HOW TO WIN IN COURT!
By Guest Blogger: Nicol Stolar-Peterson, LCSW, BCD
Expert Witness, Child Custody Evaluator, Therapist
“I love to win in court,” there is no greater feeling than conquering the seemingly impossible and feeling like you just climbed Mount Everest, in a suit. “Winning in court” is how I describe a great day in court where I or my client, were able to communicate well, have goals met, and not feel like a wreck. So, whether you are walking through those doors as a therapist (aka percipient witness), as a parent in the middle of a divorce or a possible custody battle, or as a petitioner or respondent in a civil matter, court can feel overwhelming. It is the unknown. It is a place where the rules are different, how people talk in court is different, and how people dress (should be different, pet peeve let’s talk).
So, let’s take a minute to talk about how to “show up” in court. You show up in a suit. Know this, I hate suits. But I wear them to court. It evens the playing field between me and the attorneys. I don’t want them to be able to tell me apart from them. I consider this dressing for battle. Would you show up to a hockey match in flip flops and shorts? Probably not. Show up ready for battle. This levels the playing field. Another fun tip for the ladies, if you are going on the witness stand, remember it is elevated and not always closed. Consider this when selecting a skirt versus pants.
Next, take some time to consider what the agenda is in court if you have been subpoenaed. Never assume that you are somehow protected. This isn’t to scare you. This is to prepare you. Tunnel vision will only hurt you as you prepare for court. Tunnel vision impairs your ability to see danger on your left and on your right. My point is to consider all angles. This will help you prepare for the “what if’s.”
Okay, so now you have thought about the “what if’s” and your thinking, but “What about what I want to say?” Don’t worry, we are there. Consider the hearing or deposition or even a mediation that you are about to walk into. Guess what will help win the day? It’s almost so easy it sounds dumb, “STAYING CALM!” Staying calm, collected and on point is so important in court. Crying, yelling, eye rolling, facial looks, and whining will only irritate the bench officer (judge). Don’t do it. Guess what? The calmer you are, the more likely the other party or attorney won’t be. Let them irritate the judge, not you. And P.S. if you stay calm you are more likely to stick to your goals and avoid getting defensive which is a pretty fast way to “losing your hearing.” Getting defensive is like telling the attorney who is asking you questions that they have won and that you have a target on your forehead.
Let’s talk about goals. Each hearing, deposition, and mediation has the opportunity to have certain goals met. So, stop and think about what those goals are for you. And really consider, if they are realistic. Are they realistic for that particular setting, in general and specifically to your case? How many goals should you set. I stick with three, yup, just three. Anymore than that will most likely get lost and you can leave court with only one goal met and it wasn’t one of your “top three.” So really hone in on what matters most to you.
How do you convey your calm and goal oriented self in court? You convey your thoughts in clear and objective terminology. An example of poor communication in court can sound like this, “But your honor it’s not fair.” That won’t win you any points and it most likely will cost you some. Here is an example of good communication in court, “Your honor, I would like to stipulate that Mr. Soandso has failed to pay child support for the last two years as previously ordered by this court on 5/15/15.” A better outcome is likely because the language is concise, clear, goal oriented and it can be proven or disproven with evidence of lack of payment etc.
This next statement is directed to any therapists that may be reading this. When you testify in court and are the therapist (not a hired expert witness) it is imperative that you do not get led down the rabbit hole of making a recommendation in court that it out of your scope. Here is an example: You are a mother’s therapist and you are subpoenaed to the court, she has consented to the release of her records. You are being questioned on the stand and you are asked, “Mr. Amazingtherapist, isn’t it true that Ms. Momoftheyear would make a better custodial parent than Mr. DV due to the fact that she doesn’t have a criminal record, she is a good mom and Mr. DV is a violent felon?” THIS IS A TRAP! My suggestion of a response is, “Mr. Attorneyjaws, I am testifying today as a percipient witness, a fact witness, I am unable to render an opinion in this matter. I am the therapist, not the appointed Child Custody Evaluator.” That should take care of it. Now, if they keep coming, then repeat it and/or state that your pre-existing relationship with your client makes you inherently biased and therefore you cannot render an opinion regarding custody, as ell a the fact that you have not completed a full custody evaluation.
So, let’s wrap it up. How do you win in court? Stay calm, listen to what you're being asked and only answer with the truth in short and concise statements. Know your “scope.” Never get defensive. Consider all possible angles and agendas. Dress for the setting. Focus on having a great day in court, set your goals and stay calm. You can do this!
rson, LCSW, BCD
Expert Witness, Child Custody Evaluator, Therapist