The feeling is inevitable. The excitement and preparation that lead up to a new attorney’s first court appearance often quickly and suddenly slip away when actually standing before a judge. But with the right mindset and a lot of preparedness, new attorneys can handle their first court hearing as if it were their hundredth. Keep these tips in mind before you put your first appearance on the record.
Be Overly Prepared
Theater actors are taught to become so familiar with their lines, lyrics, or choreography that they could practically perform the piece in their sleep. That means that when the curtains rise, they can focus completely on the quality of their performance, instead of desperately trying to recall a line.
Think of your oral arguments the same way. Read through the file and reacquaint yourself with the facts of the case, what relief you are requesting from the judge, and make useful notes to have with you during oral argument. The judge will inevitably ask you a question, usually several, during your hearing or trial. If you prepared correctly, you will most likely respond with convincing answers rather than by nervously digging through your file. Properly label and tab your exhibits and other useful documents that you might want to quickly reference in court.
Be Aware of Body Language
If you don’t actually feel confident, you can still look the part. Make eye contact with the judge and respectfully explain the relief you are seeking and your client’s position. Stand tall, use appropriate hand gestures, and maintain a pleasant demeanor. If you think you’re taking a pounding from the adversary, don’t show it. Your job is to deliver your argument to the best of your ability, not according to how you feel at that moment.
Above all else, remember your audience. You are arguing in front of a judge, an adversary, perhaps your client and witnesses, and possibly even a jury. Resist the urge to roll your eyes if your adversary goes off on a tangent. Find the right words to respectfully disagree with the judge if the situation arises. Your treatment of others in the courtroom is noticed. The last thing a jury wants to see is an attorney who loses it. They won’t remember your stellar opening statement that you spent hours crafting—they will remember that you huffed and puffed through the adversary’s cross-examination of your client. Keep it together and know that you (usually) will have the opportunity to succinctly respond to the adversary or the judge when appropriate.
Be Aware of Being Too Wordy
The judge may give you some sort of inclination as to where he or she is headed with your case throughout the oral argument. If things are looking good, don’t be tempted to ramble on for an additional ten minutes about every wrong your client’s ex-spouse has ever committed. Keep in mind that the judge—and probably a law clerk—has read your papers and submissions and is familiar with the case. Know when you’ve said enough and when you are stepping into dangerous territory. Learn how to be passionate and deliver a conclusive oral argument without opening up a new can of worms for your adversary to attack.
Focus on these pointers for your next courtroom appearance and you will be ready to give your best performance. You can’t win them all, but you certainly can make sure that you are prepared, respectful, concise, and confident—the next best thing.