Some Etiquette Tips for Young Lawyers

October 31, 2013 § 6 Comments

Every chancellor has his or her own preferences about how lawyers should conduct themselves in court. You need to acquaint yourself with your chancellor’s likes and dislikes, and attune yourself accordingly. Some practices, though, are universal. Violate them and you will likely suffer the wrath — or at least the dissatisfaction — of your chancellor. Here they are:

  • Be on time for court. This is a cardinal rule, and violation can cost you, as spelled out in UCCR (that’s Uniform Chancery Court Rules, for the unitiated)1.05:

“When any civil action has been set for, or adjourned to, a particular day or hour, all officers, parties, witnesses and solicitors whose presence is necessary for the trial shall be present at the time set. Any negligent or willful failure to obey this rule shall be punished by contempt.”

In other words, you’d better have a reason for your tardiness that falls in a category other than negligence or willfulness, or you may pay the price. Tardiness is not only rude and disrespectful of the court, it’s also rude and disrespectful of all the others who are assembled awaiting your late appearance.

  • Make sure your witnesses understand decorum. UCCR 1.01 says that all proceedings are to be conducted “with due formality and in an orderly and dignified manner.” A trial in chancery is not conducted like a trial in Judge Mathis’s court, although it seems like a significant number of laypeople think so. Tell them to avoid banter and talking to or seeking input from folks in the audience. Advise them to listen carefully to and answer the questions asked, and to behave always in a respectful manner.
  • Leave the Doberman act at home. No matter what you’ve seen in the movies, it’s not effective in a bench trial to try to treat witnesses like you were an attack dog. There’s no jury to impress. The judge will likely be unimpressed, and may even rebuke you for browbeating the witness. Sure, it’s okay to bear down and press the witness, testing credibility, but UCCR 1.01 says that “Bickering or wrangling between counsel or between counsel and witness will not be tolerated.” It’s a search for the truth, not theater.   
  • Three people talking at the same time makes for a bad record. You have to educate your clients and witnesses not to speak over the questions or statements of others. It’s impossible for the court reporter to records that kind of thing accurately, if at all. And keep that in mind yourself. I have had to tell two lawyers and a witness all speaking at the same time to hush, and then I’ve had to tell them not to interrupt or speak over me while I am trying to set matters straight. We all have a responsibility to make a good record, but that’s impossible when everyone is speaking over one another.
  • Stand when addressing the court. This is another principle set out in UCCR 1.01. It makes good sense, because it not only shows respect for the court, but it demonstrates for all the laypeople present that this is not like a conversation in the living room; it’s a formal court proceeding.
  • Speak up. Many judges are as old as I am. That means that they — as did I — likely spent a youth of dissipation listening via headsets to the Rolling Stones with the volume cranked up to the max. As a result, our hearing is not the best. You grew up in an age where every conversation is amplified by some electronic device. Many courtrooms lack those devices, so you have to crank your own, personal volume up.
  • Fill in the blanks. Never present a judgment or property settlement to the judge with blanks that are not filled in. It wastes everyone’s time, causes confusion, and makes you appear to be unprepared. See UCCR 2.06.
  • If your case settles, tell somebody. If your case settles, or is rescheduled by agreement, or otherwise is not to be presented for some appropriate reason, notify the court administrator or chancery clerk, or the judge in advance. What would your reaction be if you drove 25, or 50, or 70 miles, only to learn that the trip was entirely unnecessary? What would be the reaction of someone who did that who had the power to hold you in contempt for it? See UCCR 3.12.

I could go on, but I hope you get the picture. Most of you do. Most lawyers, even new ones, grasp the idea of decorum and its importance to court proceedings. It’s a component of professionalism for the practitioner. It’s an element of preserving respect for the court.



§ 6 Responses to Some Etiquette Tips for Young Lawyers

  • Jacob Malatesta says:

    First, I wanted to say that I discovered your blog about a week ago, and I have really enjoyed reading your helpful tips and commentary.

    I truly do appreciate your tips, and, as a young lawyer myself (practicing for a little over 5 years) I am always willing to listen to those with more experience for advise.

    I agree with you, wholeheartedly, that it is of the utmost importance for attorneys to be punctual, but I could not get past the first tip without wishing something should be added. This is especially true considering my own personal experiences with timeliness and hearings.

    While I have never had the pleasure of appearing in front your court, I have been to dozens of hearings all over the state of Mississippi and several states across the southeast and midwest. With that being said, I can count the number of times that I have seen an attorney show up late to a hearing on my pinky finger. I can also count the number of times that a hearing has begun on time on one hand.

    This can be extremely frustrating for the associate who is trying to win over a client by being more effective and efficient than the other guys when he arrives 20 minutes early (to avoid being tardy), just to have the hearing be 30 minutes late.

    Again, I appreciate your blog and your commentary. I certainly do not mean any disrespect. However, a discussion of timeliness and court proceedings cannot be complete without at least a mention from this side of the bench.

    • Larry says:

      As you say, you have not been in my court. We start promptly on time. I expect lawyers to be punctual, and I hold myself to the same standard. That being said, judges have foibles like everyone else, and some don’t hold punctuality dear. I encourage you to continue being punctual, even if the judges aren’t.

  • Stewart Parrish says:

    It may be that I just don’t have the knack for it, but no matter how many times I tell a client to wait until the question is finished, take a moment to reflect on the answer, then answer only the question asked, invariably they interrupt me or counsel opposite and end up talking over everyone. Not only does it confuse the record, by the time the judge gets everybody back on track, I lose my train of thought!

  • randywallace says:

    No doubt Ben. There is enough on this site already to compile a couple of books.

  • Ben McMurtray says:

    At some point you’re going to need to gather all your “young lawyer advice” and put it in a book. Thanks, as always, for the tips. Folks like me need all the help we can get.

    • Bob Wolford says:

      Agree Randy- this site is my “go to” and “how to” when I sign up a client who needs work in Chancery. Extremely valuable resource here.

      Thank you very much, Your Honor, for your time and consideration in putting together this blog and keeping it going with great information.

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