Anything can happen in court. Last week, while in the midst of an appearance, I served as de facto wedding photographer. Although the bride and groom were blissfully unaware of it, their wedding ceremony came as a welcome reprieve from an incredibly heated argument between me and my adversary, back in court just three months after finalizing our clients’ divorce. It was hard to imagine that the parties – who had not only hired attorneys to argue on their behalf, but were also fighting with one another in the court room directly – had ever stood in the shoes of that bride and groom.
The entire episode served as a reminder that practicing family law is different. Behind every legal issue is also an emotional thread that drives the parties. Sometimes, this emotional component takes over and causes a good legal case to go haywire. Nowhere can things go more wrong than in the courtroom.
Oftentimes, the same judge will be with your case for its entire lifetime. Judges are people too, and the observation or opinion that one of the parties cannot control him or herself in their courtroom may impact their view of your case and, ultimately, their rulings. Here is what I tell clients about how to behave in front of the judge, despite the emotional content of their cases:
- Don’t overreact. Judges say things that can be upsetting. A judge may make an observation that a party does not think is accurate or fair. Or, the judge may make a decision that one party believes to be wrong or out of line. Keep it to yourself. Nobody likes a sore loser. And by reacting negatively, you may be re-enforcing the judge’s already negative opinion of you. By contrast, sometimes you’re on the other side of the equation and you are thrilled that your ex is FINALLY being read the riot act – and by a judge, no less. Well, keep it to yourself. Nobody likes a show-off, either. This also applies to any friends or family members you might bring with you for moral support (who should probably wait outside the courtroom, anyway).
- When in doubt, act like you’re watching paint dry. See above. If you can’t control yourself, tune out.
- Dress appropriately. As a party, you do not need to wear a suit to court. But remember, again, judges are people too. Just like everybody else, they are judging your appearance. Don’t show up in an outfit that shows disrespect to the Court.
- Don’t speak unless spoken to. If you hired an attorney, let the attorney do the talking. You are paying your attorney to actually represent and speak for you, so let him or her do that. If you start speaking on your own, you may say something against your own interest, or inadvertently reveal a privileged communication. Plus, judges hate it! They want order in their courtroom, and if the parties and the litigants are all arguing with one another, it is a disaster. If the Judge asks you a question directly, keep it short and sweet.
- Don’t fight with your attorney, your ex, or your ex’s attorney. At least not where the judge can see you. Sometimes, emotions run high. You might disagree with something your attorney said. That is a privileged conversation that you should have with your attorney in private. Undermining your attorney in front of the judge is not the way to help yourself. Alternatively, you might be REALLY angry at something your ex or his/her attorney said about you in the courtroom. Let your attorney deal with that at the appropriate time. And remember, the judge’s staff (his/her secretary, law clerk, court clerk, and officer) are an extension of the judge. If they see the courthouse equivalent of the Fight of the Century happening – even if its outside of the courtroom itself – they are going to let the judge know about it.