- Watch Lots of Television. I am absolutely serious about this. Here's a little secret: You know all those courtroom TV shows, like Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown and Judge Mills Lane? They're modeled on small claims court proceedings! If you've never watched any of these shows before (warning: you're likely to get hooked), check out the "television judge" Web site at www.tvjudgeshows.com, where the strengths and weaknesses of each show are thoroughly discussed. The judges in these TV shows are or were, after all, real-life judges, and the judge in your small claims court case is highly likely to behave the way the ones on TV do. By doing some research on your favorite show's Web site, you might even be able to find an episode that featured a case similar to your own, and order a videotape of it.
And how do these judges behave? In a nutshell, here's what happens: The judge listens patiently to the arguments for both sides, asks a couple of questions if he or she doesn't understand something, then poses some fundamental questions: Who's in the right here? Who's telling the truth, and who's playing games? In most cases, the answer will be patently obvious after only a few minutes; don't be surprised if your debtor brings a check to court and pays you off in the courtroom lobby because they don't want the embarrassment of having to justify their position before a judge. The judge rules in favor of the person who is in the right (or telling the truth), and explains why they ruled the way they did.
So what does that tell you? It means if you bring an action in small claims court against someone, you had better make darn sure there aren't any serious holes in your case that would lead the judge to think, even for a moment, that you're the "wise guy" in the proceeding.
- Prepare, Prepare, Prepare. I can't say this enough--almost always, the victory in small claims court goes to the party that is better prepared. If you claim someone owes you money, but (1) you never delivered a proper invoice stating when payment was due, (2) you failed to make a formal written demand for payment and (3) the debtor has some serious objections to making payment (such as your products and services didn't work as you promised), your path to success in small claims court will be rocky indeed.
When you appear in court, be sure to bring copies of all relevant correspondence (contracts, invoices, purchase orders, warranty forms) that back up your case. If your case is less than airtight, ask yourself where the weaknesses are, and be prepared to explain why those weaknesses occurred. Being organized, and having ready answers to the judge's questions, sends a strong signal to the judge that you really care about the outcome of the case, and you're the one who deserves to win.
- Stay Away From Lawyers. You can, however, be too prepared for a small claims court action. While many attorneys will be happy to spend an hour or two with you to help you prepare for your case, and anticipate the judges' questions, be careful not to overdo it. Lawyers are barred from many small claims courts, and judges always frown upon parties who appear to have been overly prepared, or "horse-shedded," by their attorneys. If you don't normally use phrases like "may it please the court," "I object, your honor" and "please let the record show" in your everyday speech, do not under any circumstances use them in a small claims court.
- Be On Time. You absolutely must show up on time for your court date. In case of an emergency, if you can't possibly attend your hearing, contact the court clerk's office and try to get a postponement, or continuance, of the court date. Be sure to call your debtor as well. In most states, each party is entitled to one continuance if both parties agree. Otherwise, your request for a continuance will have to be approved by the court, and remember, you aren't there to explain why you need the continuance. If you fail to get a postponement and do not show up for your trial, the judge or magistrate may dismiss your suit, and you may be prevented from suing again for that money owed you.
Cliff Ennico is a syndicated columnist and author of several books on small business, including Small Business Survival Guide and The eBay Business Answer Book. This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state.