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7 Things to Remember When Being Questioned

07th January 2010
By C.M. in Legal
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Years ago I represented myself (pro se) in a lawsuit against a large law firm. I had participated in a discrimination case against them and was summarily dismissed for having done so. Though I knew I was right, the deck was stacked against me. First, the firm had a team of attorneys working with the human resources department advising them on how to rattle me. Second, though I have worked in the legal field for years, I was and am not an attorney. I had never filed a lawsuit against anyone and was not a professional claimant. Finally, I had no money and no attorneys were interested in my case for that reason. In short, I had no reasonable expectation that I would or could win. Ultimately, the firm did decide to settle and I reluctantly decided to accept. As a result of my ordeal with this firm, I did learn some useful tips on how to answer questions put to me by attorneys and before judicial bodies. These are seven tips that may help you:

1. Meet with and speak to your attorney as often as possible prior to testifying.

He or she will need to over the facts of your case as well as familiarize you with how the proceeding will work. During your time with your lawyer he/she will also prepare you for the types of questions you may be asked as well as get a feel for what kind of a witness you will make. He will tell you to remain calm, articulate clearly and get your facts straight before answering questions.

2. Always tell the truth

This is a lesson many of were taught in youth and it generally serves us well (especially when the penalty for lying may mean the loss of your case). When testifying before a judicial body not only can lying come back and bite you on the butt, it can hurt your attorney as well. Lawyers are ethically bound (in theory) to disassociate themselves with a client whom they know is giving false testimony.

3. Don't try to outwit the opposing counsel.

If the person interrogating you is an attorney, then he or she will be an expert in questioning people. Don't play a mind game with someone who has studied years in the art of polemics. Attorneys are trained to find and exploit testimony which may indicate that a witness is being untruthful. Your best bet is to stick to what you know to be the facts of your case and not try to verbally joust with the questioner.

4. If you represent yourself (pro se) learn how the tribunal works.

When I represented myself in my lawsuit it was not by choice. If there is any way possible for you to secure a lawyer then do so. You can try you state's legal aid agency or the ABA attorney referral service to find an attorney who may take your case pro bono. If you do have to represent yourself, take the time to find the answer to these questions: How does discovery work? How are objections to be made? Are you allowed to subpoena documents and call forth witnesses? How is evidence to be presented? What are your deadlines for any motions you may enter? How is the appeal process handled? These are just some of the questions that must be answered before you can competently represent yourself. Judges have little tolerance for litigants who are not familiar with procedure and the opposition will certainly try exploiting any gaps in your knowledge regarding filing deadlines, etc. Caution: Not familiarizing yourself with the rules of the tribunal may cost you your case.

5. Don't guess at what you do not know.

Judicial bodies are designed to find the truth. To this end, wild speculation only hurts your case. Answer "you don't know" if you don't know or that you do not remember if you don't remember. Bear in mind, you cannot contradict yourself if you initially don't remember something and then recall that information when asked again at a later date. An affirmative or negative response always leaves a person subject to contradicting himself later. (This is only of course if you don't tell the truth which again you always should.)

6. Listen to and answer only the question you are being asked.

Answer only the question being asked of you. For example: If someone asked you if you knew what time it is and you looked at your watch and said "noon." That answer would be wrong. A correct answer would be "yes" or "no." In this example, you would have been answering the question, "What time is it or what time do you have?" Be precise in your responses and listen.

7. Pause before answering questions.

When you are being questioned don't be rushed to answer questions asked by the opposition. Take your time responding. This gives you time to think and time for your attorney to raise objections to questions raised by the questioner. The questioner may change the tone or pace of his answers; don't let them make you change yours. Questions asked in a rapid fire and aggressive manner are designed to throw you off. If you answer in a casual, deliberative manner it might also help to break the momentum the questioner may have gained.

If you stick to these guidelines you will be better off. Again, I am not an attorney and my tips are suggestions that I've learned from my own experience. Also, I am referring to civil proceedings not criminal proceedings. If you are involved in criminal proceedings you are entitled to and need to seek the counsel of a qualified attorney to advise and represent you.
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