So, you’re going to court (most likely a small claims court in your county). You’re going to have to sit in front of a judge. How do you dress? What do you do? What can you say? How can you make sure that you won’t make some horrifying mistake and be held in contempt?
Take a deep breath. Now read this handy list.
1.) Dress conservatively and professionally. No sandals. No jeans. No tank tops. No t-shirts. Dress like you’re going for an interview at a law firm or to a congressman’s funeral. This is not the time to make a fashion statement. Dressing sexy will win you no points here. If you chose to wear a skirt, make sure it’s no shorter than two inches above your knee and wear pantyhose.
2.) Keep your makeup minimal and natural. Don’t get crazy with that eye shadow. You want to be taken seriously, so don’t walk up in the courtroom looking like Bozo the Clown or Mimi from The Drew Carey Show.
3.) Take the metal out of your face. If you normally wear facial piercings, take them out. They aren’t appropriate to wear to court. Plus, you’re going to have to walk through a metal detector.
As stupid as it is, appearances matter.
4.) Don’t wear a belt or complicated shoes. You will have to walk through a metal detector and remove your shoes before you can enter the courthouse. Make it easy on yourself by leaving your belts and metal accessories at home and wearing flats you can slip in and out of easily.
When it’s your turn to sit in front of the judge, follow these rules.
1.) Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to. Even if the other party is lying through their teeth, keep your mouth shut until you are addressed.
2.) Never show emotion. You can be nervous, you can be sad, you can be scared. That is fine. You cannot be angry, you cannot be loud, and you cannot be disrespectful.
3.) Always address the judge with “Your Honor” or “Sir” or “Ma’am.” This is of paramount importance. This courtesy is expected.
4.) Never use slang or profanity. When you’re asked a question that requires a yes or no answer, always say “yes ma’am/sir/Your Honor” or “no ma’am/sir/Your Honor.” Never say, “yeah,” “nope,” or “I dunno.” Judges (and transcriptionists) hate that.
5.) Don’t go in demanding justice. You do not bark orders at a judge or demand anything from them. Go into court with the attitude that you’re interested in getting a peaceful, rational, reasonable resolution.
You’re not there to make the plaintiff/defendant look bad and you’re not there to fight.
Both of you believe you’re right. You can’t come to an agreement, so you are in court to ask the judge to come up with a fair solution based on the information and evidence that each of you have collected. Approach it from that perspective–it’s not about winning or losing; it’s about having a neutral party evaluate each of your positions and make a decision.
You can think that your opponent’s actions were wrong. You can feel your opponent’s action were wrong. You don’t know if it was wrong or not. That is the judge’s job. (Even if you really do know and you have fistfuls of statutes and evidence to support that argument, you never ever go in with the arrogance of assurance.)
6.) In small claims court, don’t be afraid to tell the judge that you’ve never been in court before and you may have questions during the proceedings. Small claims courts are generally pretty mellow. Nobody has attorneys and judges don’t expect you to be competent in court procedure. If you don’t understand what a judge is asking you or what they mean, politely ask for an explanation.
7.) Never show emotion during your opponent’s testimony. Don’t roll your eyes, sigh, or draw attention to yourself. If she lies, write it down on a piece of paper and bring it up when it’s your turn to speak. Put on your best poker face and keep your mouth shut. Judges hate outbursts and disruptions. You do not want to look like a petulant child. You’re an adult. Remember it.
8.) Keep your testimony brief. State the facts and only state what you can prove.
9.) BRING THREE COPIES OF ANYTHING YOU’RE BRINGING AS EVIDENCE. One for you, one for the judge, and one for your opponent.
It is an amateur move to forget to bring evidence in triplicate.
A lot of professionals panic at the thought of going to court. Don’t be scared. The stakes in small claims court are typically really low and the process is pretty informal. You don’t need an attorney, the rules are relaxed, and if you’re the plaintiff, generally the worst that can happen is that your case gets dismissed and you lose your filing fee. No biggie.