By Jennifer Wu
Jennifer Wu is assistant general counsel with the Board of Education of the City of Chicago Department of Law. She can be contacted at or
Stepping into a courtroom can be daunting for the first time. Whether you are stepping up to cover for a colleague in a routine status conference or arguing before a panel of judges in the appellate court, there are basic rules of conduct that every good attorney should follow:
- Know your case inside and out, including its procedural history. If you are seeking specific relief, be prepared to articulate your reasons in a concise manner.
- Know the rules, including the rules of procedure, local rules, and the judge’s standing order. If you know the rules of engagement, you are better prepared to advocate on behalf of your client.
- Be respectful at all times. Common courtesy and civility go a long way when dealing with the judge, the judge’s staff, and opposing counsel. It certainly will affect your reputation and credibility as an attorney.
Even if you are armed with all the information you need to represent the interests of your client, the unexpected may happen, and you will have to think on your feet. Early in my career as a litigator, opposing counsel in a case made a reference to my age and lack of experience during arguments on a motion to dismiss. This is my advice on handling this type of attack:
- Do not take the comment personally. Oftentimes, personal attacks reflect a weak position. As I listened to my opposing counsel’s argument, my first reaction was outrage. I thought to myself, why should my level of experience matter?
- Collect your thoughts. Do not make any personal, disparaging comments in return. Remember that you are an advocate for your client and that you are there for your client, not yourself.
- Respond to the issues in the case. Instead of responding to an irrelevant comment, respond to the issues in the case. In my situation, I simply explained why opposing counsel’s argument had no merit. On the rare occasion where a comment is particularly egregious, you may have no choice but to address it. If you decide to go this route, remember to be respectful at all times. Although you must stand up for yourself, you must conduct yourself in a professional manner.
Coming to the courtroom prepared, staying calm, and keeping an eye towards civility will allow you to not only effectively deal with opposing counsel and judges, but also to effectively represent your client.
- Incivility: An Insult to the Professional and the Profession (Downloadable article). 2008. PC # 51901013703PDFA06. Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section.
To order online, visit ABA Practice Essentials: Articles at
- The Last Thirty Days Before Trial (Audio CD Package). 2008. PC # CEL08TLTC. Center for CLE and Section of Litigation.
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