Above the Law

If you’re a court virgin, don’t worry, we’ve all been there. Even after a few times, you may still feel a gripping anxiety when your case is called and it’s your turn to go up before the judge. I used to get so nervous that I’d skip breakfast, obsessively review my pleadings, and sit frozen in the courtroom until it was time. Today, I still skip breakfast since I have to wake up earlier regardless, but I’m calmer now about speaking in court and what I have to say. Depending on the court’s rules, I can even play around on my iPhone or relax with a book while waiting for my number on the docket.

Here are my culled tidbits of advice on judicial presentation, some obvious while others not as much.

1. Err on the side of business formal and wear a suit.

Dress the part of the professional, well-groomed attorney even if you’re only going to civil court. You may not be feeling confident on the inside, but you want to feign confidence on the outside. Your dress is integral to presentation and presentation is key to making a good impression.

I believe in always wearing a suit with a nice collared shirt underneath for appearing in court, with neutral make-up and simple jewelry for the ladies. You would be surprised at how many women, in particular, who I see in court, looking absolutely sloppy with dress that would barely pass business casual. Maybe I’m being overly cautious and it really doesn’t matter, but it takes an ounce of effort to don a suit and look your best. Also unless you’re a seasoned litigator, you might not be familiar with the judge who is deciding your motion and whether he or she tends to prefer conservative appearances in the courtroom.

2. Research the judge’s court rules ahead of time.

Don’t assume that knowing the local rules for the state or federal district will be sufficient passage for smooth sailing. Most judges will have their own set of courtroom rules, which you can find online through the court websites. It will be very useful to know the judge’s specific procedures and individual motion practice. Especially if you need to file a document prior to the hearing date or format a document in a particular way to be accepted by the judge. Put a copy of the judge’s court rules in your file because you might need them while at court.

3. Prepare a cheat sheet with a timeline of the procedural background and the important facts or points of your case.

Rifling through a stack of voluminous pleadings to do last minute studying for your oral argument is time-consuming, inefficient, and cumbersome. Save yourself the trouble by prepping a cheat sheet that lays out the procedural background, including filing dates and service dates, for all the pleadings involved in your particular matter. Jot down important facts and points that are likely to be raised in the course of oral argument or discussion. You can simply refer to this one piece of paper when you want to give yourself a refresher. It’s even worse if you have to rifle through your file in front of the judge to answer a question. If it wasn’t already committed to memory, the answer should be on your legal cheat sheet for quick reference.

4. Bring your firm’s calendar, extra business cards, and additional copies of any order or other papers that you may need to submit in court.

Once again, it pays to be prepared so there are fewer reasons to be anxious about going to court. Bring your firm’s calendar – you want to immediately know which dates are available if the judge wants to adjourn to a later date or schedule another hearing. Bring extra business cards – you want to hand them to the court reporter so your information is easily put on the record and to opposing counsel for future communications and possible settlement. Bring additional copies of documents pertinent to the basis for your court appearance – you don’t want to come up short if it just so happens that you were required to submit a hard copy or the judge wanted a copy of the proposed order separate from the motion papers. If you have all the tools in your box ready, you can’t be caught unaware if something comes up.

5. Be respectful and polite, not loud and argumentative.

Forget the TV stereotypes of courtroom lawyers who are flagrantly loud and dramatic. That kind of demeanor is unnecessary to get your point across and only serves to irritate the judge. A skilled litigator can make himself (or herself) heard without needing to be stubbornly argumentative. Be respectful and polite when addressing the court, don’t interrupt the judge or your opponent, and speak in an assertive manner without acting hostile or defensive.

Bonus tip: Refrain from using the word “like” and don’t end your sentences like a question. It makes you sound uncertain.

6. Try to take notes, even if you don’t understand what the judge is saying or requesting.

Your memory can get fuzzy after the adrenaline rush of public speaking. Take notes on the judge’s comments regarding the facts and law of your case because it will help you later when litigating the same issues. The judge may give you instructions on the next step, such as settling the order. Even if you don’t understand the legal procedure or implications, you can present your notes to the senior attorney or partner for clarification.

7. Remember that it all lasts only a few minutes and you can grab a coffee afterward.

The waiting is the hardest part. Once you’re actually before the judge, you should be done within a few minutes, ten minutes at most, unless you’re there for a trial. You will feel like a weight’s been lifted off your shoulders and you’re free to go about the rest of your day. I like to kick off my high heeled pumps and treat myself to a coffee at Starbucks before heading back to the office. In retrospect, your time in court is going to be a blip on the radar. So enjoy your coffee and watch yourself become a court veteran of judicial presentation.

Sunny Choi is the 2013 Writers in Residence Coordinator for Ms. JD. She is a former participant in the Writers in Residence program, where her monthly column Legally Thrifty focused on beginners personal finance advice for law students and professionals. A graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, she currently practices commercial litigation and creditors’ rights while freelance writing and blogging in her spare time. She can be reached at contentdirector@ms-jd.org.