Courtroom Etiquette 101

The basics of how to get through your court appearance without feeling completely out of place

Seinfeld Makes it looks Easy

Seinfeld Makes it looks Easy

For anyone who has had to go to court for whatever reason, including newly admitted attorneys, they know it can be a very intimidating and awkward experience.  It doesn't mater the subject matter or the importance of the case, the courtroom experience itself can be frightening.  There is no instruction manual provided, nor does anybody within the courthouse seem too interested in assisting you as they watch you fumble around the courthouse trying not to call attention to yourself.  Some of these generally universal tips may make your next court appearance a little less intimidating.

Depending on the size of the courthouse, be sure to get there at least an hour early.  The first hurdle will be to get through the door and the metal detectors.  Make sure you don't bring anything that can remotely be construed as a weapon.  No pocket knives, pepper spray or even nail clippers are generally permitted, and will usually be tossed by the bailiffs.

Next look closely at your court documents to find which courtroom and department your case is designed.  This is another issue that is usually more complex than it sounds.  Usually, the courtroom numbers don't match the department numbers.  Further, there are usually courts of different jurisdiction within the same courthouse.  So double check your designated courtroom with any case management monitors that may be available in the courthouse lobby.

Remember, your case is not that special to anyone but you

Once you make it to your designated courtroom, the fun and awkwardness are just beginning. In movies and TV shows (such as the image above) when the characters have to appear in court it seems like the entire courtroom is devoted to those characters and their case.  So it stand to reason that people look at their court notice with a set time and date and think that they are the only people set for court on that date and time.  This couldn't be further from reality.  

In the real world, the courtroom is a crowded and often over-calendared; it's a chaotic place. Generally dozens of other people have also been calendared for hearing at the exact same time and place as you!

So whatever you do, don't walk into court and take it upon yourself to go have a seat at the podium and get yourself comfortable until the judge takes the bench, unless your goal is to get publicly lectured by the bailiff and possibly held in contempt of court.

To ensure you won't be spending an evening in lock up on contempt like Joe Pesci in "My Cousin Vinny,"  follow these simple tips upon entry of the courtroom:

  • Arrive at least 15 minutes early to your courtroom, not 15 minutes early to the courthouse.
  • Make sure you have your case name, case number and any court ordered documentation easily accessible.  
  • Upon arrival (as long as court hasn't started yet) linger in the back of the courtroom for a moment and get a feel for the specific court decorum and try to scout out someone who looks to be a familiar and comfortable in that courtroom, whether it be an attorney or a seemingly friendly staff member.
  • Watch that person to get a glimpse of what the check-in procedures are for that specific courtroom.  Every courtroom is different.  Some courtrooms require:  you check in with the court clerk, you check in with the bailiff, only attorneys check in, or nobody checks in.
  • If you see people standing in a line directed toward a particular clerk, it's a good indication that is where you need to be to check-in.  As a general rule, court clerks are very busy and don't have the time or the desire to answer questions or engage in a discussion with you.  So be polite and as direct as possible when checking in with the clerk.
  • NEVER EVER PISS OFF THE COURT CLERK FOR ANY REASON.  They have more power than you realize, and can make your life and case very difficult!
  • If you still feel lost, quietly go up to whomever you sensed to be the most familiar with the setting and easy going, preferably an attorney, and ask where to check in.

Once checked in, take a deep breath and have a seat in the gallery.  The "gallery" is the area with the church pew style seats that are usually behind the Plaintiff and Defendant tables and/or podiums.  You wont approach that area until your case is specifically called.  Ensure your cellphone is turned off or at least silenced as nothing can be as scary or traumatizing as your cellphone ringing while court is in session (depending on the judge).

Before court officially begins, the court bailiff/marshal will call the court to order and generally ask you to stand up while the judge takes the bench.  Never ever sit down before the judge takes his/her seat and the bailiff tells the court to be seated.  Next keep your fingers crossed that you are not the first case called so that you can watch the procedures of other parties as they make their entrance from the gallery to the appropriate Plaintiff or Defendant table.  Generally, attorneys are called first so pay close attention to their movements and verbiage as they address the court.  Once your case is called, it is your time to shine!

Hopefully, the forgoing will alleviate some of the tensions associated with the courtroom experience.  If interested, keep your eye out for my next post on courtroom etiquette 102.



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