Three Things You’re Doing in Court that Make You Look Bad

One of the best things about being a law clerk is getting to be in court every day. Clerks get to learn what to do when they are standing on the other side of the bar. Almost more importantly, trial court clerks get to see first hand what not to do while representing someone. During my two years as a trial court clerk I’ve seen lawyers do some crazy things, but there are three that stand out due to their regularity.

Not Being Prepared

I almost didn’t include this in the list. But when I took an informal survey of a half dozen court reporters and court staff, this was the first thing they all said. Yikes. I have no substantive advice to give on this point. Unfortunately, it’s still worth mentioning. It’s worth mentioning that attorneys have a duty to their clients to be prepared. It’s worth mentioning that you can’t zealously represent someone if you don’t know what the case is about. And it’s worth mentioning that when attorneys show up unprepared it hurts their own reputation as much as it hurts their client.

Not Knowing the Local Rules

There are 67 counties in Pennsylvania. Each has its own local rules, motions procedures, and general policies.In addition, each county has numerous judges, who also each have their own way of doing things. The same is true of almost any state in the country. With so many small variations and local policies, it’s impossible to know how things are done in a place you’ve never been. Moreover, judges in one place don’t want to hear about how things are done elsewhere.

Luckily, there are two incredibly easy steps you can take to fix this problem. First, use the internet. It’s the twenty first century. Most local rules are online and accessible for free. But knowing the local rules only gets you halfway there. You also have to know about the judge you will be in front of. So either call the judge’s chambers and ask the staff, or contact the local bar association to get the name of a local attorney you can ask.

Looking Like You Just Woke Up

We all have bad hair days. That’s forgivable. But showing up in court with your tie barely on, your top button unbuttoned, or your shirt wrinkled beyond recognition, is not. I see this at least once a week. It’s especially bad when an attorney shows up disheveled and late. If you’re running late anyway, be another two minutes late and come in looking presentable.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dagnygromer/6370634731/)

Lawyering Skills

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  • http://ecarrollstraus.com ECS

    Wow, you guys must have a lot more time than lawyers where I love to hang out looking up local court rules and call around to get the scoop! I think it is ridiculous to have that much local “how we do it”–“67 counties in Pennsylvania. Each has its own local rules, motions procedures, and general policies.In addition, each county has numerous judges, who also each have their own way of doing things”– and expect lawyers to know it. If you are so determined to have your own different way of doing things HAND OUT THESE RULES TO EVERYONE.

    I have looked up court rules on line and they NEVER made any sense at all–they were as badly written as statutes. And I did law school in TWO YEARS folks!

    • r. dernister

      You get the secret decoder at the end of your THIRD year of law school. Then all becomes clear.

    • IC

      I think it’s ridiculous that Pennsylvania has 67 counties.

  • http://brucegodfrey.com/ Bruce Godfrey

    While there are local variations on interpretations of rules in Maryland, “local rules” were happily abolished decades ago and the Rules here are clear enough to avoid major mistakes.

  • Stephen

    Someone please give me an example of how you would go about getting a judge’s policies from his court coordinator. You will get laughed at if you simply call and say “How does Judge X handles Y matters in his or her court?”

    In my experience, you will get little from them. They expect you to know the rules and are not there to provide them to you. They don’t really care where you get help, but it is usually not worth their time to help young lawyers learn the specifics for their judge.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Really? I do that all the time, and it is usually really helpful.

    • http://consumerlawyer.mn/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Randall Ryder

      Step 1: call the court.

      Step 2: ask your question.

      Step 3: do what the clerk says.

      • http://lawyerist.com/author/joshcamson/ Josh Camson

        As a clerk I got questions like this all the time. Unless the attorney is asking for a prediction on how the judge will rule on a matter, most clerks will answer any question.

  • http://www.LawWorcester.com Greg

    With the advent of internet advertising I often get cases from all over my state and if the case is sufficiently interesting and/or profitable I am happy to travel to new courts. It takes about 2 minutes to introduce myself to the Clerk or a defense attorney who is local to the area to learn important things such as:
    * Will the clerk call my case in due order or do I need to notify him/her that my case is ready and if so, do I do it directly or through a court officer (some judges and clerks make a huge issue of this);
    * Is the ADA reasonable of a “true believer” that is difficult to deal with and if so, is there another ADA I can steer my case towards.
    * How is the judge on my issue (i.e. jury waived OUI trial/sex crime or B&E, both of which some judges are tough on/probation violations/ etc).

    We have a judge in the area who has a pet peeve about having every shirt tucked in, and I mean EVERY shirt. Even an outfit that may belong out by design MUST be tucked in or the case will be held until the end of the session. I happen to appreciate good courtroom decorum and respectful dress for court. But more importantly, its important to make sure my client is properly in compliance if I want to get out of that court before lunch break.

    It takes about 2 minutes to introduce myself to a local attorney as new to the court and ask a few questions of a local issues. I simply ask the defense attorneys if they have experience in front of this judge and how they are with whatever I am trying to do that day.

  • http://www.christopherwattslaw.com Christopher

    You know, there is a simple way to determine how a judge gererally handles his or her call. Visit the courtroom. Sit quietly in the back of the room. Take notes on how lawyers check in, how cases are called, protocols among lawyers, clerks, and the judge. You would be suprised how effective this little step can be. You have done your homework, and look like a pro.

  • http://www.RichSweeneyLaw.com Rich Sweeney

    Excellent article!
    I learned early to look presentable after meeting one attorney who was not. People made fun of him behind his back. Smart fellow, but shirt untucked and tie askew. for some, it is not automatic to be presentable.
    Be prepared (Boy Scout motto). I was waiting for my case to be called and the attorney before me had not read the presentence report. The judge yelled at him at the top of his lungs! I had already read my client’s report.
    Another time I waited all morning in a court for my case to be called. Why? Because we are supposed to sign in. Now I know. Next new court, I’ll talk to the clerk first. Not all courts require sign-in. Few do.
    All excellent points.