At the Maddox Law Firm, we are constantly involved, in one way or another, with preparing for deposition or trial testimony.
After attending an expert’s deposition last week, I was jarred into thinking again, (and again), about how to help people to testify effectively. Some of what follows may seem ridiculously obvious, but twenty-six years of experience leads me to tell you that nothing is obvious and even the most fundamental concepts need to be introduced to people before they testify.
Why is that? Why do people need to be told how to act and speak when they testify?
There are many reasons, but the main one is that people become terribly nervous when they are put under oath and a court reporter begins recording everything that is said. This is true of people from all walks of life, regardless of education or experience.
So, no matter who you are, where you grew up, how much schooling you’ve had or what you had for dinner last night, here are five rules for you to follow when testifying in trial or in a deposition.
1) Stick to what you know. If you know how to grill a steak because you’ve been grilling steaks of every variety, according to every taste, for friends and family for the past twenty years, then you should be able to answer questions about how to grill a steak. If you’re asked how to make a cauliflower soufflé and you’ve never made any kind of soufflé at all, let alone one with a whitish-colored vegetable, then say that you don’t know anything about how to make a cauliflower soufflé. In other words, be real. Don’t guess and don’t try to be someone or something that you’re not.
2) Don’t try to prove anything. Proof is your lawyer’s job. All you’re doing is answering questions. You don’t have a strategy or an agenda. You don’t have access to a mystical portal that will unleash galactic forces to slay your adversaries and win you a bunch of money. Simply focus on each question and answer each to the best of your ability.
3) Let the lawyer who is asking the questions do their job. This may seem counterintuitive, but the point with this rule is that the lawyer’s job is to ask you questions. In other words, it’s the opposing lawyer’s job to ask questions intelligently and effectively in order to do their work. If you think that a question is missing or that the lawyer overlooked something, you may be right, but it’s not your job to correct their work.
4) Have a thick skin. And I mean, thick like a prehistoric alligator. You may find this hard to believe, but sometimes lawyers are obnoxious. They’re sarcastic. They roll their eyes, raise their eyebrows in disbelief, and make all kinds of faces. Don’t let it bother you. Some lawyers make faces because they have emotional problems. Some do it because they want to get to you. Don’t let them.
5) Trust your own lawyer and your law firm. If your legal representatives have invested the time, resources and analysis in your case and your testimony that are required, you don’t have to think about anything other than simply telling the truth.
The Fifth Rule is really everything.
If your law firm has truly taken you on as one of their own and if your life, your family and your story are authentically important to your law firm, then following their counsel, instruction and the rules all become easy. Just like any relationship: trust permits everyone involved to thrive.