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.