Guide to Testifying in Court

So you're going to court . . .

Some in cashmere and some in chains, millions of Americans testify (give a sworn statement) in court every year. Some of those millions will be parties to civil cases ("lawsuits"); others will be defendants in criminal cases ("prosecutions"); still others will be "fact" or "expert" witnesses with knowledge or information about a case.

You may be in court to explain a creative left turn, to describe what you saw while looking out a window, or to clarify for a jury some matter requiring your particular expertise. You may be in court to ask for a divorce or a name change or a restraining order, or to fight for your liberty when accused of a crime. You may spend less than two minutes standing behind a podium, or two weeks seated at counsel table. Whether you come to court as a party or as a "fact witness," in a civil case or criminal, with counsel or without, this guide will help you to optimize your effectiveness when you testify.

What follows is not legal advice, but some suggestions from a trial lawyer as to how to do your best when testifying in court. They are based on experience, observation and common sense. If you have a lawyer, and her advice differs from that given here, listen to your lawyer. She should know best. Each case is unique; each judge is individual; and legal customs and practices vary widely. In view of this, the advice that follows, while universal, is also general. Be guided accordingly.

I have nothing to wear. . .

Seemingly every courthouse contains an image of blind Justice - stately, balance in hand. Her blindfold symbolizes that justice will not be influenced by one's position in life, politics, color or fashion sense. Justice belongs equally to the shabbily dressed and the sharply attired.

Indeed, many courts allow witnesses and litigants to be dressed in the most casual wear. T-shirts, jeans, sneakers, tank tops, sweat pants and even shorts are increasingly in evidence in the courts. Rare is the judge who sends a person home for dirty or inappropriate clothing.

This is to your advantage. You have an early opportunity to distinguish yourself favorably by dressing correctly. In some courts, especially urban ones, you may be the only nicely dressed "civilian" in court. You may be even mistaken for a lawyer. But you will testify better when you dress properly for court. Proper dress? The rule is simple: Dress as the judge would dress if he were in your shoes.

For men, a suit or jacket and tie is usually appropriate. Women should wear dresses or skirt suits or business attire. (While pantsuits seem perfect, some courts still disapprove of them - you may wish to check with a local attorney or the court clerk.) Men should avoid showy jewelry, heavy gold chains and pinky rings. They echo negative stereotypes. They should remove their hats upon entering the courthouse. Shoes should be polished. Sneakers are out, except for seniors.

Women might want wear modest earrings or a necklace or bracelet, but jewelry should be de-emphasized. Some courts allow women to keep their hats on; others do not. Hats should be simple, discrete, and easily removed without upsetting the coiffure.

If you are appearing in federal court, the dress is more formal, as are the demeanor of the court and counsel, as a rule. The courtrooms are generally impressive, and the judges are less tolerant of breaches in decorum or attacks on the formality and solemnity of the proceeding than the average judge in a lower court.

If you are appearing in mediation, arbitration, workers' compensation court or before a board or commission, you may find that the dress code is more relaxed. If unsure, err on the side of caution.
Your dress may be stylish, but should be modest and reserved. Sandals and sunglasses are out (even in Florida), and jewelry should be removed from facial piercings. Tattoos should not be flaunted. Sexy or revealing clothing, 

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