On Courtroom Etiquette and the Practice of Law

The first time you take the lead in a courtroom can be terrifying. You’re now working with the clerks, judges, and other colleagues that will determine not only the outcome of your case, but potentially the future of your career. Maybe they got on the judge’s bad side by showing up late or were condescending to the clerk, but one bad day in court can haunt a lawyer’s reputation for years. A lawyer’s treatment of opposing counsel is also important during hearings. You may think that rudeness to other lawyers helps win a case, but it does not win friends. No matter the transgression, a lawyer’s behavior in the courtroom has impact well beyond the length of the trial or hearing. Lawyers should always keep the following goals in mind when appearing in court:

Advance your client’s interests

This is the reason you are appearing in court—to push forward some aspect of a case that is important to your client. Never forget that is your reason for appearing before the judge. But many lawyers can take zealous advocacy too far. Keeping on the court’s good side is one of the best ways to advance your client’s case. And while everyone knows to be respectful to the judge, smart lawyers remember to behave similarly respectful to the clerk who is assisting the judge. Think of it as going out on a nice dinner date and being perfectly charming to your date, but rude or dismissive to the host that seats you. Keep doing that and you’ll always end up with a bad table at the restaurant. Bad behavior to anyone is not a good reflection of your character as a person, let alone as a professional.

Advance the smooth operations of the court

Every court has a set of local rules that goes above and beyond normal civil or criminal procedure. Some of these rules may seem onerous, but judges impose them to make their courts run in a predictable fashion. Always take the time to familiarize yourself with a new court’s rules. It not only gets you on the clerk’s nice list, but it also prevents unnecessary delays in the handling of your motions and requests. Playing by the rules is good gamesmanship on your part.

Advance collegiality among lawyers

There will come a day when you need something from opposing counsel. A family emergency may require you to request a delay. A scheduled vacation may conflict with some of the upcoming hearing dates being considered. At some point, you will need cooperation from the lawyer on the other side. Take that fact into account when dealing with other lawyers and the court. You will likely see the opposing counsel again, and you’ll definitely see the judge again. A worst case scenario could be that you see opposing counsel, now appointed as a judge ruling on your case. So whether you win or lose this one case, it will not be the last you see of them.

They will remember you; think long-term. Even though it’s built on them, courtroom etiquette is not just about rules and decorum. Sure, being collegiate with one another means that you’re more likely to come to a speedy resolution and it makes rescheduling easier in the future (if you leave the opposing counsel with a good impression), but courtroom etiquette also contributes to the legal community. If your goals include your clients’ interests, your own long-term professional interests, and the well-being of the profession as a whole, then courtroom etiquette is the key. Ultimately, you’re creating a better experience for both lawyers and clients—and that is the highest level of achievement in the practice of law.

Want to learn more about the dos and don’ts of courtroom etiquette? Watch David Lat (founder of Above the Law), the Hon. Judge Stephen Dillard, and Clio’s own Joshua Lenon as they discuss the finer points of courtroom etiquette in this free on-demand webinar.

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