Preparation is the key to success, and this is especially true in the courtroom. However, despite their best intentions, many people who are representing themselves do not know how to prepare for a trial. Do you read a self-help book? Seek the advice of an attorney? Watch old episodes of Matlock?
Any of these things might help, but here are a few that many successful litigants have found especially helpful.
1. Watch some trials. Before your case comes up for trial, go down to the courthouse and sit in on a couple of trials involving similar issues. You’ll see that it won’t be that difficult to present your story and your evidence to the judge. When you know what to expect, you’ll be much more relaxed about your own trial.
2. Read the Playbook. Don’t underestimate the importance of knowing the rules. Make certain that you familiarize yourself with your state Rules of Civil Procedure, along with your court’s local rules, which may include everything from deadlines for various trial procedures to nitpicky restrictions on how small your font can be in documents you submit to the court.
3. Learn the elements of your case. Each type of legal claimhas a number of “elements” that you’ll need to prove in order to win. For example, in a contracts case, you must prove the following elements: (a) A contract existed; (b) You met your contractual obligations; (c) your opponent failed to meet his or her contractual obligations, and; (d) that you were harmed as a result. You’ll want to plan ahead carefully to make sure that you can prove every element of your case — or, if you are defending yourself against a lawsuit, to make sure that you can disprove at least one element of your opponent’s case.
4. Make sure your evidence is admissible. Once you know the elements you’ll have to prove to win your case, you can figure out what types of evidence will help you prove each key fact. However, not every kind of evidence can be presented in a courtroom: Complicated rules of evidence determine whether a particular document, statement, or item is admissible in court. Although you don’t have to master every detail of these rules, you should do enough research to make sure that you’ll be able to present the evidence you need to win.