Court TV shows are a guilty pleasure for many people, including lawyers. Sometimes, the parties on there may even be your clients, and sometimes they will even call you in a panic asking what they should do.
I’ve advised clients that went on The People’s Court (with multiple different judges), Judge Judy, Hot Bench (which features a three-judge panel for small claims disputes), Judge Joe Brown and others. Here’s what you (and your clients) need to know when a client contacts you asking for advice about an offer to appear on one of these shows.1
How Daytime Court Shows Find Cases
Many of these shows now allow parties to contact the show directly and apply for their case to be heard, but the usual method is that these shows hire people to scour small claims court case filings in metro areas throughout the country. If they find a case that looks interesting they usually overnight an offer to the plaintiff to see if they want to be on the show. If the plaintiff agrees, they’ll contact the defendant. If both parties agree to go on TV, then the actual court case must be dismissed by the plaintiff (and the defendant if there was a counterclaim).
Are These Actually Court Cases?
No. These court shows are probably best described as binding, unappealable, televised arbitration. The ‘judges’ wear robes, swing gavels and are protected by a bailiff, but despite these signs, these aren’t real court proceedings. Unlike most small claims court cases heard throughout the country, there is certainly no meaningful way to appeal what any of these TV judges decree.
Reasons Your Client Should Go on a Court TV Show
Appearance fees: These shows all seem to pay an appearance fee–usually somewhere between $100 and $500 regardless of who the winner is in the case. There are rumors of fees close to $1,000 if the cases are particularly interesting (which means a case that involves sex, mainly).
Free travel: Depending on where your client lives, they might be flown to California, New York, or Chicago. It’s usually California.
Fame: If people really want to be on TV, this is one way to get there.
Speed: Usually, when these shows contact people, they want an immediate response, and they want to fly people to the studio within weeks or sometimes even days. This is much faster than most court hearings are scheduled.
Guaranteed money: This might be the strongest selling point of court television shows. Typically, if a client sues someone in small claims court, they aren’t guaranteed any money, even if they win, because of the need to enforce the judgment. But on these shows, if one side wins money, the show pays the judgment to the winner.
If they think they will lose: Since the show pays the judgment to the winner, the loser obviously does not pay anything. If the case looks like a loser, this is a great way of getting out of having to pay the judgment, as long as your client doesn’t mind being embarrassed on television.
Reasons Your Client Should Stay Far Away from These Shows
Reduced claim: The maximum any of these shows currently pays out to winners is $5,000. In 15 states, people can sue for $10,000 or more in small claims court In Tennessee (the highest) parties can sue for up to $25,000. These shows just ask the parties to lower their demand if it’s over $5,000.
The law might not matter: These shows are entertainment and don’t really care what the applicable law is. A contract is probably the only piece of admissible evidence they’ll value. If there is some relevant state law, it’s likely that it will be ignored. In other words, a case that should win in an actual court can easily go the other way on one of these shows.
Limited witnesses: Normally, in small claims court a client can bring as many witnesses as they wish or as they need. On these shows, the showrunners try to minimize expenses by paying for travel for only one or maybe two witnesses at the most. Also, the judge can cut off witnesses any time they please.
No appeal: Once your client gets a decision from Judge Judy or Judge Joe Brown, it’s pretty much final.
Humiliation: If you watch these shows long enough you realize that they like to have a big finish where the judge yells at one of the parties, or at least tries to embarrass them. This is undoubtedly tied to ratings, which is the only thing that really matters for these shows. Yelling apparently makes for good ratings. Yelling at lawyers who appear on the show as plaintiffs or defendants probably makes for absolutely fantastic ratings.
Tips to Give Your Client to Help Them Win
The interview: Once they agree to go on the show, there will be an interview. Somebody with the show will be assigned to their case and ask for details. This interview is critical and will have a significant impact on the judge’s view of the case. I recently talked to a couple of people who went on one of these shows.2 They were convinced that the interview process was the key to their case. Clients should be cautioned to think carefully before they answer the interviewer’s questions, particularly because you can’t be there to help them. What they say can and will be used against them.
Evidence: If your client has evidence, tell them to bring it. If your client has no evidence, tell them not even to mention it. One sure way to get on a TV judge’s bad side is to try to talk about evidence that isn’t there.
Interrupting: You can tell your client that some of this is quite a bit like a real-life court hearing. They should only speak when it is their turn. If they interrupt the other side, the judge will be mad. If they interrupt the judge, the judge will be furious.
Something for your client to keep in mind is that the people behind the show want ratings, not a correct legal result. Because of that, show handlers may encourage your client to ramp up their combativeness and might even recommend interrupting the other side, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.
Humor: Even if your client is a professional stand-up comedian, tell them not to be funny. In these courtrooms, the judges are convinced they are the funniest people in the room. Any attempt at humor will probably look (to the judge) like your client is grandstanding.
Watch the shows: Before your client agrees to go on one of these shows, tell them to watch several episodes in order see what they’re like. The recent TV court show litigant I spoke to said that their court case was over in less than two minutes. With editing and commercials, the shows can stretch this out to seem like six to eight minutes, but the actual hearing can be painfully brief. They dislike reshooting things because they prefer the first take from everybody, so the reactions are (somewhat) genuine.
Dress respectfully: Just like in a real courtroom setting, there isn’t much downside for appearing respectful. Even though these aren’t real courtrooms, the judges like to act like they are.
Be concise: The client won’t win one of these cases by having a dramatic, big finish. As in small claims court, they should lead with their best argument because at some point the judge will decide they’ve heard enough and tell both sides to stop talking.
Let the judge yell: If the judge decides to turn your client’s opponent into their yelling/shaming receptacle, your client needs to keep their mouth closed. Even trying to agree can backfire as the judge may decide that they need to appear “fair” and acquire your client as their new target.
Accept the outcome: While everyone that goes on one of these show wants to win, half of the people who appear end up losing, and with no appeal, that is the end of the line. Your client will have to be happy with that free trip, the appearance fee and the fleeting fame.