the line, and you’d be inhuman if you weren’t a little concerned about it.
If you’re going to court tomorrow (or some day really soon), you’re definitely smart to be thinking about it now. Planning ahead is really smart! Here are some things you should know:
1. What you wear to court matters.
I mean, you know this, right? First impressions (or second or third) matter, and the judge can’t help but notice. Keep it conservative and professional, but don’t try to look like a lawyer. Wear clothes you’d wear if you went to church (or temple, or whatever!) or to a sort of business casual function. Not a suit, but a dress and cardigan, or slacks with a blouse.
Cover up any tattoos, and remove any piercings in any visible but non-traditional place. Ideally, your hair should only be a normal color, and your clothes should be modest. Boring, I know, but – you don’t want to go wrong on something silly as your wardrobe, right? Best to play it safe.
2. How you behave in court matters.
I get it – court is stressful and emotional, and whatever brought you here is a big deal. Your soon to be ex, or your child’s father, is probably not your favorite person in the world, either. In fact, he probably brings out the worst of you (especially now, when you’re already stressed).
When he (or his attorney) speaks, you should listen. Be quiet. Do not roll your eyes, suck your teeth, mutter under your breath, or call him a liar. Do not furiously scribble notes to your attorney. When it is your turn to speak, you and/or your attorney should speak, but don’t interrupt the other attorney (or your child’s father/husband, if he’s unrepresented) with your side notes.
If you must write a note for your attorney, do it calmly.
3. You will likely be questioned and cross examined.
Stop. Take a second. Before you answer any question, collect your thoughts. There is no need to rush. If there’s a court reporter, he or she will be taking down every single word you say. Pauses – or entire moments where there’s no dialogue – are not recorded.
Your attorney will question you, and then the other attorney can cross examine you on anything that your attorney questioned you on during your direct examination. In cross examination, an attorney can be pushier, and can use leading questions.
Don’t give the other attorney ammunition. When possible, answer with a “yes” or a “no”. A “No, but…” can add fuel to the fire. Answer the question, and that’s it. Give your attorney a chance to object to the question, if necessary, before you start to answer it.
4. The judge may not be nice.
It’s probably a good time to consider that there are lots of reasons a judge might act the way he or she does. I’m guilty of trying to read a lot into how people behave towards me as well, but sometimes, when it comes to a judge, it’s less helpful than you might think.
I’ve heard judges say that, when they know they’re going to rule against someone, they let them talk on and on and on. Why? Well, because judges don’t like when their cases are appealed, and they feel like, if they let the litigant speak, he or she will feel more heard (even if the case doesn’t resolve in their favor). Then, they’ll be less likely to appeal. It can be hard, especially if you’re the one who feels like your attorney is getting in five words to every 100 of his words. But – it doesn’t mean the judge doesn’t agree with you!
Stay calm, and don’t assume that the judge’s demeanor means he or she hates you. Speak calmly, rationally, and after reflection. Don’t get angry and cry or yell. Some tears are fine; you’re under stress. But angry tears that make you say irrational thing should be reserved for the privacy of your own home.
5. They might appeal.
Yup – even if you win, it might not be entirely over, so that’s something you probably want to prepare for emotionally.
If your case is in juvenile court, they can appeal for any reason, good or bad, or no reason at all. It’s a legal right. Oh, and also – it’s a trial de novo, when you get up to the circuit court, which means that it’s all brand new. Nothing from the lower court (well, not nothing – your GAL can come up with you, and if he or she recommended for you before, that’s something!) will come up to the circuit court with you.
If you were already in circuit court, it’s harder to appeal. You have to demonstrate that there’s a mistake of law (as opposed to a mistake of fact). But, still, it’s possible that your case could be appealed, though not nearly as likely. Ask your attorney about the chances in your case.
It’s great that you’re asking these questions and that you’re preparing yourself for what court might bring. That’s a definite positive step forward, and a great attitude to have.
For more information, or to set up an appointment with one of our divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.