Don’t Make These Common Mistakes When You’re in a Courtroom

Don’t Make These Common Mistakes When You’re in a Courtroom
Photo: Jim Watson, Getty Images

Uh-oh: You have to go to court. Whether you’re a plaintiff, defendant, lawyer, or witness, the results of your trial might depend, at least in part, on how you conduct yourself in that stress-inducing room. As anyone who’s been tuning into the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial knows, courtroom behaviour gets people talking — but some of those people might just be jurors or judges, and their opinion here is kind of important.

Here are some tips for how to behave — and not behave — in court.

Dress up, obviously

This one goes without saying, but you want to look nice. Looking schlubby isn’t going to make anything you say sound particularly trustworthy; it’s common sense that human beings — judges and jurors included — respond better subconsciously to clean, neat, tidy, put-together people.

“Even prior to social media and the 24/7 news cycle, there were consultants that opined on both courtroom appearance and demeanour for plaintiffs and defendants, generally suggesting that erring on the side of conservative dress and respectful tone was the way to go,” said University of Miami School of Law adjunct faculty member and legal ethics expert Jan L. Jacobowitz. “The idea being that an individual’s dress, tone, or use of language should not distract from the issue being litigated (and in some cases, a respectful presentation may assist or enhance the credibility of a legal argument or of a party to the litigation).”

A lot of states actually have dress code guidelines, so be sure to look up the ones for your state. According to the Carlson Law Firm, most of these guidelines boil down to a requirement that people in the room be properly attired. That firm also recommends dressing “like you have respect for the court.”

In short, wear something conservative that fits well. This isn’t a moment for high-fashion choices, wrinkled clothing, cleavage, unkempt hair, or casual shirts. You don’t have to wear a tailored dress or suit or uncomfortable shoes, but something a little dressy is great. Think: business meeting.

Be respectful while you’re there

Judges expect to be treated with respect. If you’re not having a jury trial, the fate of the case is in their hands, so it shouldn’t be hard for you to remember to always address them with “your honour.”

Be respectful of everyone you have to talk to, as well. Brush up on your “sirs” and “ma’ams.”

As legal company Nolo Law advises here, “a little respect goes a long way in the courtroom, particularly when you are representing yourself. Address the judge as ‘your honour,’ not as ‘Judge Smith’ or ‘Mr. Smith.’ Try your best to be polite to your opponent, not demeaning or petty. Showing respect for people and procedures in the courtroom will help you gain the respect of the judge, which will make your day in court a more pleasant experience.”

Do not laugh — at all

This is where the Depp-Heard case comes in. Both of them have been torn apart on social media for smirking and laughing during testimony in their defamation trial. Laughing or looking dismissive during testimony is a huge mistake.

“Depp’s laughing and snickering to his attorneys is a huge no-no,” said Elura Nanos, an attorney and columnist at Law & Crime who has done witness prep in the past. “A key rule in courtroom comportment is to refrain from any visible reaction to witness testimony when you are watching from the litigants’ tables. While Depp may have the kind of charisma that makes his behaviour entertaining (and even charming at times), very few litigants can bank on chuckling to counsel reflecting well on them.”

Be calm and sincere

Going to court is a nerve-wracking experience no matter what, even if it’s for something like a parking ticket. Do not panic. Go over the facts of the case beforehand, stay in close contact with your lawyer or whoever is working with you on your appearance there, and don’t act phony.

“The biggest rule for witnesses is to remain calm and authentic,” Nanos said. “Particularly in lawsuits between intimate partners, any grand gestures of emotion have the potential to reflect negatively on the witness. Jurors will be quick to call out a witness who acts too flippant, too dramatic, or too excitable. Authenticity is key, and jurors will react badly — sometimes subconsciously — to any witness who appears to be playing them in any way.”

When you’re nervous, you can easily act a little sporadic or out-of-character, which is why it’s important to prepare beforehand. Know everything you want to say and present yourself assuredly, calmly, and clearly with no pretension or condescension, even if you’re fuming mad.

Remember all eyes are on you

If you take the stand, everyone will be watching you, but even if you’re sitting down at a litigants’ table or elsewhere, you are still visible. Your actions still matter. Don’t drop your professional attitude, get too comfortable, appear spaced-out, laugh, or in any way deviate from your plan to be presentable, authentic, and credible.

And don’t forget that what happens in the courtroom can easily echo outside of it. There are court reporters, for instance, and even cameras that can catch you slipping. Think about all the viral videos from traffic courts you can find on Instagram and TikTok. Your case may not be huge enough for an international media circus, but someone, somewhere, might still see a clip and recognise you.

“Today, the instantaneous social media vehicles through which to comment, critique, and criticise have created a much larger court of ‘public opinion’ of which litigants should be aware, especially if they are concerned about their reputations or the potential ‘viral’ nature of their case,” Jacobowitz said.

 

Log in to comment on this story!