Most likely you’re not looking forward to your cameo in small claims court, and who could blame you? Long lines, little experience, bad blood, and shot nerves don’t exactly make for a leisurely trip to the courthouse. The following are some suggestions to help strengthen your case, and hopefully temper your frustrations:
1. Be on time, or be sorry. “On time” does not mean less than 10 minutes late, or five minutes late, actually, it means be early.
2. Be organized. It may sound like a no-brainer, but many a smart first-time small claims court comer has found himself tongue-tied and twisted when it was his turn to address the court. Organize the following two main areas carefully:
3. Dress appropriately. Most judges consider themselves experts at sizing people up quickly. Anything you can do to help better present yourself is invaluable. Wear a suit if you have one. It doesn’t ensure that you’re going to win your case, but it definitely can’t hurt.
4. Behave appropriately. Again, sounds like a no-brainer, but if you’ve ever seen Judge Judy or The People’s Court you know it’s easier said than done. Try to stick to your prepared argument and refrain from making personal attacks. This may help make you more sympathetic in the judge’s eyes. Also, be sure to refer to the judge as “Your Honor” each and every time you address the bench.
5. Practice makes perfect. As many a writer knows, we all sound like geniuses when we’re sitting alone in the dark in front of our computer. Once you believe you’ve prepared a satisfactory argument, practice it repeatedly, and make sure to bounce it off of a friend. An objective person will be able to spot holes in your argument, and help you hone it in. Once they do, it’s important to be honest with yourself about your argument’s weaknesses. A willingness to deal with them will make your argument stronger.Also, because you don’t know how much time the judge will allot to your case, be sure to have your talking points memorized so that you can speak briefly, if necessary.
6. Witness 101. Whenever possible, it is preferable to bring a live witness. (Bringing in dead witnesses seldom goes over well.) If you cannot bring a witness with you, be sure to bring a signed statement.
7. Listen to your adversary’s argument. Though it may be painful, listening to your opponent’s argument will allow you to spot holes in what he/she’s saying, thus allowing you to use their own force against them like a trained Judo Master. You also need to make sure to listen to their allegations so that you can provide an explanation when it is your time to speak. Which brings us to #8.
8. Wait your turn to speak. You’ve seen Judge Judy– there’s no quicker way to get on a judge’s bad side then to constantly be interrupting. Despite your fears, YOU WILL BE GIVEN AN OPPORTUNITY TO RESPOND, so do yourself a favor and wait patiently.
9. Think before you speak. Once it’s out of your mouth, it’s in the court record. Don’t make the mistake of getting caught up in the drama of your opponent’s allegations and saying something you don’t mean. Instead, take a deep breath and then proceed with caution.
10. Be more reasonable than the next guy. Conceding a point may lose you the battle, but ultimately help win you the war. Judges listen to people who are sure that they’re right all day. Being reasonable will help you stand out and perhaps help win the judge’s favor, and ultimately, your case.
So are you ready to collect your propers? Get what’s due you? While we can’t assure that following the preceding ten steps will win your case, they will help you to conduct yourself in a way you can be proud of. So prepare yourself, and good luck!