Making the right first impression to the court

February 25, 2014

CourtroomWe know about the importance of a first impression. It’s a strong handshake, a confident smile, and an assertive posture. Mastering those gestures helps us become more likeable and more persuasive. In the law, when does a first impression happen? As future lawyers, when will those moments happen?

One place first impressions happen is a court paper called an appearance. In it, you introduce yourself to the Court as a party’s attorney. Some appearances are in archaic, elegant prose. They sound practically medieval, as if the lawyer were in a jousting tournament rather than a court case! Others are more matter-of-fact.

My first appearance was as a student attorney. If you’re doing the same thing, your appearance cites your state’s student practice rule. Citations are another important part of that first-impression formula. Cite the rule wrong, and the Court might wonder why you’re practicing law without a license!

But citation rules aren’t exactly well-liked. Even Bryan Garner, an authority on legal writing, criticized textual citations as “onerous.” He’s right. The rules seem more like the legal profession’s secret handshake. They distinguish between people who correctly abbreviate titles like “Ins. Comm’r of the State of Md” and those who don’t. Even when used correctly, in-text citations break up the flow of the argument for the writer and the reader.

Document formatting presents another opportunity. If you’re doing transactional, flat-fee work, like drafting wills, it’s important to draft something ironclad, with perfect numbering, definitions, and no wiggle-room for future litigation. If you’ll litigate, you have to obey all the quirky, jurisdiction-specific requirements. In Iowa, where I’m licensed, our Court of Appeals opinions have started calling out lawyers who violated the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

The “new normal” is where there’s often no extra staff to handle extra work. How will this affect your practice? It will affect your bottom line, because many lawyers don’t bill clients for the full time spent preparing documents. Second, it will affect your calendar. Even if you could make money formatting and cite-checking, most new lawyers would rather spend their time mastering the substantive law. So spend your time on something besides “onerous” work and get into the practice!

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