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Going to court? Dress the part, be on time and be courteous.


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Going to court? Dress the part, be on time and be courteous.

By John Glynn

Even in this era of change, the administration of justice is still dependent on judges and lawyers as officers of the court. A panel of judges held a candid conversation about courtroom decorum at “Order in the Court: What America’s Judges Want You to Know,” a Magnitude 360 program offered by the Judicial Division at the ABA Annual Meeting in Boston.

The panel was comprised of Judge Randy J. Holland of the Delaware Supreme Court Justice, Judge Annette J. Scieszinski from the Iowa District Court, Chief Justice Paula M. Carey of the Massachusetts Trial Court, Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr. of the Superior Court of Washington, D.C., and Judge Ramona G. See of the Los Angeles Superior Court.

The best practices for courtroom decorum include:

* being courteous to opposing counsel

* not interrupting

* being on time

Asked to rate themselves on how tightly they ran their courtrooms, the panelists each gave themselves an 8 out of 10. They all found that lawyers are less formal today than in the past, although Dixon said that counsel has become more civil, even as they have become less formal. See wondered if casual behavior was as a result of legal shows on TV.

The judges advocated offering CLE programs on learning proper courtroom behavior, encouraging lawyers to watch and emulate others whose behavior is impeccable and instituting mentorship programs that include this as a goal.

“Civility enhances the litigation process,” said Dixon, and the tactics of “Rambo attorneys” (the shorthand term for hard-charging, rude, ready-for-a-fight lawyers) end up costing time. He felt judges should be the ones to control Rambo attorneys (not opposing counsel), and that he tried to do that “without mentioning the ‘C’ (for ‘contempt’) word.”

Scieszinski found there had been an “erosion of empathy for the folks [in the courtroom] there to access justice.” She said the process is too rushed, and that everyone needs to appreciate that due process takes time.

See said being late is discourteous to the court as well as opposing counsel, and that it is easy to call ahead and see if things can be rescheduled in the event you know you’ll be late.

For Carey, being a lawyer is “a noble profession,” and lawyers are entrusted as leaders within the system, and therefore are “held to a higher standard in order to promote justice.” She advocates giving back to the community – judges especially, she thinks, can help improve the justice system through volunteering.

When discussing the influence of the “legal” culture vs. the “judicial” culture, Scieszinski said the legal culture is influential, whether it is pro-bono oriented and community-focused, or competitive and doesn’t support diversity.

The panel found the influence of judicial culture to be judge-specific rather than bench-specific. Indeed, Judge Carey thought that judges are so influential in the courtroom that they can’t even be in a bad mood.

As communication increasingly turns from personal contact to more electronic, Dixon advised lawyers not to “friend” opposing counsel on Facebook in order to find out more about him or her, and not to delete emails and documents -- it’s easier to get caught now because there’s an electronic trail, he said.

As courts become more paperless and communications more electronic, the panel saw a downside in lawyers not meeting face-to-face until the last minute. In addition to making it easier to be rude to someone you haven’t dealt with in person, the lawyers might not have even had a discussion about possibly settling the case out of court. And because technology sacrifices personal relationships, said Carey, it’s even more important to work with a mentor.

For any number of reasons today, including increased workloads, sometimes judges have difficulty with stress or impairment. Carey said Massachusetts has a Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers group that monitors for such things as substance abuse and early-onset dementia among judges. The solutions include getting the judges into employee assistance programs, staging an intervention with family and bringing in mentors to help, all with the intent to preserve dignity.

In terms of courtroom optics, it was agreed that judicial structures--including judges wearing robes--give an aura that encourages more formal behavior and conveys the importance of the proceedings.

All agreed that lawyers, too, need to dress to match the dignity of the forum, as dress is related to tenor. Similarly, it is important to make expectations known in advance to litigants, too. Holland used to tell his clients to “dress for a solemn occasion,” with sometimes mixed results.

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