This post is part of our ongoing series translating the lawyer-gibberish of Pennsylvania lawsuits into something understandable. For the definitions of the terms in bold check out the post that launched this series. A list of the posts in the series is at the end of this article.

After lawyers have collected enough information through interrogatories (written questions) and requests for production of documents, it is usually time for depositions. But what are depositions and what do you need to know about them?

What is a Deposition?

A deposition is a formal interview conducted under oath to get information that the witness knows about the case. Starting with the lawyer who wanted the deposition (sometimes referred to as the one “calling” the deposition), each party’s attorney gets to ask questions. The answers are written down by a court reporter into a transcript that can be used later.

Who Can be Deposed?

Any person can be asked to sit for a deposition, including the parties to the lawsuit and other third parties. If you are a party to the lawsuit, the other lawyer only needs to ask and send your lawyer a notice about the deposition. Third parties receive subpoenas to attend a deposition and may also be asked to bring documents with them (just like a request for production of documents). Unless something unusual happens, a person can only be deposed one time per lawsuit.

What Should I Expect During a Deposition?

Depositions are taken in conference rooms, usually in the office of the lawyer who asked for the deposition. But if the witness is represented it might be held at the office of the witness’s lawyer. Or if none of the lawyers have an office close by, it might be in a hotel’s conference room or another similar space.

Sitting around the table will be the lawyers for the parties, a court reporter, and the witness. In certain circumstances the attorney scheduling the deposition will have it videotaped, in which case there will also be a separate videographer controlling the camera. The parties in the case may also sit in the room to watch, but only the lawyers and the witness can talk during the deposition.

Depositions often take a few hours to complete, but it can take up to an entire day depending upon how much information the witness remembers and how many parties are in the case (which increases the number of lawyers who ask questions). Depositions are not interrogations (although some feel like it) and it is customary to take breaks and to stop for lunch.

What Do I Do to Get Ready for My Deposition?

Your lawyer will prepare you before the deposition. Listen carefully to his or her instructions because your lawyer is limited in what they can talk to you about after you start your deposition testimony. But here are a few helpful tips:

  • Tell the truth – Many witnesses violate this rule not by intentionally lying, but by guessing about an answer they don’t know! When you guess, you risk providing testimony that contradicts what something else in the case (an email, a text message, another witness, etc.) would say. That can damage your credibility and make it look like you don’t know what you are talking about, or worse that you’re lying.
  • It’s okay not to know an answer – A deposition is not a memory test! You are not expected to know every single answer about an event that occurred months or years ago off the top of your head. If you would need to look at something to answer the question, it is okay to say that. And if you cannot remember, that is also a fine answer. But don’t say you forgot when you know an answer. That can damage your credibility, especially if it’s impossible to believe you forgot something (like claiming you don’t remember your address).
  • If you do not understand a question, say so – lawyer-gibberish can be confusing at the best of times, so imagine multiplying that by hundreds of questions over several hours. Of course, some of the lawyers’ sentences will not make sense! Rather than guessing about what the lawyer might have meant, simply indicate that you do not understand. It is the lawyer’s job to ask a good question.

What Do I Do When Someone Else is Being Deposed?

Watching someone else’s deposition? You still have an important role to play. While your lawyer is the only one who gets to ask questions, you can make suggestions to your lawyer during breaks. Especially when you know about the thing the witness is testifying, and you can provide more background or highlight things in the testimony which are not correct. But try to wait for a break to do so, as your lawyer needs to pay attention as questions are asked to see if he or she needs to object to how the other lawyer has asked something.

Check out the rest of our series “Explaining PA Lawsuits Using Plain Language”:

Brandon Harter is litigator and technology guru at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from William & Mary Law School and advises clients on issues of Civil Litigation & Dispute ResolutionMunicipal Law, and chairs the firm’s Tech Law Group.