How to Succeed During a Cross-Examination

In an evidentiary hearing or trial, each party has the opportunity to present witnesses.  Each witness will receive direct examination by the attorney who called him or her, cross examination by the opposing counsel, and then a redirect examination again by the attorney who called him or her.  Clients are apprehensive about cross examination, as they should be, since it is a storm of questions from a hostile interrogator who is trying to trap you in a lie (legally known as impeachment).  Here are tips on how to succeed during cross-examination:

1) The Golden Rule—When you are in doubt, say “I don’t know.”  If you are concerned that your memory is fuzzy, say “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember.”  This makes it hard for opposing counsel to catch you in a lie.

2) Stay calm and don’t show anger.  The judge is paying attention to your answers as well as your demeanor.  If you feel yourself getting heated, take a deep breath and count to five before answering each question.

3) Although the witness gets interrogated, the witness does not have a right to ask questions back to the hostile attorney.  You can ask clarifying questions, but you cannot ask substantive questions.  Instead, you should rely on your own attorney to be sharp enough to return to such topics on redirect examination.

4) If opposing counsel asks a yes/no questions, you need to give a yes/no answer.  If you say anything more, the opposing counsel will move to strike your answer as non-responsive. 

5) If you feel intimidated by the opposing party, it is okay to not look them in the eye.  Instead, make eye contact with the judge or your counsel.

6) It is okay to ask for a break if you’re feeling stressed or emotional.

7) It is okay to cry on the stand.  This is why family law courtroom clerks always have tissues on hand.

8) Ask your counsel to prep you by role-playing a hostile cross-examination.  This will desensitize you to the uncomfortable situation of getting interrogated by an unfriendly opponent.

9) Do not answer if you don’t understand the question.  Instead, ask for clarification. 

10) When an attorney stands up to object, you need to stop speaking immediately.  You cannot resume your testimony until the judge rules on the objection.  The judge will either deny or sustain it. 

11) You can only speak when asked a question.

12) The judge might interrupt opposing counsel and begin asking you questions herself.  This is common practice and should not worry you.