Courtrooms, long steeped in tradition, are one of the last true vestiges of decorum—but given the behavior of some attorneys, this fact seems to be lost on many. While there are plenty of rules when it comes to courtroom etiquette, many of them are implicit, rather than explicit. We had David Lat (a former Federal Court clerk and founder of the wildly popular Underneath Their Robes and Above the Law blogs) and the Hon. Judge Stephen Dillard (73rd judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals) join us for an ironically informal discussion aimed at helping lawyers navigate the treacherous terrain of courtroom etiquette.
Appellate courts cannot be swayed by emotion similar to jury courts—so know the difference. Both Judge Dillard and David Lat cited attorneys appearing in appellate courts attempting to sway judges with jury arguments as a frequent etiquette violation. Appellate judges are there to ensure fair proceedings happen and interpret the law or apply it to a unique set of facts—implying they can be swayed by emotion can be interpreted as disrespectful.
Don’t Be Brief
“You’re in an appellate court to have a conversation with the judges,” says Judge Dillard. Don’t just stand at the podium and read your brief—judges are more than capable of reading it themselves; and ensure you’re promptly responding to any questions coming from the judges.
Do Your Research
From simply researching judge’s last names (do this), to being able to properly identify the correct judge (do this also), to familiarizing yourself with the judge’s local rules, there’s a wealth of prep work that lawyers can do before appearing in a particular court for the first time. “Thanks to the Internet,” said David Lat, “this information is now widely available, and simply knowing to look for it is half the battle.” There is no longer a valid excuse for lawyers not be armed with this information going into court. With that being said, there are still many ‘unwritten’ rules that vary wildly from district to district and county to county. Whenever possible, survey local counsel, reach out to court clerks, or attend the courthouse and sit in on the proceedings yourself to familiarize yourself with how the judge runs their courtroom.
Lose the Zeal
Aim for passion over zealousness, says Judge Dillard—and stop portraying attorneys as zealous advocates. “In what other instance do we praise zealots? Aim for ‘effective’ over ‘zealous’.” This doesn’t mean that you can’t be passionate, but when confronted with an unprofessional opposing counsel, don’t lower yourself to their level. A good barometer for this is maintaining eye contact with the judge.
Judge Dillard states that he won’t even make eye contact with an attorney who’s behaving badly. Above all, keep your focus on the argument you’re making. It’s important for attorneys to keep their behavior top of mind at all times. As both Judge Dillard and David Lat expressed, it can take years, even decades, for attorneys to build their reputation—and only seconds to lose it. Follow the advice from Judge Dillard and David Lat in our webinar and win your next battle in court with congeniality and grace.
Looking for advice on how to improve your own courtroom behavior? Watch this free, on-demand webinar now.