Things Judges Like to See from Young Attorneys
By Jocelyn Gabrynowicz Hill
Jocelyn Gabrynowicz Hill is currently clerking for the Honorable Mark I. Bernstein in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Commerce Program. She can be reached at Jocelyn.firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a law clerk, I have seen a judge rip a young attorney to shreds. I have also seen young attorneys fare exceedingly well before that same judge. I submit that the difference stems not from severe mood swings on the part of the judge but from the attitude of the attorneys. If you, like me, have nightmares about incurring your judge’s ire, here are a few things you can do to ensure smooth sailing at your next court appearance.
When you argue a motion before a court, start from the beginning. Judges have very large caseloads. They do not know you or your case as well as you do. Introduce yourself; tell the judge which party you represent, including whether your client is the plaintiff or defendant. Describe the motion that you will argue. Tell the judge what relief you are requesting and list the pertinent reasons your relief should be granted. By outlining your argument at the outset, you give the judge a road map for your later development of the facts and the law applicable to your case. If you start in the middle, it will be a confusing affair for all involved.
When you question a witness on the stand, make sure you actually question the witness. While this may sound obvious, if you are questioning a witness, make sure you ask clearly formulated questions. Lawyers sometimes fall into the habit of directing statements at a witness rather than asking questions. Interrogation in court is not a conversation. Lawyers who converse with a witness are unable to control that witness and are thus unable to ascertain the truth. When you ask a clear question, it is obvious when a witness dodges the question by offering explanations or qualifications. If you ask the witness a clearly formulated question, a judge can insist that the witness answer the question.
Be a good listener. Listening is very important. If the judge asks you a question, do your best to answer. Even if the question seems to be coming out of left field, the question concerns a matter of importance to the person who is going to decide your case. Read the judge’s signals. If things are going in your favor and the judge says, “Anything else?” resist the temptation to air your third and fourth argument on the subject. Unless you have yet to cover a crucial element, quit while you are ahead or you may cause the judge to reconsider.
Be punctual. Show up on time—even if you know your judge is always late. That one time you show up late the judge will surprise you and show up early.
Build a good reputation, not a bad one. If you appear before a judge more than once, the judge will get to know you and your reputation. If you are always punctual, prepared, and candid, you will earn favor with your judge. A good reputation for honesty and fair play will work to the benefit of you and your clients. If you are known to be trustworthy, the judge will give you the benefit of the doubt. Conversely, a bad reputation will work against you. If you act like you know more than the judge, you fervently argue frivolous positions, or you consistently try to hide the ball in discovery, you will earn yourself a bad reputation before the judge. If your judge does not like you, your nightmares could become reality.
- Questions from the Bench. 2005. PC # 5310334. Section of Litigation.
- McElhaney’s Trial Notebook, Fourth Ed. 2005. PC # 5310348. Section of Litigation.
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