Nervous about your upcoming court appearance? Things to keep in mind

April 3, 2013

CourtroomNothing makes newer attorneys quite as apprehensive as a court appearance.

Sure, there may have been advocacy classes or mock trial competitions.  But everyone knows that the only thing on the line in those situations is a grade or some other kind of score that doesn’t truly have a real-world impact outside of the four corners of a résumé.

There are very real and, sometimes, very serious consequences tied to what happens at a court hearing.  This element alone makes even those more seasoned attorneys apprehensive.

Although it’s difficult to know exactly how things are going to go in court ahead of time, there are a few important points to consider to help ease the anxiety.

First, it’s important to realize that this isn’t the first hearing or trial that has ever occurred, and, chances are, this isn’t the first case that the judge has ever heard.

I’m not saying this to belittle the significance of the court appearance.  Rather, I’m saying this to underscore the importance of viewing this as, say, the judge likely does: just another court appearance.

For example, what may be the day that you have been dreading for a month is likely just another day in the office for the person making the all-important decision in your case.

Of course, the other side of this point is that the judge may not take your case seriously enough.

While it may seem outlandish that a judge doesn’t take decisions made from the bench as seriously as you feel that he or she should, those of us who have been to our share of court appearances have experienced the feeling along with its accompanying sense of powerlessness.

That’s the next point: get used to feeling powerless.  You can argue until you’re blue in the face, but if the judge has already made up his or her mind, you’re kind of S.O.L.

This is less true with jury trials; it takes a great deal of finesse to deal with a jury, and there’s a great deal that can be done to influence the jurors starting from the voir dire process until closing arguments (so much so that many authors have written many volumes on this topic, so I won’t get into it here).

Nevertheless, it’s very possible that there was something unforeseen or outright beyond your control that influenced the jury beyond your rehabilitation.

The point of my saying this isn’t to steal all hope away from you; sometimes something you say can make all of the difference in the court’s decision (I’ve remembered this happening at least once, and it’s a great feeling).

Nor is my point to say that you shouldn’t bother preparing for the hearing.  You certainly should.

However, by the time of the hearing, the judge usually has a pretty good idea about the case from reading the memorandums or briefs, and it’s fairly unlikely that you’ll be able to say something earth-shattering to change his or her mind.

So don’t put so much pressure on yourself to try.

Then again, trying to affect the outcome of a motion isn’t the only reason that attorneys feel apprehension before a court appearance.

If you’re anything like me – supremely introverted (which may come as a surprise to anyone who’s met me in person) – then speaking in public in an adversarial setting is anything but comfortable.

And what makes court appearances go from “uncomfortable” to “my own custom-made version of Hell” is when the judge chastises you in open court.

Whether it happens because the judge has a low tolerance for inexperience or attorneys not following court procedure to the strictest letter, or because he or she plumb doesn’t like attorneys, it’s always a vile experience.

The thing to realize about this is that most of the time you can’t do anything about it.  As long as you do everything possible to avoid a malpractice suit, violating the state bar ethics rules, or court sanctions, you’ve done your due diligence as an attorney.  Sometimes going to court just sucks, and you have to understand that you will get through it (it also helps to understand that most of the time it’s not your butt on the line).

I’m not trying to make you more apprehensive about going to court; I’m just trying to adjust your expectations so you aren’t completely blindsided with a belligerent judge at the hearing.

While we’re on expectations, here’s a particularly difficult realization to make: sometimes you know the law better than the judge.

The idea may seem ridiculous at first, but if you think about the fact that you have spent hours and hours researching for your case, and the judge, conversely, may have only skimmed the memos before the hearing, it doesn’t sound so crazy.

Yes, one would hope that a judge would take the time to actually review the law, but, as many attorneys have learned the hard way, a district court judge has a lot of discretion to “interpret” (i.e. twist) the law as he or she may see fit (and appeals are expensive and difficult to win).

My point: don’t assume the judge sees the law the way that you do. 

It’s great if the judge is level-headed and takes his or her job seriously, but don’t count on it.  As many seasoned attorneys will tell you, there are a lot of bad judges out there.

I realize that, in my attempt to assuage your fears about going to court, I may have given you more things to worry about than you would have thought of on your own.

Nevertheless, you should still try to relax as best you can. 

There is only so much that you can do to prepare for the court appearance, and there is only so much that you can do to affect the outcome.

Yes, being in court can get very uncomfortable at times – take it from someone who jumped into the deep end.

Regardless, as long as you do your due diligence as an attorney, you’ll survive, and you’ll hopefully walk out a better courtroom attorney.