You don’t need to be an avid reader of this blog to know that it can be tricky, even for lawyers sometimes, to navigate through our country’s legal system. After all, it’s a world with its own unique and, many would say, arbitrary set of rules. Many of which are holdovers from the old English court system. The problem is further complicated by the fact that each state’s judiciary has its own variations on those same rules and laws because . . . who the heck knows why?
This is why it can be difficult for out-of-state lawyers to advise their clients even when a problem seems to be quite simple. But fortunately, there’s one very important aspect of the court that is consistent no matter where you go: judges.
Specifically, how to treat judges and ensure they don’t hate you. Now I know there are a lot of people that don’t think this sort of thing is important, but let me assure you, it is. Though judges are bound to adjudicate cases under law and have their own set of ethical rules, the fact that judges usually have control over the fate of your case should be enough incentive to try and stay on their good side. Not to mention that if you’re a big enough jerk, a judge has the power to hold people in contempt, which carries penalties of fines and even jail time.
So how do you treat a judge in order to stay on their good side? If you’re wondering this question then you’re in for a treat because I am going to give you five tips that will keep you looking professional and respectable in front of any judge. These tips apply whether you’re a lawyer, party, or representing yourself.
This one is probably a good rule of thumb for everyday life, too, but especially for court. Don’t forget, courts are serious and formal places. This should be no surprise considering that they deal with the administration of justice! But beyond that, the judge himself is supposed to represent the American judicial system. That’s why they all wear those black robes and refer to themselves as “The Court.” When they don them, they’re no longer acting within their own capacity as a person, but rather as a human extension of the law. So when you dress up, it shows that you’re not only respecting the court, but also the judges themselves. Not to mention that the fact that there are a lot of judges who hate it when people come to court dressed like a hobo.
2. Don’t Look Too Fancy or Flashy
This is true in . . . every case, but especially if you’re representing yourself, a defendant in a criminal trial, or making any sort of plea to the court regarding your financial insolvency. Both judges and juries are less likely to believe someone claiming to be broke if that person is wearing a $5,000 John Varvatos suit with matching briefcase. Dress modestly to show the judge that though you respect the court enough to get dressed up, you don’t care more about how you look than the case at hand.
3. Stay On Point, Answer Exactly What the Judge Asks, and Speak Clearly
Ever talk to a person who didn’t know how to shut up? Annoying right? Well imagine how a judge who has to deal with people like this all day feels. It may not seem like it to some people, but judges have a tough job. Our court system is jammed full of case and budget cuts have forced many judges to have to preside over matters outside of their expertise. So while trying to dispense justice fairly, judges are also trying to keep an efficient court so that they can hear all the cases on their packed dockets. The last thing they want is someone going off on a tangent about the origins of bicycles when all they asked was whether a stoplight was red. Not to mention the fact that it just plain annoying when someone can’t answer a question. It makes the person seem evasive and untrustworthy on top of wasting the court’s time. Speaking clearly ensures that you are heard, which is important both for the judge and the court reporter who has to write down everything you say.
4. Be Prepared with Your Documentation and Don’t Make Excuses For Your Screw Ups
For the same reasons as not staying on point is annoying, not being prepared for court and having a sob story explaining why is equally, if not more, infuriating. The last thing anyone wants to deal with is your excuses. So whether you’re representing yourself or your client, always have your documentation in order and if you don’t, just apologize and move on. The judge will respect you a lot more if you do.
5. If You’re Winning, Shut Up
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an attorney talk himself out of a winning situation. If you ever get the strong impression that a judge is about to rule in your favor about something, just shut up and let them do it. Don’t thank them, don’t keep trying to convince the judge why he should listen to you, just shut up and let it happen. Remember, judges are busy people and the last thing they want to hear or read is unnecessary talk and papers, respectively.