by Natalie Bower, JD of Cordell & Cordell, PC
Many clients begin their divorce cases believing that both spouses are in agreement on all of the issues, only to later find themselves facing trial. The realization of your case going to trial can be nerve-racking and overwhelmingly frightening.
First and foremost, know that it is okay to be nervous. It is your future and your children in the judge’s hands, so anxious feelings are expected and even healthy! But, preparation is key, and by remembering a few simple things, you can alleviate the anxiety and walk into the courtroom feeling confident.
Your attorney will want to meet with you to prepare for trial, and these meetings with your attorney can be very helpful in calming some of your fears and enabling you to go into trial with a clear understanding of the “game plan.” You will learn your attorney’s expectations for how trial will progress and discuss the goals of the trial. Listen carefully to what your attorney tells you about the judge’s and other attorney’s backgrounds and their prior experiences so that you will understand the courtroom “drama” and be able to communicate more effectively. Not everything can be planned out; however, you can rest assured that with proper groundwork by you and your attorney, you will be prepared to deal with surprises if (and when) they happen at your trial.
Keep your attorney informed of the current status of the persons on your list of witnesses whom you have identified to testify on your behalf (character witnesses, teachers, family friends, etc.). Any unavailability, recent incidents, comments, or issues with a witness may affect whether your attorney chooses to use them at trial. Additionally, have your copies of your records for your case within easy reach during trial so that you can follow along, allowing you to have a better understanding of what is being discussed. It is a good idea to keep your court pleadings, correspondence, custody calendar, and important documents (e.g., emails, cancelled checks, paycheck stubs, etc.) organized and up-to-date. It is also helpful to write down your thoughts in the weeks approaching trial and discuss your ideas with your attorney at your trial preparation meetings.
Do not neglect the seemingly less vital things, such as your appearance and timeliness, as these are within your control and can be easily satisfied. It is not necessary to wear a suit to your trial, but it is helpful to wear non-distractive, “business-like” clothing and jewelry. As always, it is important to arrive on time on the day of your trial rather than risk making the judge wait. Your attorney may wish for you to arrive early to discuss any issues and answer any questions. You can also use this time to acclimate yourself with the courtroom to help ease some of the anxiety on the day of trial.
How you conduct yourself in the courtroom is an integral facet to your case. When you are testifying, speak loudly and clearly for the judge and court reporter and pace yourself. Pause for a few seconds to think about your answer before speaking. Do not let your spouse’s attorney rattle you while you are on the stand – your attorney will have a chance to object to your spouse’s attorney’s questions or to ask you clarifying questions after your spouse’s attorney is finished, so let your attorney deal with your spouse’s attorney so you can focus on relaying your information.
As unfair as it sounds, you have only a matter of hours to paint a picture for the judge of you and your family life at home with your children – and much of this is done through other witnesses’ testimonies. When others are testifying, as always, be aware of your body language. Try not to fidget and avoid making faces or scoffing at a witness’s testimony. If something is said in testimony by a witness, or even your spouse, that angers you, remain calm and collected. It is generally best not to distract your attorney while he or she is paying attention to the testimony of a witness, so discuss with your attorney before trial begins how your attorney wants you to communicate during the trial, usually by notes to your attorney or by discussing issues during a break.
The overall best way to be prepared is to talk openly with your attorney in the months leading up to trial. No matter how badly you think your case will be affected by something you are keeping from your attorney, it is much better to tell your attorney yourself rather than your attorney discover it by surprise during trial. Whether it is an incident you are ashamed of or a character flaw you are not particularly proud of, by discussing it with your attorney, he/she can prepare for handling the issue at trial in a number of ways. For instance, your attorney may be able to keep the issue from coming into evidence all together if it is irrelevant to the issues at hand. If that is not that case, there are several trial tactics attorneys use for addressing such issues in the courtroom, whether by bringing up the issue first to soften the blow or by facilitating your explanation of the facts. All in all, you will enable your attorney to better represent you and your ultimate interests by being up front with your attorney before you enter the courtroom.
The most important thing to remember is to be honest with your attorney at all times, and to be confident in the devoted father that you are and to let it show. Humanize your case by letting the judge know through your testimony that you have your children’s best interests at heart. By focusing on what is most important to you on the day of trial and effectively communicating this, you and your attorney will be able to confidently walk into the courtroom ready for whatever is thrown your way and leave there feeling positive about the way things went.
Natalie Hinton is a staff attorney for Cordell & Cordell, P.C. in the Edwardsville, IL office. She’s licensed to practice in the state of Illinois. Ms. Hinton is a member of the Illinois State Bar Association and American Bar Association.
Read more about Ms. Hinton.