How to Dress and What to Say- Tips to be Successful in Divorce Court
Whether you are summoned or the one that did the summoning, marching into a courtroom is no easy trek. Your battle doesn’t begin with the questioning; it starts from the moment you walk in the door, making the banal call to dress for success a critical war strategy. But clothing alone does not the victor make; here are six things you should know before you set foot in the hallowed halls of justice.
1. Dress to Convince.
First impressions count — so dress properly. “This is a formal occasion and one should dress in a dignified way. It isn’t a party,” says David Leibowitz, an attorney who was formally designated as an Illinois Super Lawyer by the Leading Lawyer Network. “A suit and tie or a jacket and dress slacks is good for men. A nice and not-revealing outfit is appropriate for women. It could be a suit or a dress or a pant-suit. The attire should connote respect.”
“Dress like you are going to your grandfather’s funeral and your grandmother will be there, watching and judging you,” concurs Mary Beth Long, a Richmond, Virginia-based Family Law attorney. “Men and women should both go easy on the jewelry. Consider covering tattoos, piercings, etc. Do not look rich or flashy. Look respectful and serious.”
2. Answer the question — and only the question.
“Resist the urge to tell the back story, the whole story or what happened right before that thing you were asked about,” advises Long.
In general, less is better, so say as little as possible. Don’t speak unless you are spoken to when represented by an attorney. “If you represent yourself, speak when called upon and don’t interrupt your adversary. You will get a turn,” adds Leibowitz. “Judges lose patience and get bored, too. Make what you say count, do not waste the judge’s time,” Long concurs.
“It’s imperative not to jump to answer the question before the questioner finishes posing it. Be respectful and a good listener,” advises Cathy Cowin, an attorney and mediator in Fresno, California. “Listen to every word so that you answer the actual question and do not volunteer unnecessary information. Usually the first thing nervous people do is blurt out the one thing they most feared would be revealed. Rambling on will sometimes bring up facts that end up helping the other side,” warns Long.
3. Don’t Aim To Please.
“Turn down those people-pleaser instincts,” advises Long. “When you testify, do not guess. Do not speculate,” she adds. “You would be amazed by how often I have seen people get themselves in trouble by trying to be accommodating and thus guessing at answers in court. If you do not know the answer, say that and then button your lip.” This instinct may only hurt you in the long-run.
4. Swear the Oath and Nothing Else.
“Never, ever curse or show agitation,” advises Long. “No eye rolling or mock horror looks. Yeah, I shouldn’t have to tell people that. But I have seen smart, educated people lose their cool and then lose the judge’s respect.”
“Once I represented a stockbroker who pounded the table and hissed a very nasty word that starts with a ‘c’ as a description for a witness. The judge actually dropped his pen. And then we lost,” bemoans Long. If you don’t give respect, you won’t get any. So no matter how you feel about someone or something, remember court is not the place to tell it like it is. “Be respectful to the court and others in the court at all times,” counsels Leibowitz.
5. Stay Flexible.
If you head into court hell-bent on winning every point, you’re in for a bad surprise. Be flexible. Be fair. “Try to see the case from the other person’s standpoint,” counsels Leibowitz. “You may not get what you want but in many cases, judges will act as mediators and try to settle a case. So in the end, you might just get what you need.”
Remember, court is a last resort to settle issues that could not be resolved any other way. Court is handing over that control to a third party. You cannot easily predict a court decision but you will have to live by it. “Try to avoid going to court where you can maintain control of the decision yourself through a negotiated or mediated outcome,” says Cowin.
If your expectations are low or flexible, your blood pressure will stay at a safe level. Remember both sides will likely leave court as angry, or even angrier, than when they first went in. “Courts are designed to solve ‘things.’ Don’t expect them to resolve ‘people’ that is to say, relational issues,” says Cowin.
6. Stay Calm.
The old adage “if you lose your temper, you lose the fight” is never truer than in a courtroom. But anger is not the only emotional pitfall you need to avoid; nervousness can derail your case just as easily. “A wise attorney I know advises clients, ‘Remember, they might salt ‘n’ pepper you, but they can’t eat you for breakfast!’ Keep things in perspective if you’re nervous,” says Cowin.
To stay calm under pressure, make sure you prepare for the event ahead of time. Get with your lawyer ahead of court and prepare. “If your counsel does not set an appointment for you to come into their office and prepare in the weeks before trial, then call them! Prep is everything,” says Long. “I often do a mock cross-exam with clients ahead of time, so they will be ready for the obvious probing from the other side.”
“Also, get your lawyer to explain what the courtroom layout will look like, where the courthouse is located and plan to arrive at least 15 minutes early. Ask Britney Spears — late to court or the failure to show up at all is BAD NEWS!” warns Long.
Leibowitz agrees but adds a few pointers to further fine tune your court presentation. “If represented by an attorney, be sure you know what your case is about, what the legal and factual requirements will be, what is expected to happen at the hearing and what your role will be,” he says.
“If you are not represented by an attorney, which is not recommended for anything but perhaps small claims, know what your case is about, know what you will have to prove or disprove, know the legal and procedural requirements. Maybe watch another case like yours in advance to see how the court works,” adds Leibowitz.
If you find yourself in court, these steps will help you gain an edge. Even so, it won’t be a simple stroll through the rose garden and the emotional thorns will hurt. “Plan to do something afterwards that will soothe your soul and calm your nerves. Like a funeral, court ain’t fun,” says Long.
Pam Baker is an award-winning,15-year veteran journalist for a multitude of national, international and regionalmagazines, newspapers, and online publications. She is also the author of six books.