Tips for Successful Trial Testimony and Cross-Examination

divorce courtBy Jennifer Paine

Attorney, Cordell & Cordell

Are you terrified of your wife’s attorney?

If you are, whether or not you admit it, the feeling is normal particularly if a divorce trial is on the horizon.

Here are the things you should do to be prepared for that dreaded cross-examination, broken down into three phases: one month before trial, one week before trial, and one day before trial.

Perhaps you had a bad experience during your deposition, when her attorney quizzed you about your bank accounts.

Perhaps you get annoyed reading her attorney’s letters to your attorney, a diatribe about all of the things you allegedly did wrong during parenting time.

Perhaps you hate the way crowds part as her lawyer storms into the courtroom, an old leather briefcase in one hand and a pen in the other, looking for your wife so the two of them can sit together and jot down all of the nasty questions they plan to ask you.

Maybe you’ve never spoken to her attorney, but you’ve heard from her, how much he will “get you” and how “tough” he is.

Or perhaps you’ve never testified, but you’ve had nightmares about a cross examination that goes something like the bullying between Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men.” The phrases “I want the truth!” and “You can’t handle the truth!” haunt you.

Take it from a trial attorney, sometimes we do look for those Nicholson-Cruise moments, the kind that get our opponent frazzled and force the lies she’s been weaving in three hours of testimony to unravel and reveal the truth, that my guy really isn’t as bad as she says.

But we can tell when a witness is prepared. Those are the toughest witnesses to crack, and most of the time they do not crack.

They are calm, cool and collected. They know their facts. They can look us and the judge face-to-face, speak eloquently and sincerely about their family, their children, and so forth. And they can be more persuasive than the attorneys representing them.


Trial Prep: One Month Before Trial

Get your game plan together with your attorney.

Schedule a meeting for at least one hour to establish goals for your trial, to outline who will testify when, to identify witnesses who will attend voluntarily and which your attorney must subpoena, and to determine which exhibits you have, which your attorney will obtain and which you will provide.

Many clients keep a trial notebook that is divided into categories for property, parenting time, employment, and miscellaneous records, and so forth, and includes a notepad for communicating with the attorney during trial. You should gather all of your information in one place so that you and your attorney can refer to records on the spot.

If you have not already done so, visit the courtroom where you will testify. If your judge holds public hearings (and most do), try to attend a hearing so that you can see the judge in action and get a feel for his or her tone of voice, courtroom procedures and treatment of attorneys, parties and witnesses.

Get acclimated to the environment so that the fact of being in a courtroom is not jarring the day of trial. For attorneys, a courtroom is a second home. It is a familiar place to us.

But for most people, a courtroom is like a hospital waiting room – no one wants to be there and everyone wants out. The last thing you need when you are testifying is the distraction of large chandeliers, wooden benches, musty books and/or paintings of old judges on the walls. So visit the courtroom early and get used to it.

Be sure to budget for trial. Have a frank discussion with your attorney about the time and expenses involved and plan accordingly. Trial can be costly, but if done correctly it is not quite as intimidating or expensive as most clients assume.

For example, you may plan your vacation days from work around trial (what a vacation that will be). As another example, you may bring copies of pertinent records to your attorney’s office rather than pay an assistant to make copies. You should discuss your budget early and often with your attorney, and no later than one month before trial.

Note: Previously, I walked you through necessary trial preparation one week before trial, and also what you need to do the day before your trial.


Jennifer M. Paine is an Associate Attorney in the Detroit, Michigan office of Cordell & Cordell. She is licensed to practice in Michigan, and has been admitted pro hac vice in Illinois, Ohio, and the United States Court of Federal Claims.

Ms. Paine received her BA in English and Mathematics from Albion College and graduated Summa Cum Laude. She received her Juris Doctorate from MSU College of Law and graduated Summa Cum Laude.

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One comment on “Tips for Successful Trial Testimony and Cross-Examination

    Hello, I have a trial for a divorce coming up. I am going pro se. I need some steps to take for my trial. I am a home maker. My husband did all of the work. I am concerned that he will end up with custody of the children because he was the one making the money. My husband’s lawyer says I need to get a job. Because my husband will not have to pay for child support since he has been the only one financially supporting the children. I do not have any receipts of bills that I have paid because I was a homemaker. What could I do?

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