As societal norms have shifted over time, courtroom behavior and etiquette have also changed. Much of the counsel we as practicing attorneys provide to clients is rooted in the law, but we also advise clients on what may or may not be appropriate behavior in court, as your behavior may significantly influence the outcome of your case. As a general rule, each court is different, and some judges may be more relaxed than others and some are more formal. This article, however, is designed to be a resource for every client in every courtroom in the country on the norms of respect and decorum that should be observed.
Being late to court is the worst way to start a court appearance, and it is also something that can easily be prevented with proper planning. To avoid a bad start to court, please follow these tips.
1. Visit the Courthouse and Courtroom Before Your Court Date
Most clients are unfamiliar with the location of the courthouse and the nearby parking or public transit stops. I recommend that clients who have never been to their courthouse take the time to drive to it on a day before their court appearance, find a parking lot, and familiarize themselves with their route. It is important that you know all this so that you will not be navigating your way around on the day of court when other things need to be on the forefront of your mind. It is also helpful to find the location of your courtroom inside the courthouse and to prepare for the security lines and regulations that you will have to face the day of court.
2. Plan on Meeting Your Attorney Earlier than Your Scheduled Court Appearance Time
Always plan to be early by making sure that you have filled up your car with gas the day before; you have payment for a court reporter, parking attendant, or transit the night before; and you have cash and access to it so that you can avoid having to stop for money the morning of court.
3. Clear Your Calendar for Court
Clear your schedule, arrange child care if necessary, and plan on being at court the entire day (even if only scheduled for an hour or so). Schedules shift, things change, and it is best if you can be flexible and not have a conflict that could have been avoided.
I always have questions from clients on what they should wear to court. I have found that what is considered acceptable attire for both attorneys and clients depends on the jurisdiction, but there are some general guidelines that should always be observed.
1. Dress Professionally
Men and women alike should wear a suit or something that would qualify as business causal at the very least. Lay it out the night before and make sure that nothing needs to be dry-cleaned or laundered ahead of time.
2. Avoid Expensive Jewelry and Designer Labels
Court is not the time to flash those expensive jewels or give the impression to the judge that you have money to burn with excessively expensive handbags, watches, or shoes. If you think fashion icon Anna Wintour might roll her eyes and consider your outfit too basic, then that is probably the outfit you need to wear for court. Save your fashion-forward wardrobe or flashy footwear for another day.
3. Dress for a Job Interview
As simple as it may sound, you should dress and groom yourself as though you are preparing for a job interview. Get a haircut and clean up as though you were preparing for picture day in elementary school. Try not to provide a judge with the opportunity to make a snap judgment about you that is not accurate or to believe that you are being disrespectful towards the court.
Who and What to Avoid Bringing to Court
1. Be Careful about Bringing Family and Friends
Avoid the temptation to bring your fan club. The judge does not want to see the same gallery of people who were invited to your wedding at your divorce proceedings. Listen to your lawyer and, if you absolutely want to bring someone for support, make certain that your lawyer is okay with that and never assume it is okay to simply show up with others.
2. Do Not Bring Your Children
It is almost never appropriate to bring your children to court unless the court or your attorney directly instructs you to do so. Make sure you have child care arranged, if necessary, and that the children have a contact number for someone other than you who can attend to their needs in your absence.
3. Avoid Using Your Cellphone in the Courtroom
Cellphones, if brought inside a courthouse, should be switched to airplane mode. You should refrain from using or looking at them during court proceedings. In a world of twenty-four-hour messaging and news alerts, no client needs a sudden distraction from the court proceedings, and if you do need to check, then you can do so in the hallway on a break. I prefer, however, that clients keep their cellphones in their bags and out of sight until they leave the courthouse. Of course: no picture-taking or social media postings while in the courthouse. The last thing we want is someone seeing an inappropriate social media posting made while you were on break or while you were supposed to be paying attention to your case.
Managing Emotions in Court
1. Keep A Poker Face and Check Your Emotions
Expect the opposing party and possibly witnesses and other attorneys to say things that may not be exactly true or flattering. Ignore them. You and your attorney will have time to make your own arguements. Expressing your anger in front of the judge is neither appropriate nor productive.
2. Keep Your Courtroom Demeanor in the Court Hallways, Bathrooms, Elevators, and Parking Lots
There will be times when you might meet the opposing counsel in the court bathroom or pass the opposing party in the hallway or elevator. Refrain from exchanging more than a kind hello. This is not the time to remind them about family business or ask questions outside the case. Instead, keep up your courtroom demeanor both in and outside the courtroom.
3. In the Courtroom, Write Notes to Your Lawyers and Refrain from Speaking Unless Addressed
Lawyers and judges are processing a lot during a court proceeding and if your mind drifts to something that you think might be important and missed, then please write it down. Your lawyer will talk to you on breaks or whenever appropriate. Resist tugging on the lawyer’s arm or whispering in court because these will be distractions to both your attorney and the judge.
Communication with the Judge
1. Never Speak to the Judge First
The only time you should speak to the judge is when the judge speaks to you and then only with the utmost respect. “Yes, your Honor” or “No, Your Honor” is best and lets the judge know that you respect the process and his or her role in the courtroom.
2. Know Your Boundaries as a Client
Whenever you have an attorney, never email or try to send a letter to the judge or judge’s staff. All correspondence should come directly from your attorney.
3. Avoid Social Media and Social Connections to the Judge
In smaller jurisdictions, it is almost inevitable that you will run into a judge outside the courtroom or through mutual friends on social media. Avoid communicating with the judge about your case and, as a general matter, avoid any interaction through social media with the judge or his or her family or staff.
Always Remain Respectful
1. Respect the Opposing Counsel and Opposing Party
Address the opposing counsel and opposing party as “Mr.” or “Ms.” and avoid using first names unless the judge instructs you otherwise.
2. Respect Your and Your Spouse's Status as Co-Parents
The judge will notice subtle remarks that reflect your perception of your spouse. For example, avoid referring to your children as “my children,” rather than “our children.” Being cognizant of such distinctions will minimize the possibility of making a bad impression or coming across as a controlling spouse.
3. Respect Everyone in the Courthouse
Courtrooms are just like the real world in the sense that if you treat the judge’s court reporter, bailiff, or a filing clerk poorly, it will get back to others and even the judge. Note that you are always being observed both in and out of the courtroom while in courthouse, so try to be respectful of everyone that you come in contact with while there.
Breathe and Remain Calm
1. Prepare to Hear the Worst
There are no guarantees or certainties with any court. Electing to take your case to court is always hedging a bet against compromises you might have made out of court and what you hope might happen in court. Never assume that you will hear what you want from a judge and, if you do, great, but if you don’t, then be prepared emotionally to leave the courtroom knowing that the decision to be in court was ultimately your decision.
2. Nothing is Forever
If you were fighting over a family law issue (child custody, property division, support obligations, etc.), remember: things change. Cases can sometimes be appealed or modified, people relocate, people die, people find new relationships, children grow up, and one day you will look back on this as just a chapter and one that continued to evolve. Be patient. If you did not get what you think is best for you now, it may come later.
3. Move Forward and Do Not Be Bitter
Going through the court system with a family law matter can make you question your life choices and be very taxing on your career, family, and emotional well- being. Above all else, stay true to yourself and surround yourself with positive people who do not question your case and the choices you and your lawyer made. It is easy to look back on any relationship and find things that you wish you had done. The same is true with a court case. Looking backwards from a court case is not productive, and the best thing you can do at the conclusion of your case is to spend more time planning for the future that you want for yourself and your children and to start taking the necessary steps to make that future a reality. fa