If you’re like me, which is to say you’re a lawyer who loves going to court, then you love going to court! If that’s you, I promise I will include something for you at the end. Double promise. Cross my heart. Scroll down or whatever. If you’re literally anyone else, going to court is probably a stressful, harrowing, awful, no good, double plus bad, insert additional negative adjectives sort of experience. Here’s a guide to what to expect so you can get through it in one piece.
I. Showing Up
The first thing you need to know is that you need to dress the part. Whether you’re here for a traffic hearing, you’ve been charged with a crime, you’re getting divorced, you’re getting married, you’re doing an adoption, maybe it’s a custody thing, whatever, doesn’t matter. Pants. Rule one is pants. Past that, you want close-toed shoes that are fit for an office setting, and a button-down shirt with a collar. There’s usually no need to wear a jacket but it frankly doesn’t hurt. You want to be presentable and you want to make an impression on the judge – the impression is that you take this seriously. Judges watch parties (that’s what you are, you’re a party, a plaintiff, a defendant, okay maybe you’re a witness which isn’t a party but stop getting nitpicky with me) come and go all day in clothes that don’t show an ounce of respect to the court’s function or dignity. Don’t be one of those folks, get ready ahead of time. If you’re a guy, wear a tie. Not rocket science.
Next, get there at least 15 minutes early. Most courts will not let you bring in a cell phone or any kind of electronic device, so plan to leave it in your car, but some are more lenient nowadays. Most courts have a bank of screens that show what courtroom you’re going to be in. Search for your name as well as the time and the room you’re in. You should absolutely check this ahead of time if you can - many courts have websites you can search or you can call them. Even if you do that, check again on the day because these things can change if a judge is out sick, or a sub didn’t show up. Don’t be surprised if it’s been reassigned. If you can’t find it for some reason, head straight to the clerk’s office and ask, and if you can’t find that, ask someone in a uniform where it is.
II. Where Do I Go?
If you showed up sufficiently in advance, the first thing you should do is go to the bathroom. I’m not kidding. Do it now because you may be sitting and waiting a while. If you don’t go now, you may need to go before your case is called, and if you do that, you may miss your case being called. If you have a lawyer meeting you there, now is the time to go find that person. After that, go to your courtroom, ask someone in uniform (quietly) where you should sit, and go sit there. Then, take both your hands and fold them on your lap. Do nothing with them. If you feel the urge to do something with them, sit on them. Do not test me on this, I’ll know. Don’t do stupid things with your hands. Sit quietly and don’t talk to the people around you.
III. Who Are These People and Why?
No telling who is around you or why they’re there, but the short answer is that the people around you should be there for generally similar reasons to why you’re there. Courts tend to do similar business on the same docket. Speaking of which, that’s what you’re sitting in – the court’s docket. The docket is the list of cases that are being heard at this particular timeslot. If you have a full trial, you and whoever else is involved may be the only people in the room with a few exceptions, notable exceptions including the bailiffs (sheriff’s deputies charged with keeping the peace of the courts) and the judge’s staff such as the clerk and possibly an assistant, court reporter, and/or translators, depending on the needs of the court.
IV. Okay I’m In The Room, Now What?
The courtroom will be full of either chairs or pews of some sort for regular folks such as yourself to sit in. Toward the front of the court are the tables and chairs used by the litigants and attorneys - this area is called “the well.” Only go to that portion of the room when they’ve called your name. Maybe they’ll call you to a table, maybe to a lectern or podium, and maybe straight up to the judge’s area itself. That’s called “the bench,” by the way. You should generally not be moving around the well of the court unless your name has been called and then only to where directed.
V. The Robe Person Said My Name and I’m Scared
Well… buck up, cowboy, go do it anyway, or else the uniform people are going to come make you do things and you will like that less. Also that’s called “the judge.”
VI. The Robe Person Is Asking Me Questions Now
Alright, this part is a bit more difficult. One of several things is going to happen at this point. If you are here for:
You’ve been brought here because some non-criminal case is taking place. If you’re the Plaintiff, you go first and you ask the questions or make the statements that you need to make. This is also the time to call your witnesses if you have any. The Defendant goes second and asks any questions of your witnesses (or you, if you testified) after that person is done testifying for you, then calls any witnesses of their own and makes any statements they wanted to make. Once that’s done, both sides have “rested their cases in chief.” Once both sides rest, the judge may ask some questions or may just tell you what your outcome is. On rare occasions, judges will tell you they will rule on your case later, such as if they need to research something before making the final decision. Either way, you aren’t going to jail, so that’s good.
You, uhh… you aren’t having a good day. If you’re a witness, either the prosecutor will call you, or the defense attorney, and you should be prepared to truthfully answer any questions that they or the judge have for you. If you’re a victim, I’m sorry that happened, and your role is basically the same as a witness. If you’re a defendant, you should have retained an attorney ahead of time for this and they should be the ones telling you this, but if you didn’t, then the order of operations goes like this – the prosecutor will call any witnesses against you, who will testify (answer the prosecutor’s questions, these need to be open ended questions), and then you can cross examine them (ask them questions that you want answers to, which can be “leading” questions, or questions that have only a yes or no answer, think things that start with “isn’t it true that” or “you didn’t observe this, did you?”). Once they are done, you will get a chance to call any witnesses you want, and to make any statements you want. Don’t make your statements until the prosecution has rested their case.
If you did good, hopefully you don’t go to jail.
This is super common, and unless you’re there for a DUI, or something really egregious, like that time I repped a guy doing 104 in a 45, you should be more or less alright, because the consequences are generally not jail. You need to know if you’ve been charged with an infraction or a misdemeanor – it should say on the ticket. Misdemeanors carry the possibility of jail time, infractions do not. In Virginia, where I practice, if you haven’t done driving school in the last five years, the court has the power to dispense with most types of traffic violation by sending you to driving school, so look into that ahead of time. Wait your turn, be polite, if you have anything to say then do so respectfully, and ask for what you want – a dismissal for driving school, a reduction in seriousness of offense, a reduction to a non-moving violation, just be direct.
Oh, and before you go to one of these hearings, get a copy of your driving transcript from your state’s DMV. Don’t go to a traffic hearing without knowing exactly what’s on it, because the officer is probably going to have a copy, and if it’s good, showing it to the judge can help you out quite a lot. If it’s bad, well, at least you know how bad.
People from all walks of life end up in these sorts of hearings, and many, many of them without attorneys. Not every hearing is a trial, some are just to set trials or to hear motions. If it’s not a trial, then stick to what is actually in front of the court that day and keep your commentary relevant to that. If you’re there for a full trial, wait your turn to ask questions, wait your turn to make statements, and anticipate that the rules of evidence will probably be a bit more lax in these settings, and somehow never in the way you want.
We see it all the time where judges want to get very hands-on in these sorts of hearings and get to the bottom of things and we have to enforce the rules of evidence pretty strictly if we want them honored. It happens. Don’t be surprised if and when it happens to you.
VII. It’s Over – Now What?
You’ve had a bad day, buddy. Tough break. Try not to sweat it, jail isn’t prison. You’re gonna be ok.
Wow this, uhh… this really didn’t work out for you. Okay, best advice – put money on your canteen ahead of time, DO NOT tell anyone inside how much is on it. For your first few weeks don’t go get anything fancy out of the canteen, all eyes are going to be on you and people will notice. The people who try and make friends with you immediately are probably not the people who you want to make friends with, they are probably people trying to take advantage of you. Don’t join a gang. Use the time to take classes, exercise, and work on yourself. Again, don’t join a gang.
The Dumbest Things I’ve Ever Personally Seen Happen In Court
If you’re a lawyer who loves going to court, or somebody who just thinks these are hilarious, I promised I’d include them, so here they are.
One time, I saw a guy on a traffic docket be the only person who didn’t get his case dismissed. The judge was a substitute and he asked every single person, “Well, you aren’t gonna do it again, are ya?” And when they said no, he dismissed it. This guy just couldn’t read the room. Angrily insisted he didn’t do it in the first place. Judge was forced to actually try the case, and the guy was found guilty. Read the room.
I once saw a guy get the book thrown at him because in a simple traffic hearing he referred to the ticketing officer as “Captain America over here.” Don’t, uhh… Don’t do that.
Once in a jury trial the foreman said the jury almost found for the other side and asked me if I wanted to know why. I said absolutely, because you always take the chance to learn about what a jury thought. He said that my assistant had been disrespectful the whole trial and they had a lot of trouble getting over it. I gently informed him I was there on my own and asked him to point my assistant out. He pointed to the judge’s clerk. He was very embarrassed, but you just never know what people are going to do.
In a Circuit Court trial, my client fell asleep while the opposing party was testifying. No one noticed, not even me. Until she started snoring. If an attorney could die from a combination of shock and shame, I probably would have.
If you'd like some more advice on how to survive a trip to court, or on legal issues in general, contact Christopher Adams (firstname.lastname@example.org) at 804-377-1273, or Steve Setliff (email@example.com) at 804-377-1261.