4. Prepare for your civil trial

You should be preparing for trial from the start. This will help focus your efforts on what needs to be done to prove your case or defense. Solid preparation will help you with the settlement because you will be better able to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each side and avoid surprises.


You may want to consult with an attorney about preparing for and trying your case so you can make sure you are on the right track and avoid surprises and costly mistakes.

How to prepare for your trial

illustration of paper forms in a folder

Get organized. As you prepare for trial, start to create a "Trial Notebook." You can use this at trial when you need to get documents quickly.

Review the basic steps you'll want to take to prepare

Get familiar with the rules of evidence. In court, everyone must follow the rules of evidence. These rules say what evidence a judge (or jury) can consider when they make a decision. When you prepare your questions, this can help you understand what type of information you should ask about. And what type of information the judge will likely not be able to consider.

You should work on learning about evidence from the start of your case so you will be prepared to present your case at trial. There are many guides and articles at the law library that can help you understand the rules of evidence. 

  • Review all the papers that you and the other side have filed with the court or served to the other side. Take notes and make a summary.
  • Review all the documents and evidence you got through discovery. Make a summary of the evidence that will help your case. Review your discovery responses to see what you have committed to and what documents you have produced. Write down what questions you can ask the other side about their evidence.

At least 30 days before trial, you may get a Declaration in Lieu of Live Testimony from the other side.

For a limited civil jurisdiction case, where the claim is $25,000 or less, either side can use a written declaration of a witness or part of a deposition instead of having their witness testify in person. This is called a Declaration in Lieu of Live Testimony. In some cases, like a credit card debt case, often no witnesses come to court. Instead, they will use this type of Declaration.

If either side wants to do this, they need to serve the declaration at least 30 days before the trial. This is a specialized procedure. Generally, at trial the court or jury needs to hear real-time testimony from eyewitnesses or first-hand from the people involved.  The Declaration in Lieu of Live Testimony is an exception to that general rule.

Review any Declarations you get. If you need to ask the witness any questions, you will need to subpoena them so they are required to testify in person.

Learn how to review the Declaration

Prepare your exhibits. These are the documents, videos, pictures, physical evidence, and other things you plan to present as evidence.

You will also have to arrange for having your witnesses at the trial. Witnesses tell their stories as to what happened or what they did. Witnesses are key to having documents, videos, pictures, physical evidence, or other things which are exhibits admitted into evidence. Unless the other side agrees that some evidence will be admitted, or they do not know what they are doing, exhibits do not come into evidence by themselves. 

Tell your witnesses about the trial date and make sure they’re ready to come to court. You should serve them with subpoenas ahead of time so their job will let them go to your trial. If they need to bring evidence to court, then you need to serve a subbpoena that says what they need to bringThe subpoena provides information about the date, time, and place for the trial.  Also, if they do not show up you can ask the court for more time because you went to the formality of serving a subpoena.

You will have to provide the other side with a list of your witnesses, including their name, address, and telephone number. 

It can be very helpful to watch a trial

Illustration of a courtroom during a trial

Most trials are open to the public. You may even be able to watch a trial with the same judge you’ll have at your trial.

You can often find a listing of trials on your court’s website. Or, a court clerk may be able to tell you. Some courts now have remote trials. This means the trials are on videoconference.

Watching a trial will answer common questions:

  • Where do I sit? 

  • How many people will be in the courtroom? 

  • How formal will the trial be?  

  • How do I present evidence and respond to the other side's case?

  • What do I need to do to get the Judge to consider my documents? 

This will help you prepare and make better decisions about whether it makes sense for you to go to trial.

Write down what you plan to say and bring this to your trial

Once you get closer to your trial date, you should start to prepare what you plan to say and ask at the trial.

If you have a witness, you will also want to think about what questions the other side might ask them. 

To find out what type of questions you can ask and what you can say.Learn what to expect in a trial

Get familiar with the rules of evidence

illustration of a book

Get familiar with the rules of evidence. In court, everyone must follow the rules of evidence. These rules say what evidence a judge (or jury) can consider when they make a decision. 

When you prepare your questions, this can help you understand what type of information you should ask about. And what type of information the judge will likely not be able to consider.

If you have a jury trial, you have to turn in jury instructions. These are the formal instructions that the judge will read to the jury to guide them in their deliberations. Jury instructions are found in books in the law library, and it is up to you to find instructions for your kind of case and support your side of the story. You can also find jury instructions in plain language at the California Courts website.

Both sides give the judge their instructions before trial. The judge chooses what instructions to read to the jury.

Get help from an experienced trial lawyer. If the other party has a lawyer and you do not, it will be very difficult for you to try your case in front of a jury.

Check the court’s local rules and even with the courtroom where your case is assigned to see what the court wants filed with the court or lodged (brought to) the department before trial and on the first day of trial.  Even if not required it is a good idea to prepare a trial brief.  This provides information about what happened and a discussion of the law.  It helps tell the judge about your case and why you should win.

When you get your trial date, you will probably also get a date for a mandatory settlement conference. Often, the mandatory settlement conference is a few days to 2 weeks before your trial.  Settlement conferences usually happen with a temporary judge (pro tem). The judge pro tem may be an experienced lawyer who volunteers for the court or another judge different from the one you will have at your trial.

At the mandatory settlement conference, the judge meets with the people in the case (or their lawyers). The parties will present the facts of the case, and the judge will try to find a solution that everyone agrees with to settle the case. If you can reach an agreement, there is no trial.

At least 5 court days (do not count weekends or court holidays) before your mandatory settlement conference, file a settlement conference statement describing the facts of your case, the relevant law, how the law applies to those facts, and how your settlement talks have been going. This statement has to be served on every party in the case and filed with the court. Read rule 3.1380 of the California Rules of Court to see what must be included in the settlement conference statement.

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