Usually, a lawyer’s goal will be to resolve disputes without having to go to court – or even to prevent the disputes from arising in the first place. Of course, that doesn’t always happen. The reason could be that one side or the other doesn’t think they are being offered enough in settlement, or that the parties disagree about the events or the governing law to the point that they nbeed someone to decide for them, or matters are progressing so quickly that an immediate order is needed, or something else. Sometimes, the client will need to go to court with the lawyer, either to testify, or to be present for the judge or jury to see him or her, or to hear the result. This article gives a few tips on the basics of going to court. Most of them apply basic respect for the court and common sense.
The fundamental rule about going to court is not to give the judge or jury a reason to dislike you. Your fate may be in their hands, and it’s not always possible to change a decision that may have been affected by a poor first impression. In addition, making the judge really angry may result in being charged with contempt, and some judges don’t give clear warnings.
First, it’s a good idea to show up on time. Your lawyer or the court clerk will tell you when and where the hearing is. If your lawyer asks you to be there early, do it. In fact, it’s a good idea to try to get to the courtroom no less than 15 minutes early. That way, you know you won’t be late, and if you need to talk to your lawyer or want to watch the judge handling the case before yours, you can.
In many courthouses, you can expect to go through a security checkpoint. When planning to get to court, take this into account. In Portland, the delay can be as much as 15 to 30 minutes at the beginning of the day and after lunch. Not only are there a lot of lawyers, but on most days over 100 jurors and a large number of litigants, criminal defendants, and witnesses. In Portland, the security check includes taking off your shoes and belt for the scanner, and walking through the metal detector. About one in four people will leaving something in their pocket the first time through the detector, and have to take it out and try again.
Do not attempt to bring a weapon, or anything with a blade through the security check. This includes Swiss Army knives and similar items. You won’t be allowed to take it in, and most courts won’t hold if for you. If you persist, you may get arrested. Needless to say, that won’t look good to the court.
The judge is entitled to respect, and he or she will expect it. This means that how you dress is an important element of how the court sees you. Unless your lawyer decides that he or she wants to give a different impression to the judge or jury, dress as if this were a job interview. For men, suit and tie is advisable. For women, a good suit or dress should be worn. If you’re in the military, the Class A uniform should be worn. Do not try to overdress or underdress unless your lawyer approves it in advance. It often backfires.
Another lawyer recently told me of a story of a near-disaster from her client’s outfit. He showed up two minutes before a hearing, with a judge who had shown previously she didn’t like him, wearing very small bicycle shorts. The only reason the judge didn’t see this is that another lawyer saw this, took the client to the men’s room, and lent him his suit. (The group who were told this story agreed that that lawyer who offered his suit deserved an award.)
Respecting the Judge
When I said the judge expects respect, I meant it. When the judge enters the courtroom, everyone is expected to stand. Watch your lawyer and listen for the bailiff or clerk to announce it.
All cell phones should be silenced, if not turned off. Never take a call during your hearing. If it comes before your hearing and you need to take it, step into the hallway before taking out the phone. I once heard a judge talk about the time a woman received a call during a hearing in the middle of the judge speaking to her, took out the phone, and signaled “one moment” to the judge. The judge was not amused.
Do not interrupt the judge. Answer questions from the judge truthfully. Do not get angry at what the judge says. At minimum, keep it under wraps. A good lawyer can tell the judge he or she disagrees in a way that won’t annoy the judge and, if necessary, will alert the judge to the fact that the lawyer is considering an appeal.
There are almost no exceptions to these recommendations. If your lawyer is considering a change, discuss it with him or her and listen carefully to the reasons. It’s usually going to be an attempt to get sympathy or an attempt at a surprise. Don’t try it on your own.
In general, the court appearance should be treated as serious business. For the lawyers and the judge, it is. Mistakes in your presentation can be more damaging than you might expect.