Counsel, Have You Seen Yourself in Court Lately?

Whether you are a public defender that appears in court almost everyday or a litigator that shows up once a month, how you are perceived in court is critical to your cases.

Given the importance of courtroom appearances, have you seen yourself in court lately?

Treat the court with respect

Maybe you think this hearing is not all that important. Maybe you think that your personal reputation or your firm’s reputation gives you some sort of advantage. Maybe it is time to rethink things—oral arguments can be critical to winning motions and cases.

Every moment that you have to make an impression on the court is critical—and it can be dangerously obvious when you take that for granted.

Always say your honor, always be polite, and do not talk over a judge. If you think only young attorneys make these mistakes, think again.

Have you looked in the mirror?

The best argument in the world can be undercut by a lawyer who looks like a bum. The day you go to court is not the day to skip a shower.

Wrinkled shirts, dirty shoes, and ill-fitting suits are easy to fix. This may not be the first time you have appeared before this judge, but it is the first time you have appeared on behalf of a particular client on a particular issue.

If you think a judge already has a favorable impression of you, why risk changing that by looking like a slob?

Counsel’s table is not your office desk

If your idea of organization is to spread papers everywhere and make stacks of incoherency, leave that in your office. There is almost no chance you will need all that mess and even if you do, you will never be able to find anything. Do you really want to be the person shuffling through papers for five minutes while everyone waits?

If you are compelled to bring your entire case file, then keep it in the accordion file. In all likelihood, all you need is your brief and opposing counsel’s brief. If you have prepared, you should not have to read their brief and every attachment while you are sitting there.

If you absolutely cannot resists the temptation to pull things out of your file, make a point to keep things looking neat and tidy.

Take the high ground

Did opposing just throw you under the bus or take a cheap shot at you? Be cool and calculated in your response—throwing a cheap shot of your own will get you nowhere.

An easy way to think of it is to stay with the facts—and leave out your opinion of opposing counsel’s motivation for taking a certain course of action.

If you can stick with the high ground, you should maintain more credibility than the other side. Cheap shots might feel good, but credibility is much more valuable.

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  • Great piece. Sadly, one that remains greatly needed as well. I am one of those civil litigators to which you refer and you hit the nail right on the head. The extent to which lawyers do not understand how the “art of persuasion” reaches much deeper than the logic of our argument or the words we speak — it is literally everything associated with us from which the judge (or jury) can form a perception. It really does amaze me how little self awareness some people have when it comes to these things — especially as professionals.

    I specifically recall a time last Fall when I left one of our local courts in DFW and thought of the attorneys in there, because so many were either very sloppy, very disorganized, had to many “tricked up” pieces to their “wardrobe” that I felt like I had left a circus. It was sad, but those of us who were *traditionally* dressed, deferential and respectful to the court, and not causing a “side show” were in the minority. I left there asking myself, “what has become of my profession?”