Courtroom Basics for Clients
The following piece was written by friend of Smith Law Firm, Nick Dudley, an accomplished criminal defesnse attorney in Blue Springs Missouri. Nick's blog is available at DudleyDefense.com.
You only get one chance to make a first impression. In a courtroom, the first impression will probably be the only impression you give the judge, the prosecutor (or opposing counsel), and other people related to the proceedings (like witnesses and clerks).
Make no mistake, you are always on trial. Whether you are appearing for an arraignment, a sentencing hearing, a status conference, or anything else - the judges will take notes. The prosecutor or opposing counsel will make note and adjust accordingly.
Arrive on time
If you are going to court, it is the most important thing you are doing all day. It will be a giant pain in the butt to rearrange your schedule, miss work, and complicate your life. But you have to do it. Doing it wrong makes the process more painful.
I'm never mad when a client calls me to "confirm" a court date. I generally try to remind clients the day before, but I am not always successful. Put court dates on your calendar and make other arrangements to remember. If that means asking your mother to remind you, then so be it.
Arriving on time means being at least 15 minutes early. I always tell my clients what my plan is ahead of time, but courtroom situations are fluid. Things change, and I may need to talk to you before the docket starts. If you are unrepresented, you will need to get to court early to get your bearings and check in. At least one courtroom in Jackson County requires people on the docket to sign their name next to a time stamp that the clerk makes. Remember - courtrooms usually have metal detectors and lines to get through. Give yourself enough time to park and get through these obstacles.
Being on time is critical. In a criminal case, being on time shows the prosecutor and judge that you are taking the case seriously and affects their outlook on whether or not you can successfully complete probation. Supervised probation will require meeting probation officers that you must be on time for, and unsupervised probation will require a general level of responsibility. The judge has to make a snap judgment about you, and showing up late without a damn good excuse undermines my arguments about how responsible you generally are.
In civil cases, being on time helps keep the process moving smoothly. It also aids my credibility when I tell the other side that you are committed to fight. If the bad guys believe you are a pushover or uninterested, they will negotiate accordingly.
Dress How You Want to Be Perceived
Treat court appearances like job interviews. Think about how you want everyone to think of you. Dressing ostentatiously or very casually is not appropriate. If the prosecutor is accusing you of being a gang banger, don't dress like a gang banger. If the other side accuses you of being greedy, don't wear expensive jewelry. They are called "wife beaters" for a reason - if you are accused of domestic assault and you show up wearing one, the outcome will be bad.
- You don't necessarily have to dress up, but it can be helpful
- If you are coming from or going to work, it is usually appropriate to wear a work uniform. Judges like people who work for a living.
- It is never appropriate to wear a hat. The bailiff will make a scene asking you to remove it.
- Be conscientious about items like motorcycle helmets. If you are accused of speeding or driving while suspended, you are going to have some questions to answer when you walk in with a bright red helmet.
- It is always appropriate to wear a shirt and tie. If you don't own a suit, that is ok. But unless you need to wear a work uniform, wear a conservative (meaning not something you would wear to a club, something you would wear to an interview) button up shirt and a conservative tie. Blue is a good tie color. Tuck the shirt in.
- Do not wear a hat.
- Do not chew tobacco.
- Wear what you would wear to a job interview. Slacks or an appropriate length skirt. Many courts specify that skirts should be knee length. Don't wear a revealing top.
- If you wear heels, keep them around 2 inches or less.
- Put thought into the jewelry you wear. If you are wearing 7 rings, earrings, a necklace, and a fashion wrist watch, the judge is going to wonder why you don't have enough money to buy the insurance that a police officer accused you of not owning.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
The general operating principle is don't do anything that makes you (look like) an asshole.
Courtrooms can be intense places because they are filled with people who already don't get along. But, they are not the place for you to air your grievances, finish the last argument you had, or take shots (literally or metaphorically) at the opposing side or witnesses. It is the place for me to air your grievances. When you hire an attorney, you are hiring someone to be an advocate for you. That means it is almost always appropriate to shut up.
On the extreme end of this scale, it is not appropriate to physically accost a hostile witness. Guess what, if you are charged with domestic assault and you walk in the courtroom and start yelling at your ex-girlfriend or boyfriend (and yes this has happened), there isn't much left that I can do for you.
Don't Passive-Aggressively Fight
More commonly however, people will want to sigh and roll their eyes and make a production when someone they don't like talks. This does not go unnoticed. It is never appreciated.
The best way to stay out of trouble is to wear a poker face and be quiet. I direct my clients when I want them to speak (and that is rarely). Let me do the heavy lifting, your job is to not undermine the work I'm doing.
A corollary to this:
Fights are never over until their over.
So Don't Fight the Judge
If things don't go your way, don't try to explain or fight or get even with the judge. You won't win. An adverse ruling rarely if ever ends the matter. Even losing a trial can potentially be overcome. But if you get held in contempt because in an effort to salvage your dignity you curse out the judge, there is nothing I can do for you. It can always get worse, and it can get there in a hurry. But in a shocking number of cases, things get better.
Don't Bring Your Kids (unless they are a crucial part of the case)
Finally, a courtroom is the second worst place in the world for a small child or infant (the worst being a toxic waste dump). If you can avoid bringing your child to court, do so. If you cannot, make every effort you can to bring someone with you who can watch the kid(s). If that isn't possible, bring something that will quietly entertain them. Bailiffs are shockingly uncaring and unforgiving about children being disruptive.
- Be courteous.
- Be quiet.
- Be invisible to the court staff.
- Do not be disruptive.
- Do not try to talk to hostile witnesses.
- Do not try to explain.
- Do not fight with the judge.
- Do not bring your kids