In my former life – that is, before I became an accountant – as a police patrolman and detective on the Tucson, Arizona Police Department, I had the opportunity to testify on several criminal-type cases. Back in those days I would get pretty nervous before each of my court appearances. The mere pressure of waiting to be questioned by an opposing attorney – who I always imagined as someone whose job it was to debunk my testimony and make me look foolish – was daunting to me.
After graduating from college with a degree in accounting, I gave up my job as a cop – even though I dearly loved police work – and went to work for a national CPA firm in the firm’s Los Angeles office. I eventually came back to Arizona and, in Phoenix starting in 1984, while working as an audit partner in a 95-person CPA firm, began to change from just being an auditor to also working on litigation support cases.
Although I’d testified many times on criminal matters, I was now being asked to testify on civil litigation cases. In my early days of testifying on civil cases, I went through similar stresses as I did as a cop in Tucson. I have testified numerous times in State and Federal Courts throughout the Southwest and, even today, I still get the jitters before testifying. I know that the opposing attorneys are going to be taking a hard run at me in an attempt to debunk my testimony and make me look foolish. I look at these as healthy jitters because they make me more focused and acute in my testimony than I might otherwise be. At least that’s the way I now look at my testifying stress.
In years past, as I got more experience in testifying, I would try to pass on some stress-easing pointers to others who may be experiencing anxiety about testifying. For those who are reading this piece and who may be going to court to testify for the very first time, I have some tips that may take some of that anxiety away.
Pre-trial attorney meeting: Meet with your attorney before the trial and know what they are going to ask you. Get an idea of what the opposing attorney may ask you.
Pre-trial preparation: Study your material before going on the witness stand – not in the courtroom hallways, but at home or in your office, days before you have to testify. Do not start reviewing the information supporting your testimony too far in advance of the hearing. Chances are you may forget important facts and have to re-review what you’ve previously looked at.
Becoming familiar with courtroom procedures: If the closest you have been to a courtroom is seeing an attorney question witnesses in a movie or on television, then I suggest you may want to take a visit to the courthouse at which you will be providing your testimony. While there, look for a courtroom dealing with a trial ready to start. Go into the courtroom, find a seat in the back and watch and listen to how the judge handles the hearing. Watch and listen to the attorneys and how they pose questions and how the witnesses answer. Watch and listen as the judge sustains or overrules the opposing attorney’s objections. Pick out what the witness is doing well while on the witness stand – or, what you perceive as problematic testimony. Your observations will put you more at ease when it is time for you to testify.
Dress respectfully: Judges like to know that you respect them by the clothing that you wear. I recently walked out of a Maricopa County, Arizona courtroom and was crossing the parking lot to my car when I noticed a young man – about 30 I guessed, who was wearing jeans with holes everywhere. And, these weren’t the stylish jeans you see in department stores worth big bucks – you know, the ones with the purposeful rips in them.
His shirt had holes in it as well. The shoes he was wearing were old, thoroughly worn out sneakers. Yep, they had holes in them, too. I watched as he made his way to a brand new Dodge sedan, opened the door and took out what appeared to be a brand new pair of red sneakers that he promptly placed on his feet. He then started taking off his shirt to put on a snazzy looking button-down collar, long-sleeved dress shirt that looked pretty new.
The young man apparently wanted a judge to believe that he was poverty-stricken in whatever case the young man was involved. You should try not to go to court to testify in jeans and a t-shirt if you are a guy. Ladies should dress with a decorum that matches the dignity of the court. And, no flip-flops on the feet of either man or woman on the witness stand.
Answer respectfully: This should be an easy one. Be engaging but humble. If the judge asks you a question, they like it if you answer, “Yes, Your Honor,” or “No, Your Honor.”
Don’t stray with your answers: Another easy one. Answer only what is asked.
Eye contact: I find it very helpful to ease my anxiety if I look occasionally at the judge – or the jury members as I am testifying. They feel more engaged and interested in you if you do this.
Don’t argue: This is bad. Don’t get into arguments with the opposing attorney. This does not come across well with judges or juries. If you are being unmercifully badgered by the questioning attorney, the judge will step in. Also, the jury is not going to take too kindly to an attorney who is beating up on you big time.
Don’t lose your cool: See “Don’t argue” above.
Your levity may be too much: Sometimes a judge or jury may appreciate someone testifying who takes the boredom out of their testimony by occasionally tossing in a light-hearted comment as they testify. However, too much may have the judge or jury thinking you are making a joke out of the proceeding.
These are a few of the tips that have helped me to “settle down” before, and during, my testifying in court. One or more of them just might help you.
Donald R. Bays, CPA/ABV, CVA, CFF