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Truth or Consequences: The Five Best Answers at Your Deposition

May 4, 2014

  

A deposition is the taking of a witness's testimony under oath. An attorney asks questions, and the witness answers them. Meanwhile, a court reporter is taking down everything everyone says. There may be a video camera recording. The witness's attorney may make objections.

If you are the plaintiff (the person suing the defendant), your deposition is the most important one in the case. Not to put any pressure on, but how the plaintiff comes across as a person can be as important as the facts in the case. No matter how the other attorney acts, treat that person with courtesy and respect, answer the question that was just asked, and wait for the next one.

With all of this going on, depositions can be confusing and intimidating. They don't need to be. In fact, depositions can be straightforward with some preparation and the right approach.

There are Five Best Answers to deposition questions. If you can answer a question with one of them, you are on the road to a successful deposition. They are:

1. Yes.
2. No.
3. I don't know.
4. I don't remember.
5. I don't understand the question.

If you answer questions with one of the Five Best Answers, no one can say that you were evasive. You answered the question (or asked for clarification), and you will appear straightforward and confident. Many witnesses feel that, the more they tell the other lawyer, the faster they will be done with the deposition. The opposite is true. The more you talk, the more you tell the other attorney things they didn't know already, and the more you are giving them to follow up on.

It's the other attorney's job to ask good questions to get the information needed. It's not your job to offer information they didn't ask for. Your job is to be truthful, not helpful. I'm not saying to give the other attorney a hard time or to make getting information from you like pulling teeth. Don't artificially limit what the question means to try to limit your response. Just answer the question in the shortest, most truthful way possible. 

It's also a human tendency to want to explain and put things in context. Your deposition isn't the time to do that. You will not convince the defendant's attorney that you are right no matter how much you explain. All you will do is appear evasive and defensive. Your deposition is like the Dodgers being in the outfield: nothing good can happen. Answer the questions, finish up, and get out.

Feel free to say "I don't remember" or "I don't understand," but don't try to narrow the question so as to try not to answer or to give a misleading answer. I never recommend giving the other attorney a hard time; that's the person who will recommend whether and for how much to settle your case. Also, don't say "I don't remember" when you really do, or "I don't understand" when the question is clear to you. 

Sometimes, questions aren't susceptible to one of the Five Best Answers. Listen to the question, and make sure to answer what it asks for. The response to a question that asks "who" is a name. The response to a question that asks "when" is a date or time. The response to a question that asks "where" is a place. Remember not to think aloud when answering. Take the time to think about your answer without talking about it, and respond in the shortest truthful way you can.

Of course, these are just guidelines and they don't apply to every question or every situations. For some questions, you will want to let 'er rip and testify about everything that happened. A good example is if you're asked about your emotional distress, or how the events of the lawsuit affected you personally. When that happens, it's time to be fully expressive.

This is how I approach depositions, but every attorney has their own outlook. Make sure to ask your lawyer how to go about giving your best, most truthful testimony in your deposition.
 

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