You’ve landed your first job as an associate at the law firm. You’ve worked hard, and your supervising attorney says you deserve a chance to fly solo.
Okay, it’s not a shareholder class action or multi-million dollar breach of contract claim between two mega-corporations. It’s a little more simple than that. Perhaps it’s a hearing for one of the firm’s major clients, so: (1) you don’t want to cause a problem in that client relationship, and (2) you don’t want to cause a problem for your promising career at the firm.
While it may be a simple motion hearing or a case conference meeting with the judge, you should know how to prepare, what to expect, and how to make certain you can start off on the right foot, especially when you’re up against more experienced counsel.
“Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”
Who said that? Benjamin Franklin… Benjamin Moore… Benjamin Affleck. It doesn’t really matter. It’s a good saying, so remember it and remember to be ready.
Review the case file again
Preparation is the key. You need to know what’s going on anyway, so you might as well be thoroughly prepared to answer the judge’s questions straightaway without fumbling through your papers.
“Forewarned is forearmed,” is another good saying. Meaning that if you know about something before it occurs, you can be ready for it. Sure, you’ll be nervous, but if you know your stuff, the jitters will go away quickly. You’ll pass through that first court appearance with flying colors!
Double-check the court calendar the day before
Access the court’s calendar to verify that the hearing is still on the calendar and you know what will be discussed.
Know the local rules and the judge
Your officemates and network of attorneys will tell you that each judge runs his or her court a little differently than the next. Local rules may be rigidly applied or more casual. “Judge Thompson is a real stickler. Don’t be late and don’t speak unless spoken to” or “Judge McCray is laid back, just ask his clerk Sarah if you’re unclear about anything. She’s super helpful.”
Check in with the judge’s clerk
Introduce yourself to the judge’s clerk or legal assistant once you arrive for the hearing. Let them know the case on which you have the hearing or conference with the judge. Be courteous to the judge’s staff — they grease the wheels of justice. They may be able to give you a few pointers or steer you from embarrassment if you’re professional and humble enough.
Meet your opposing counsel
In that spirit of professionalism, introduce yourself to your opposing counsel. Depending on the issues to be heard before the judge, there may be housekeeping items you can discuss and to which you can agree upon that will save the court’s time. Whether you saw the attorney’s questionable commercial on TV last night or heard them make a brilliant argument to the appellate court, be pleasant. Don’t take this adversarial proceeding as a personal deathmatch. Show some class.
Be modest and courteous
Remember that you’re a guest in the judge’s courtroom, so act like it.
Just answer the question asked by the judge
Don’t try to give an entire opening statement when, a “yes, that’s my understanding, Your Honor,” will do. Showing this restraint early in the process will help you later on.
Be ready to state your case
You’ll see the words “ready” and “prepared” a lot in here. Really, that’s it in a nutshell. You should be able to (when asked) provide the judge with a concise argument or answer. The question should give you a framework of how to answer the question — the judge has just told you what she believes is an important issue, so that’s your cue to “cut to the chase.” Respond with the appropriate information that is persuasive for your side.
Know when to remain silent (you have that right)
There’s a time to keep the lips zipped. Lincoln said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” Just like in sales, you shouldn’t have to oversell. If the judge fails to ask you anything about the case during the hearing or conference, don’t take that opportunity to exercise your First Amendment right of free speech.
If you’re asked a question by the judge, stand up to address him or her as “Your Honor” in the courtroom.
This section shouldn’t be necessary, but in case you’re wondering:
- Don’t be late
- Don’t check your smartphone
- Don’t eat or chew gum (or bring in your latte, mocha, or beverage of choice)
- Don’t walk around when speaking to the court
- Don’t be disrespectful to anyone
- Don’t interrupt the judge
- Don’t approach the bench without permission
- Don’t react to the judge with body language
- Do be ready to provide copies of relevant documents to the court and opposing counsel
- Do address the court, not opposing counsel
- Do speak clearly
- Do thank the court for its time and smile at the staff on your way out
Your first time in court will be memorable but review these tips to have an enjoyable experience and one in which you’ll make an excellent first impression.