Clarence Darrow once said that the only real lawyers were trial lawyers. While that position is debatable, every good attorney should understand the distinct difference between winning his case on paper and winning it in the courtroom. While book smarts will get you through law school, help you pass the bar exam, or help you write a killer motion or brief, it takes true courtroom savvy to sway a judge or jury to find in your (or your client’s) favor.
What makes an attorney courtroom savvy? There is no rigid set of rules; after all, the legal field largely lives in gray area. That said, many seasoned practitioners would agree that proper etiquette, not necessarily experience, can help to increase one’s savviness and improve their favor in the courtroom. However, simply following Miss Manners won’t help you win your case; proper courtroom etiquette embodies more than the simple “May it please the court” or “Your honor” before every argument. Read on for etiquette tips that will help you present your best case – and save face – in court.
Be courteous. Following this simple rule when interacting with judges, clerks, court reporters, fellow counsel, fellow counsel’s staff, witnesses, and clients will make you the most popular person in your local legal community. Do you have a contested hearing on a bill of particulars? Let the attorney with the five-minute status check go first. Has your court reporter been typing furiously for the last hour? Request a five-minute recess so she can get a drink of water or use the restroom. Did your police officer work the midnight shift last night? Call him as your first witness so he can go home and sleep. Being courteous will make all of these parties more inclined to help you out when you need it – and you will.
Dress appropriately. One would hope this would be a no-brainer, but experience suggests that it is worth a mention. While some jurisdictions may be more accepting of more modern attorney attire, remember that any courtroom is a professional environment. Traditional suits or separates (that fit!) are almost always appropriate and preferred. Accessories should not contain offensive or controversial symbols. It’s generally a good idea to cover tattoos or remove non-traditional piercings. Tone down the perfume or cologne; it doesn’t smell nearly as good as you think it does in close quarters. And make sure you wear undergarments; one of my favorite courthouse stories is about a female attorney who refused to wear a bra to court and the embarrassed male judge who sent his assistant out to dress her down.
Quit while you’re ahead. This is also known as “less is more.” You don’t have to meet a certain word count in order to make your point. This goes for both arguments and witness examination. Every attorney wants that Tom Cruise “I want the truth!” moment, but if it’s not there, move on. Likewise, don’t repeat the same legal argument six different ways. Provide the relevant examples and citations, and give us all some credit. No one wants to hear you talk simply for the sake of talking.
Keep a poker face. Courtroom formalities are predictable; courtroom content is not. Your witness may say something unexpected – and negative – on the stand. The judge may dismiss your motion without explanation. The jury may return an unfavorable verdict in a serious case. In any of these scenarios (or any other unpredictable and infuriating situations that you may encounter), it is important to keep your cool. Prevent that agitated or wavering tone from surfacing in your voice. Practice breathing techniques to prevent your face from flushing in anger. Think of the judge in his underwear. Do whatever you need to do in order to look completely natural and prepared for any possible roadblock that could (and will) develop. Then do the best to salvage your situation. In this profession, it’s important to take the punches you’re dealt and jump right back into the ring for the next fight.