Judges hear disputes dealing with some of the most important aspects of people’s lives. We hear child custody disputes, restraining order requests, disagreements about contracts and estates and a variety of other matters. With so much at stake, I am frequently surprised at how unprepared some people are when they come to court. After all, if a case is important enough to come to court for, then folks must want to win the case.
Here are some ideas on how to be more successful.
Be early. Woody Allen is reported to have said, “80 percent of success in life is simply showing up on time.” I don’t know how accurate that math is, but I’m amazed at how many people show up late for court. Being late sometimes means missing your day in court. Plan on being at least 15 minutes early. This will help you deal with weather, traffic, or other issues that might make you be late or miss court altogether.
Be prepared to present your case. Many litigants are not ready for trial. Let’s assume a dispute over the sale of an old car. The car’s transmission fails a few days after the sale. The buyer claims the seller misrepresented the condition of the car. At court the buyer tells me, “The mechanic said you could call him and he’d tell you that the seller had to know the transmission was bad.”
If a witness or piece of evidence will help prove your case, you must present the testimony or evidence in court. Judges don’t conduct investigations; we decide disputes based on the evidence presented in court.
Dress and act appropriately. The idea of “dressing for success” is true. The opposite is true, too. It does not bolster your case to introduce your key witness while wearing an “I’m with Stupid” t-shirt (yes, that really happens). Most cases are not entirely one-sided. Judges decide whose version of what happened is the most likely. Dress and act like someone who is reasonable and believable. Dressing sloppily and acting rudely will not help you win your case.
Understand the rules. Courts operate on rules to insure that the system is fair to all. The rules control how cases proceed and are decided. Being in court is not like an argument at a bar over a call in yesterday’s big game. If you represent yourself, you are treated as if you were your own attorney. You will be expected to know and follow the rules.
Avoid lawsuits. Numerous legal disputes deal with people’s misunderstandings. Many could be avoided by simply writing down the important terms of agreements. No fancy legal language is required. Consider our dispute about a car’s bad transmission. A piece of paper signed by both sides stating that the car is sold “as is” with “no promises as to condition” would likely prevent the matter from ever coming to court.
You can help yourself be more successful when you do come to court by following these simple ideas.
Judge Galler is chambered in Washington County. Learn more about Judge Galler or listen to a podcast of his columns at www.judgegreggaller.com.