Tips for Success in the Courtroom

Make a good impression on the judge by following a few simple rules.

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1. Meet your deadlines.
Once you file the necessary papers to begin a lawsuit, you will face a number of deadlines -- for everything from requestingthat your case be heard by a juryto telling your opponent what evidence you plan to introduce at trial. Make careful note of these deadlines and make sure that you meet every one. The judge won't give you any leeway just because you are representing yourself -- and missing an important deadline could result in your case being thrown out of court.

2. Watch some trials.
Before your case comes up for trial, go down to the courthouse and sit in on a couple of trials involving similar issues. You'll see that it won't be that difficult to present your story and your evidence to the judge. When you know what to expect, you'll be much more relaxed about your own trial.

3. Choose a judge or jury trial.
Certain types of cases can only be heard by judges. In many cases, however,either party hasthe right to request that the case be heard by a jury. Most people representing themselves will do better in front of a judge than a jury -- jury trials are more complicated for a variety of reasons, and presenting your case to a judge will make your job quite a bit easier. However, if your opponent requests a jury trial, you will have to deal with a jury, whether you want one or not.

4. Learn the ropes.
Lawyers spend years learning how to question witnesses, present evidence, and make arguments in court. Before you make your courtroom debut, you should learn the basics abouthow to follow the procedures and rules of the courtroom and how to prove your case. First, ask the court clerk for a copy of your court's local rules, which may include everything from deadlines for various trial procedures to nitpicky restrictions on how small your font can be in documents you submit to the court. Second, readRepresent Yourself in Court, by Paul Bergman and Sara Berman (Nolo), a great resource that explains how to handle every step in a civil trial.

5. Learn the elements of your case.
You won't win a lawsuit by simply striding into the courthouse and demanding money from your opponent. Each type oflegal claimhas a number of "elements" that you'll need to prove in order to win. For example, in a dispute over a contract, you must prove that a contract existed, that you held up your end of the bargain, that your opponent failed to meet his or her contractual obligations, and that you were harmed as a result. You'll want to plan ahead carefully to make sure that you can prove every element of your case -- or, if you are defending yourself against a lawsuit, to make sure that you can disprove at least one element of your opponent's case.

6. Make sure your evidence is admissible.
Once you know the elements you'll have to prove to win your case, you can figure out what types of evidence will help you prove each key fact. However, not every kind of evidence can be presented in a courtroom: Complicated rules of evidence determine whether a particular document, statement, or item is admissible in court. Although you don't have to master every detail of these rules, you should do enough research to make sure that you'll be able to present the evidence you need to win.

7. Prepare a trial notebook.
During your trial, you'll probably give your own testimony, question witnesses (both those who support you and those who support your opponent), and present arguments about why you should win the case. To keep track of the questions you want to ask, the points you want to make in your argument, and the facts you have to prove to win the case, put together a trial notebook. You can use a simple three-ring binder with tabs for each section. For help putting together your notebook, seeRepresent Yourself in Court, by Paul Bergman and Sara Berman (Nolo).

8. Be respectful.
A little respect goes a long way in the courtroom, particularly when you are representing yourself. Address the judge as "your honor," not as "Judge Smith" or "Mr. Smith." Try your best to be polite to your opponent, not demeaning or petty. Showing respect for people and procedures in the courtroom will help you gain the respect of the judge, which will make your day in court a more pleasant experience.

9. Don't interrupt.
It can be tough to sit quietly while your opponent, your opponent's lawyer, or -- worst of all -- the judge makes light of your arguments or implies that you aren't telling the truth. But no matter how frustrated you get, you shouldn't interrupt -- especially not the judge. You'll get a chance totell your side of the story.

10. Assert yourself.
If you find yourself up against a lawyer who won't stop rattling off legal citations or won't let you get a word in edgewise, you'll have to stand up for yourself. Tell the judge that you are representing yourself without a lawyer because you can't afford or justify the expense, and that you'll rely on the judge to apply the correct law and reach the right conclusions. Many judges will make an effort to keep the proceedings comprehensible to a self-represented party -- and will take steps to rein in an opposing lawyer who tries to take unfair advantage.

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