Appearing in Court – Everything You Need to Know About Court Room Etiquette – January 2021
Your best foot forward
One of the most important aspects of coming up with a great idea is figuring out how to package and sell that idea or concept to someone else. It’s fundamental to the practice of persuasion; by putting polish on seemingly insignificant details in the design or appearance or something, you can elicit a response that is significantly different from what you might have gotten had you simply blurted your idea out the moment you thought of it. This idea of packaging is the core of the entire marketing and advertisement industry – and it applies to you and your court case just as much as an iPhone.
That’s the focus of this article. How to go before the court and sell the presentation of your argument. And as a side note, these rules apply no matter what format your hearing takes place in – in person, remote, phone, etc.
Rule Number 1: Dress appropriately, but never above your means.
Going before the judge is a formal matter, and you need to treat it like one. As a general rule of thumb, you should dress for your court date in the same manner that you would dress for a job interview that you really want to do well in. Men, wear a simple suit or button up shirt with a pair of slacks – wear a tie. Women, a dress, paint suit, or skirt and blouse combination are good options. Don’t wear all black, don’t wear bright, flashy colors and unusual patterns. Dark blues, grays, and neutral colors like that are ideal.
Never, ever, wear t-shirts, flipflops, revealing clothing, pajamas, or clothes that aren’t well kept. That means you need to iron your clothes, make sure they are clean, and free of holes. The target style here is “Business Professional.” Also, less is more. Don’t show up wearing a multi-thousand-dollar, haut-couture suit with gem encrusted jewelry. This will completely undermine your arguments about why you shouldn’t be paying a higher alimony amount.
Rule Number 2: Wash Your Face
This is really rule 1-A, but you need to ensure that you are clean and well groomed. When building a system, the system is only as strong as its weakest link. Your suit can be nicely pressed, shoes polished, and have the perfect tie knot – but if you are unshaven, your hair is a mess, and have inappropriate piercings or tattoos showing, it will undermine your other efforts. No, it’s not fair that your tattoos can be prejudiced against you, and yes, it’s a good thing that society is coming around to that. However, your judge may be over the age of 65 (lifetime appointments!) and be “old-school.” Cover your tattoos where you can, take out unusually placed piercings.
Rule Number 3: Show Respect, Even if Its Unearned
No matter what you’re doing, from the moment you enter the court house to the moment you get back to your house after the hearing, act with and treat everyone you see and meet at the court house with respect and dignity. This includes you’re the opposing party in your case. Judges are judging you. It is literally in the title of their job. By showing respect to people, even if they don’t deserve it, presents you and your position as one of being level-headed and reasonable. Remember, the judge is trying to make a determination on things like the best interest of children. If you can’t keep it together for the few hours in court, the judge is going to draw conclusions about how you behave when you’re at home.
There will undoubtedly be times when you disagree with something that the opposing party or their attorney claimed. They may be intentionally trying to bait you into an outburst in the hearing, trying to get you to break the rules of the court. It may be extremely difficult to swallow the anger and disdain for them that they rightly deserve, but fighting back now just shows that you are prone to being argumentative. Your attorney will hit back, your job is to remain respectful.
All of this goes double and triple for your communications with the judge. If the judge addresses you directly and you are given a chance to speak, they are to be regarded with your absolute best behavior. This person can issue a decision that can literally control the rest of your life. Do not argue with them, do not respond rudely. There are judges out there that are condescending and rude, and in some cases, honestly don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re imperfect humans like the rest of us. However, combating the judge can just make your life worse, or land you in more trouble with contempt of court charges. Give them the utmost respect for their position in this process.
Rule Number 4: Body Language and What It Says About You
This is much harder to control than most people think, but it can be critical. You don’t want to be letting out exasperated sighs, furrowing your brows, clenching your fists or jaw, or generally displaying aggressive and angry body language. Doing this, in some cases, can be just as bad as standing up in the middle of the court while the opposing attorney is speaking and telling them to “F off.” Your body language, like your clothes and verbal language, should be calm, confident, and collected.
Rule Number 5: No Distractions
It doesn’t matter where your hearing is – video conference, the court house, over the phone, or in some other unusual spot – your focus needs to be entirely on the judge and what’s going on in the hearing. Leave the electronics at home (most courts don’t allow you to bring them in anyway). Don’t spend your time at the hearing endlessly shuffling paperwork on the table in front of you, don’t gaze out the window or the patterns on the walls. When someone stands up to speak in the hearing, you need to listen to them like this is the most important thing you’ve ever heard – because it can be. Family Law cases have a material impact on your life, and you need to be attentive.
If you have been given permission by the court to attend your hearing remotely, then you need to ensure that whatever environment you’re in is quiet and secure. Your court date is not a surprise – you will be told about it well in advance. Make plans to have the kids babysat, the dog put in a daycare, and that no one is going to interrupt you.
And please, for the love of all things, do not let your new boyfriend or girlfriend interrupt your divorce proceeding if you are remotely attending a court appearance.
Rule Number 6: Let Your Attorney Do the Talking
Unless you are specifically asked a question, your job is to focus on your body language and how you present yourself to the court. You hired an attorney and have likely paid them a fairly large sum of legal fees to be at the hearing for you. Let them handle it. If you wanted to be the one who argues your case to the judge, then ask your attorney to withdraw their appearance so you can be Pro Se (represent yourself). You have that right, even though it will likely put you at a huge disadvantage. Your attorney’s job description requires them to zealously advocate on your behalf, so let them!
Rule Number 7: Arrive Early, be Prepared to Leave Late
Generally speaking, the court tries its best to stay on schedule. If your notice or appearance tells you that you’re scheduled to have your case heard at 9:30 AM, you need to be there at least 15 minutes prior to your time slot. Give yourself plenty of time to get to court – you can’t afford to be late. If you aren’t on time, even by a few minutes, there is a real chance that the judge may hear the case without you and issue a ruling against you, because the opposing party was the only one there to present an argument.
Likewise, issues like other people showing up late can create delays in the court. Sometimes major issues pop up that pushes the schedule back. Either way, you should prepare yourself to be in court all day. This is already a stressful situation, and you don’t need to feel worse by ending up in a situation where you’re clock watching because it’s not 2:30 in the afternoon, your case still hasn’t been heard, and you’re supposed to be picking up your kids from school at 3. Make contingency plans to take care of your errands for the day and make sure your schedule is cleared. You’ll feel better for it.
So that’s that. Everything you need to know about what you need to do when you go to court (besides having a kick ass legal team). Keep these rules in mind as your case progresses. Make it a point to include these rules in your personal strategy as you navigate your divorce or custody fights. No one has ever hurt their case by making a good impression.