In a courtroom, as in life, first impressions matter. However, in a courtroom second, third, and fourth impressions matter also. Winning a case is difficult enough without adding obstacles, such as the judge disliking you because of your behavior. And it happens more often than you think. So before standing in front of a judge, you should learn The Dos and Don’ts of Court.
Judges are people, too. An insolent, argumentative individual is just as distasteful to a judge as he or she is to the average person. To avoid this unnecessary issue, consider the following rules of courtroom etiquette:
Appearance: Hipster attire is not appropriate. Neither is the outfit you wore to the dance club last weekend. Dress as if you are going to lunch with your elderly, very conservative aunt. Suits are not necessary; however, do not show up in a t-shirt. Also, no flashy jewelry or expensive clothes. (Imagine trying to convince a judge you need spousal support as the lights in the courtroom reflect off the Rolex on your wrist. Tough sell.)
- **Corollary to Appearance as it relates to Zoom Court – Do not let your Zoom background undermine your case. Practice in advance of your testimony so you can see what the judge will see in his camera. Eliminate any evidence of drug use (legal or otherwise), remove controversial posters, and make it at least appear neat and clean. Anything that makes you look like a hoarder (especially if you are fighting for custody or more time with the kids) is not helpful.
Arrival: Don’t be late. Since your case will likely be the only one in front of the judge at the scheduled time for your hearing, arrive AT LEAST 10 minutes before your scheduled time whether it is actual court or Zoom court. If something happens and you are going to be late, please text or call your lawyer so they can make apologies for you.
Courtroom Demeanor: Opening statements are given by both attorneys when the trial begins. This is when the lawyers state what they think the evidence in the trial will show and why that evidence proves their client is in the right. You will hear things you think are lies or that offend you. DO NOT REACT. This is not “L.A. Law” or “Law & Order.” No judge will find that acceptable. In fact, they may find you in contempt and throw you in jail. Have your lawyer provide you with a pen and a legal pad so you can write notes that can later be given to your attorney to help your case. Do not interrupt the trial or try and whisper things in your attorney’s ear during the hearing.
- **Corollary to Courtroom Demeanor as it relates to Zoom Court – Do not use the chat function in Zoom to speak with your attorney. It is not confidential, and the judge and the court staff can review what is said in the chat. If you must contact your attorney at that moment, text them.
Testifying – Testimony is NOT a conversation. Take all the time you need to understand the question and plan your answer before you speak. If the opposing attorney believes you are too slow, too bad. If you do not know or you cannot remember the answer to a question, do not be embarrassed to say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember.” NEVER guess or answer anything that you are not sure about.
Lawyers like to play tricks. Be aware of it. For example, sometimes lawyers will try and throw you off guard by accusatorily asking, “Did you not talk with your lawyer before you testified today?” The question is asked in a tone of voice that insinuates that talking to your lawyer is wrong. Of course, you spoke with your attorney. Opposing counsel may also call you to testify as an “adverse witness.” Pay no attention to the term. It is fairly normal. When it comes to testifying only one thing matters: Tell the truth. Lawyer games, accusations, hostile opposing counsel . . . all of it is irrelevant if you simply tell the truth.
Next time I will discuss other subjects, such as identifying exhibits in court, how to behave outside of court so that your case is not damaged, and how to comport yourself at the end of the hearing—win or lose. (Hint: High-fiving your family or encouraging courtroom spectators to do “The Wave” is not a wise choice.)