How To Testify in Family Court
I’ve seen some pretty slick lawyers in my day. Polished, glib, and oh so charming, they run interference for their clients, putting lipstick on the proverbial pig. It’s times like these I wonder if the client presents as well in court as their lawyer, so I call their bluff.
When a divorce lawyer marches a frightened and unprepared witness to the stand without having taught them how to testify in family court, bad things usually happen. Things happen fast when you’re on the stand, words don’t come out right, tempers flare, and cases crumble. And, your lawyer can’t help you!
I’ve practiced family law in Fort Worth for 30 years and I’m still wired going into the courtroom. Imagine how you’ll feel having never been in a courtroom, much less having testified while your spouse glares at you. Your pulse quickens, the blood pounds in your veins, your eyes start to dart, and you adversary leads you like a lamb to the slaughter.
It’s time for a trip to the woodshed. The woodshed is a mythical place where good lawyers prepare their clients to testify in family court. If you miss your trip to the woodshed prior to going to divorce court, let me share with you a few pointers I give my clients.
- Remember, this Judge knows nothing about you, he is really trying to figure out if you’re in this case for the “right reasons.” You are honest, helpful, and likable. You admit to any shortcomings but you don’t dwell on them.
- The judge is watching you all the time you’re in the courtroom, whether your’re testifying or not. Your demeanor and non-verbal communication matters. Groaning, Shaking your head, glowering, snickering and other gesticulating is prohibited. You listen attentively and courteously,
- If you need to communicate with your lawyer, discretely pass her a note. Your lawyer is listening to the testimony and watching for objectionable statements, and does not need you buzzing in her ear.
- Courtrooms are big and you need to “project” yourself in the room, sitting up in your chair and projecting your voice. Always make eye contact with others in the room. Also, there usually is a court reporter taking your testimony, so it is extra important you speak slowly and clearly.
- Work on your breathing – – seriously. If you can keep your breathing and heart rate steady, you have a much better chance of avoiding “flight or fight” and being able to focus on your testimony.
- Direct-examination occurs when your attorney asks you to testify. Direct examination questions are non-leading and begin with words such as, “who, what, where, why, when, and how.” Your lawyer is asking you questions to walk you through your story to the court. Answer these questions thoroughly without rambling. Hopefully, your lawyer has gone over with you an outline of his questioning so you know where things are going.
- Sometimes, the judge will ask you questions, directly. Don’t panic, look him in the eye, and give your answer.
- Do not let the antics of the other lawyer distract you from your testimony. When a lawyer makes an objection, stop speaking, “bookmark” what you’re testifying about, let the judge rule, and then move on. That lawyer is trying to throw you off your game, is often making objections to get you to worry about him and not concentrate on your testimony.
- Cross-examination follows direct-examination. This is the chance for your opposing counsel to diminish your testimony and to get you to make concessions to his theory of the case.
- On cross-examination, listen to the question, make sure you understand the question, take a pause to compose your answer, and then give a direct and factual answer to the question. A “fact” is something you’ve seen with your own eyes or heard with your own ears… it is not a supposition.
- If you don’t know the answer to a question, say you don’t know, and when your opponent asks you the same question 50 different ways, stick to your original answer without giving in.
- Don’t let them see you sweat. Even if you testify to something that is damaging or embarrassing to you, don’t slump your shoulders and look down. Maintain your dignity without becoming combative.
- Many cross-examination questions call for a “yes” or a “no” answer so as to put you in a corner. You can tip off your lawyer by adding the words, “… but may I explain.” to your answer.
- Your lawyer will get a chance to re-direct examination where she can mitigate any damage sustained in cross-examination.
As Schreier and Housewirth Family Law, we understand, and practice, the art of advocacy. When your facing a divorce or child custody trial in Tarrant county, you can count on our lawyers to invest in you and your case so that you’re entering the courtroom confident and prepared.