What the Judge’s Staff Wishes Every Lawyer Knew

Vol. 16 No. 7

By

Allison J. Lavoie is the law clerk for the Honorable Michael Warren of the Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac, Michigan. She can be contacted at lavoiea@oakgov.com. Victoria B. King is the judicial staff attorney for the Honorable Leo Bowman of the Oakland County Circuit Court. She can be contacted at kingv@oakgov.com.

Most young lawyers will interact with the judge’s staff in some way or another—filing pleadings, making courtroom appearances, or contacting the judge’s chambers. While all courtrooms and judges are different, here are some important things that every new lawyer should know. Some of these tips may seem rather basic, but they are often overlooked.

Filing Pleadings and Motions/Briefs

Timely filing hinges on knowing the scheduling order, paying attention to its language such as “heard by date” or “filed by date,” and knowing the judge’s protocol.

Support all requests by citing to the appropriate court rule, statute, or case law. Unsupported requests are usually denied.

Support requests for reasonable attorney fees and costs with the necessary documentation. Depending on the jurisdiction, that may be an affidavit, an account ledger, or an analysis of rates and hours.

Courtroom Etiquette—General

Know the judge. Most courtrooms are open to the public, so go and observe judges to understand how they handle different issues and situations. Observing the judge is also beneficial for observing examples of “good” and “bad” attorney practices. If possible, observe the judge before your appearance.

Do not use electronics in the courtroom. It is surprising how often this occurs, and it can appear as blatant disrespect to the judge.

Most courts do not permit gum, food, or beverages in the courtroom.

Courtroom Etiquette—
Motion Call

Know the courtroom protocol, such as checking in/out, cell phone use, sitting or standing, obtaining signed orders, and how cases are called.

Assume that the judge reviewed the pleadings and is familiar with the parties’ arguments.

Focus on pertinent information or anything that has arisen since the brief was filed and take cues from the judge (e.g., “Would you like to rely on your pleadings?”) during oral arguments.

Be honest with the judge. Do not attempt to lay blame on the judge’s staff. The judge will eventually learn the truth, and you may not receive the relief being sought.

Obtain clarity from the judge regarding the ruling, but be cautious in disputing the ruling because it will likely anger the judge.

Judges speak through their orders, so it is critical to obtain a signed order either granting or denying the requested relief. Know your judge’s protocol related to orders.

Come prepared with a proposed order because even if the judge deviates slightly in the ruling, it is easier to amend the proposed order than to start from scratch. Furthermore, in most cases, it is not the responsibility of the judge’s staff to draft the order.

Courtroom Etiquette—
Trials and Other Hearings

Know the judge’s policy regarding submission of jury instructions, voir dire, and trial briefs. These items may also be addressed in the scheduling order issued by the judge. Most judges want parties to submit a stipulated set of jury instructions. If the parties cannot agree, most judges want a motion filed before the trial date so that they can rule on objections before a jury panel is waiting outside the courtroom.

Tell the judge’s staff about settlements promptly so they can manage the trial docket.

Arrive prepared to go to trial on the trial date. Calling to verify the trial schedule and specifically the priority of the case is permitted; however, making multiple calls suggests to the court that the attorney is unprepared or that the case may settle at the very last second.

Be on time. When attorneys arrive late, it is disrespectful to everyone. If tardiness is unavoidable, call and provide the judge’s staff with an estimated arrival time.

Contacting Chambers

The judge’s staff is responsible for enforcing the judge’s policies.

The judge’s staff will be consistent when they provide answers to questions, so do not ask the same question three different ways, “shop around” for an answer by speaking with different members of the judge’s staff, or ask questions when the answer is known.

The judge’s staff serves the judge. They are not able to give advice regarding how an attorney should proceed with a case.

The judge’s staff is an extension of the judge and the gatekeeper to enforcing the judge’s policies.

The judge’s staff should always be cordial and friendly to the attorneys; however, they may not be interested in carrying on a personal conversation. Please respect their time.

Ultimately, every judge is different. Use each appearance before a particular judge as an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the individual judge’s likes and dislikes. Understand that the judge’s staff is an extension of the judge, so treat them with the same respect as you would the judge. If you do not treat them with respect, the judge will be aware and may inquire about any potentially inappropriate interactions on the record. Overall, the mission of the judge’s staff is to maintain an efficient and positive work environment for the judge, the attorneys, and the litigants who visit the courtroom.

Allison J. Lavoie is the law clerk for the Honorable Michael Warren of the Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac, Michigan. She can be contacted at lavoiea@oakgov.com. Victoria B. King is the judicial staff attorney for the Honorable Leo Bowman of the Oakland County Circuit Court. She can be contacted at kingv@oakgov.com.

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