Bad Day in Court? Don’t Worry, No One Noticed

Lots of lawyers avoid the courtroom like the plague. If you asked why, they’d probably give you a bunch of nonsense about how their skills are more suited to negotiation, or writing, or management, when the real reason is probably that they can’t stand the thought of being the center of attention. Not every lawyer loves to be onstage. I’ve found most lawyers struggle to even be average in terms of being confident and effective public speakers. A few are great, most are mediocre, and far too many are awful.

But apparently I’m just more interested in critiquing lawyers in court than most other people are. It turns out that you’re not only just another suit in the crowd; you’re also just another lawyer blabbing on in court, and few people are even paying attention.

This is not to say you shouldn’t strive to get better, but you can probably relax about committing the occasional courtroom gaffe. Because it turns out that almost everyone is too busy worrying about themselves to notice when you say or do something embarrassing.

Things fall apart

So there you go into court, sporting your coolest lawyer uniform, shoes shined, file studied, arguments ready. You’re prepared because when it’s your turn to shine, everyone is going to be watching and listening.

But when your case is finally called, you stand up, and things go downhill fast. You drop your file, and the papers fly everywhere. Flustered, you lose track of your argument and don’t present it as well as you’d planned. Things get even worse when you refer to your client as Ms. Smith when her name is Schmitt, and she corrects you on the record. When, mercifully, you finish the hearing, you duck into the restroom to wash your face and take a few deep breaths. That’s when you notice that as you marched confidently down the sidewalk to the courthouse that morning, the wind blew your hair into a glorious bed-head.

Crushing, right? Everyone observed every detail of this debacle! Not exactly.

Wait. What?

Social science researcher Thomas Giloivch did a study at Cornell in 1996. He sent subjects dressed in t-shirts with large images of Barry Manilow on the fronts into crowded classrooms where students were filling out a survey. The subject had to walk to the front of the dead-quiet room and talk to the instructor, and then had to leave a few moments later. The subjects believed 50% of the students noticed the dopey shirt. In fact, only 25% did. When other subjects wore “cool” shirts that they chose themselves, the subjects again thought 50% of the students noticed. Only 10% did. Other research confirmed the results; people just don’t pay attention to one another nearly as much as a typically self-conscious individual believes they do. This mistaken belief that everyone is paying attention to you is called the Spotlight Effect.

In the courtroom, far fewer would notice than in the classroom, since in court a typical observer is either somebody else’s client (and very distracted by their own reasons for being in court) or a lawyer too (also distracted) or court staff (who are too busy working to notice minor screw-ups).

As it turns out, the only way people will remember your gaffes is if you over-apologize for them. Just let them go and get out of there.

The rather sad corollary to this is, of course, that when you do rock the courthouse to its foundations with your lawyering awesomeness, that goes pretty much unnoticed too. But the judge heard you, and so did your client. And that’s all that matters.

(photo: blonde business woman covers her face from Shutterstock)

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  • Great points. My cousin is a violinist. We went to a concert once and one of the other musicians made a huge mistake. Afterward he said, “If he just would have acted naturally no one would have noticed.” If you act like you meant to do it, 90% of the time you can skate by.