Court staff are crucial to any litigator’s success. Making their jobs easier and their workplace more pleasant will pay you big dividends. Making them fell insulted or frustrated will cost you big-time.
While most lawyers understand how court staff fit into the legal system, far too many lawyers fail to realize how a lawyer’s reputation with staff can affect the quality and results of his work. Court employees are usually an experienced, tightly-knit group who are seemingly always the target of budget cuts. While most have never written a scholarly essay on jurisprudence, they understand the law and how it functions far better than many lawyers, and they have many opportunities to help or hinder a lawyer’s efforts. I spent almost four years as a judicial clerk, and I was continually stunned by how many lawyers were intensely disliked by staff—and for good reasons.
Put On Your Happy Face
Lawyering at the courthouse is often a lonely and difficult business. A lawyer must wear a mask—to his client, the judge, and jury, he must appear confident and professional at all times. But too often, the mask comes off when court is no longer in session. The natural human desire to gossip, vent, or complain winds up being directed at court employees, but they are usually not interested in having those conversations with lawyers. I also heard dozens of stories of lawyers initiating conversations with staff (including judicial clerks) to criticize opposing counsel on a personal level, or even to mock their own clients. This is a quick way to earn a reputation as (at best) a pest, and (at worst) a lunatic.
I was also amazed to hear stories of lawyers treating court employees as if they worked for the lawyer, with the lawyer playing the role of tyrannical boss. Considering the fact that the key to the kingdom—the official case file—is created, controlled, and protected by court employees, it is beyond foolish to annoy or mistreat them.
Don’t Mess With the Judge’s Team
Finally, judges spend their day in the company of staff, rely on them, and are protective of them. Judges and staff talk about good vs. bad lawyer behavior every day, and some judges are more likely than others to take advantage of an opportunity to make an example of a lawyer with a reputation for being less than easy to deal with.
So be on time, smile, say please and thank you, ask questions that show you respect court staff expertise, and think about maybe bringing treats once in a while. If you do, court staff will go out of their way to reply to your e-mails and phone calls, correct your mistakes, and get you out of a jam. They’ll also speak highly of you to both judges and potential clients.