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February 01, 2012

Cut Out for Court: Lessons from the Trenches

Althea Izawa Fuhr

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Finding your way in the courtroom may be daunting at first, but often it just takes uncovering a new set of skills. Attorney Althea-Izawa Fuhr reflects on her transition and offers tips for success.

When I left my policy position at the ABA Center on Children and the Law in February 2006, I wondered if I’d be asking for my job back. I left the ABA to represent children in dependency court in Los Angeles County, to gain experience in the courtroom practicing law and representing children in child welfare cases.

I knew I needed this experience to become a better-rounded attorney. I didn’t know if I was cut out for court. I didn’t think my personality traits fit the “typical” courtroom attorney.

I quickly found that being in the courtroom was more manageable than I expected. I realized I could not learn the law overnight or expect to fit in right away. It would take patience and time to learn the law, the lingo, the flow of the courtroom, and the personalities of the different courtroom staff, attorneys, and hearing officer.

Surprisingly, some of the traits I thought would hinder me as an attorney actually helped me in how I approached and prepared for cases and interacted with others. I found the most important asset in court is respect —to give respect and gain the respect of others in court. The other attorneys on a case or the bench officer may not agree with your position or interpretation of the law, but if they respect you as an attorney, they will respect your position.

It’s all About the Approach

During the first couple of months in my assigned courtroom, I spent a lot of time observing. When I had down time, I would observe the feel of the courtroom and how attorneys interacted with each other and court staff on and off the record. I realized quickly that being too assertive may be perceived as being pushy. Other attorneys did not like being hassled and harangued, especially not by a new attorney. The best approach was to be short and to the point, and not expect or demand anything, especially when inquiring about services for my clients. If you approach an attorney for the Department as though they owe or must provide a service to your client, such as a bus pass or a clothing allowance, they are much less likely to cooperate or support your service requests when the case is before the hearing officer.

Pick Your Battles

I also learned to pick my battles wisely. Sometimes as attorneys we get caught up in the small things and forget the big picture. We more often than not play the blame game. For example, as the minor’s attorney, I often asked for services and referrals at the initial detention hearing, such as counseling. At the next hearing, usually four-to-six weeks later, often this request was not addressed in the Department’s report or the report indicated the assigned social worker made the referral just a few days ago.

My first inclination may be to make a big fit about it on the record, accusing the Department of not doing its job or following court orders. In some cases, this may be warranted. More often, though, it makes more sense to bring this to the court’s attention, ask the court to re-order this service or whatever services were ordered at detention, ask for an update for the next court date, and if there is a problem with providing the services an explanation. The bench officer I practiced in front of did this routinely. There is no reason to upset the attorney for the Department in this situation. It is not worth being overly nitpicky over little things. Instead, there are other more important and bigger situations where it really counts to battle the Department. Some examples are:

  • when a parent has completed most services, but the Department wants to terminate that parent’s services;

  • when your 15-year-old client really wants to return home and there is no legitimate basis for the Department not to make that recommendation; or

  • when your client wants unmonitored visits with the parents and the Department is only agreeing to monitored visits “just because.”

These are situations where it is worth putting the Department on the spot.

Consistency Is Key

Being methodical and consistent is an asset in court. Each attorney has their own way of doing things that suits them, but consistency in approaching and preparing for cases is important. Attorneys who do not have a consistent method are often inefficient and unable to manage their time. This causes them to panic and stress out repeatedly throughout an average day in the courtroom.

Think Before Talking

I remember one aspect of being a courtroom attorney that concerned me was my perceived inability to think on my feet. Some people can think and talk simultaneously.  When I mentioned this concern to another attorney, the response was that not only would I learn, but I would have to learn, and fast! I found occasionally I was caught off guard by the bench officer’s rapid fire inquiry. However, most of the time, I was able to respond because I came prepared.

For example, a case may involve domestic violence, and the child who is eight-years-old wants unmonitored contact with her parents. Usually, the Department’s immediate response is absolutely not. My initial reaction and the court’s decision may be to agree with the Department. But looking closely at the situation, a valid argument may be made that although the child is only eight, if the parents visit separately, unmonitored visits may be appropriate. This seems like a simple and obvious solution, but often is overlooked. Thinking through the situation and considering the pros and cons of an approach goes a long way in advocating for your client in court.

Know Your Priorities

It’s three in the afternoon; the bench officer is tired and getting cranky; the attorneys are as well. Now is probably not a good time to raise the issue that your client is only getting two, instead of three hours of visitation. Prioritizing issues in a case and deciding which issues to raise to the bench officer is an important part of gaining credibility and respect in the courtroom. For example, the bigger issue is if the parent is not getting any visits at all versus not getting the full allotted time ordered by the court. The bench officer is not there to micromanage all issues in a case. The more you have thought out your requests and argument beforehand, the briefer and more concise you are on the record. The bench officer not only appreciates, but respects that.

Succeeding in Court

I went to law school figuring what knowledge and skills I gained there would help me in whatever I decided to do as a career. I have realized from being in court that I have always had the skill set to be a courtroom attorney; it was just a matter of learning how to use the skills to succeed in court.

Althea Izawa Fuhr, JD, is an attorney in the Washington DC area. Prior to that she represented children in foster care in Los Angeles County and was a staff member at the ABA Center on Children and the Law.