Thursday, November 20, 2008

Need to Prepare a Wittness for Depo or Trial? Here are 7 Rules to Tell Your Client

As important as the evidence and facts are to a case, so is credible witness testimony. Without clear and confident witnesses, a trial's outcome may be less than what you have worked so hard to achieve.

Unfortunately, lawyers often only have time to concentrate on substantive issues when preparing a client for testimony. There is usually little time to focus on how clients can communicate credibly and present themselves appropriately at depo or in court. This leaves witnesses to their own devices, which could spell disaster in the witness chair.

Here are seven rules to tell your witness before depo or trial. If they follow these rules, they'll go a long way toward providing credible and persuasive testimony--but remember--they are only a supplement to sound legal counsel.

Keep your body language open and undefended. Don’t cross one or both of your arms over your chest, it’s read as defensiveness. Avoid slumping, slouching, twisting your body to one side, leaning to either side, or supporting your chin with your hand, elbow on the table.

Be consistent. If you’re asked the same question in slightly different ways, stick with your original answer. Only change it if it’s inaccurate, not just because opposing counsel repeats the question.

Give the information requested, not more. Don’t volunteer. If you’re asked for one example, give one, not two. If you’re asked for your date of birth, don’t volunteer where you were born and how happy your Mom was.

Answering the document question: “Isn’t it true that you signed the May 3rd agreement?” “May I see the document please?” Always review whatever document is being referred to before answering, even if you think you know what it is.

Withstand personality influence. Opposing counsel may act like your best buddy - casual, easy-going, warm-hearted, friendly and nice. Don’t be swayed. It’s the “honey attracts better than vinegar” approach, and you’re still the fly.

Be wary of the “yes” set. Opposing counsel wants to get you to agree to their version of the facts. When you find yourself agreeing with opposing counsel – as sometimes you must (“The earth is round, isn’t it?”), listen extra carefully to the next questions. The more times you say “yes” the more likely it is you’ll say “yes” when you shouldn’t.

Deal with inconsistencies appropriately. You will inevitably say something on the stand that is different from what you stated at deposition. Opposing counsel will pounce on it. “At your deposition, you said you didn’t see the specs, but now you tell us you did. Were you lying then or now?” Stay calm. “I’ve had more time to think about it, and I realized I did see the specs.” Your unruffled response will tell the jurors it’s no big deal.

Noelle C. Nelson, Ph.D., is a trial consultant who provides trial/jury strategy, witness preparation and focus groups for attorneys. She is the author of the booklet, "101 Winning Tips: How to Give a Good Deposition and Testify Well in Court." E-mail:,

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