Rural Court Appearances (for Metro Lawyers)

Even a metro attorney will find themselves in a rural court room. And even a seasoned attorney may look inexperienced in front of their client when put into an unknown environment.

However, a little preparation will help keep you on your game, even when appearing in a rural courtroom.

Know where the court house is

This is fairly obvious, but know where the rural courthouse is and allow plenty of time to get there. No judge—rural or not—has patience for attorneys who are running late. Also, get there before your client. Beyond knowing where the courthouse is, find a conference room, locate the bathrooms so you can let your client know where they are, and check in with court staff. These little things will keep your client comfortable and keep you focused on your upcoming legal argument instead of trying to track something down at the last minute.

Know your rural judge

As with anything, know your audience. Different judges have different preferences and knowing them will impress both the judge and your client. So, how do you find out those preferences? First, you might be able to find them directly from the horse’s mouth. In Minnesota, our state bar association has put together a  database of judicial preferences. This online resource posts responses from Minnesota District Court judges to questionnaires covering everything from whether the judge prefers that you stand or remain seated when addressing the court to how frequently the judge has held council in contempt.

So what if you don’t have a similar resource in your state? Reach out to rural attorneys you know who practice in that area. That guy from your first year contracts study group who practices in that part of the state will probably not mind giving you a few minutes to give you the ins and outs of a local court. Also, if you have a strictly procedural question that state court rules don’t address, contact court staff or the judicial law clerk. They may be able to find out how the judge wants a filing submitted without you committing prohibited ex parte contact. 

Know when to stay home

In some cases you don’t need to spend the time or bill your clients for the travel expense of driving half the day to a rural courthouse. Some judges allow attorneys to appear by phone, especially if the hearing addresses more procedural issues than legal argument. Checking a judicial preference database or contacting court staff will let you know if the judge is open to a phone appearance. Also, you may find it in both you and your client’s best interest to have a local attorney appear on your behalf. Your client may appreciate not paying for travel time and you might appreciate spending that time in your office. Consider it rural outsourcing. However, be sure to speak with your client about such an arrangement and check your local ethics rules regarding bringing additional council on board.

With a little preparation, you can be as comfortable in a rural courtroom as your home courtroom.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kansasexplorer3128/172855121)

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  • When I get a call about a criminal case in greater Minnesota, I always suggest the caller could benefit from retaining a lawyer located near the venue of the case – by saving extra fees for travel time, and local counsel’s local knowledge. Sometimes they “thank me for my honesty;” sometimes they simply must have me – despite the greater cost.

    My approach to any fear of an “anti-outsider bias” is my sincere love for the beautiful places all around minnesota, and the wonderful people there. I prefer most rural court to most metro courts, though I mostly practice in the metro. people can sense this, and reflect it back. It works for me!

  • I might add that a little humility goes a long way.

  • Fritz Ebinger

    Jen is right. When it comes to knowing rural judges and decorum, one of the best pieces of advice I was given (by a rural judge) was to call the judge’s court reporter and ask him/her about the judge’s preferences and expectations. Should I sit or stand when speaking? Is a scheduling hearing just a scheduling hearing? Is the judge serious or does he appreciate humor? A quick five minute phone call will do wonders to resolve the unknown and calm fears. Fundamentally, “rural” judges are just like “city” judges – they always appreciate courtesy and basic human decency

  • Pat Stoneking

    That MSBA link is a fantastic resource. Thanks for that.

    Never act like you are being inconvenienced by the trip. I once had a half-hour summary judgment hearing with another Minneapolis attorney in Crookston and we both made the drive. The judge looked at us like we were crazy and said we could have done a video conference from Hennepin.
    The other attorney and I agreed: some issues are too important to risk looking like the party who thinks he is too good to bother being there in person.

  • As a greater Minnesota attorney (Alexandria), there is a benefit to seeing the same judge over and over that Cities attorneys might not have in terms of knowing judicial preferences on various issues. Calling the judge’s clerk is good, calling an attorney who practices in that neck of the woods is even better.

    In my experience, I think some Cities (and even St. Cloud) attorneys just come in too hard-charging (I don’t know why), and out here it seems like a lot of judges are turned off by that (but there are some small-town attorneys who are the same way). I think the fact most of the attorneys and judges see each other every few days takes a lot of the venom out of things, we can advocate for our clients but don’t get too far out of hand.

    I am often amazed at the friendly and laid-back demeanor of a lot of the judges out here, and I think they expect the attorneys to follow suit, be cordial, and get things done with a minimum of posturing, or they’ll let you know about it.

    • Derek A.

      As a metro-area attorney who worked as a judicial clerk in outstate Minnesota, I can second the impression that metro-area attorneys sometimes come off as overly hard-charging.

      • Scott

        Derek,

        It’s “Greater Minnesota”. Not outstate. That might be a tip, too.