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.