October 3, 2023

Podcast - Basic Courtroom Etiquette

The Trial Lawyer's Handbook: A Courtroom Preparation Podcast Series

In this episode of his "The Trial Lawyer's Handbook" podcast series, litigation attorney Dan Small covers 20 basic rules of courtroom etiquette. Mr. Small explains why following appropriate courtroom etiquette is so important, and why the jury will appreciate these actions.

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Mr. Small is also the author of the new American Bar Association (ABA) book Lessons Learned from a Life on Trial: Landmark Cases from a Veteran Litigator and what They Can Teach Trial Lawyers.

It's pretty clear that our society is becoming a lot less formal and often a lot less polite. Nevertheless, your conduct in the courtroom should not follow those trends.

You should know and observe basic courtroom etiquette at all times. This is more than simply observing good manners. It's understanding how generations of lawyers have behaved in a courtroom, and how everyone expects you to behave.

Courtroom etiquette has evolved in part to ensure that the procedure is orderly and fair. More than that, though, it ensures that all participants are appropriately respectful: respectful of the jury, respectful of the judge and respectful of the judicial process itself. Being respectful goes a long way toward being respected.

20 Basic Rules of Courtroom Etiquette

Here are 20 basic rules of courtroom etiquette:

1) Act with decorum and dignity, regardless of the temptations or provocations. Be the good guy, be the right guy or woman.

2) Adopt a polite and somewhat formal tone. Street talk is for the streets, leave it outside the courtroom.

3) Refer to the judge as "your honor," not "Hey, judge." Give respect, get respect.

4) Refer to your opponent as "Mr. Smith" or "Ms. Smith," not "my brother" or "my sister," and not "John" or "Jane."

5) Always stand when speaking, including when making objections. It acknowledges the importance of the setting and the importance of what you have to say.

6) Be courteous to your opponent, even when you don't really think they deserve it.

7) Be courteous to the witnesses. Understand that aggressiveness has to be earned and deserved. You may believe in your heart that the witness isn't a bad guy, but the jury doesn't know it yet — you have to prove that. You have to earn the right to be aggressive. 

8) Don't interrupt your opponent unless absolutely necessary. For example, to protect a privilege or preserve an objection.

9) Don't talk over your opponent. Don't make the judge enforce decorum and embarrass you in front of the jury.

10) Don't talk over a witness. If nothing else, it's frustrating to those trying to listen.

11) Don't speak directly to your opponent when court is in session. Speak to the judge. This is not a conversation.

12) Don't stand too close to the jury. Respect the jurors' personal space.

13) Don't approach a witness without requesting permission or acknowledging the authority of the court.

14) Don't engage in distracting behavior. Don't sigh, roll your eyes or shake your head if you don't like a witness' testimony, or the other side's argument. Maintain a calm demeanor. The old story about Abraham Lincoln when he was a trial lawyer was that he had the odd ability to balance a pencil on his fingertip at critical moments of the trial when his witnesses were being excoriated by the other side. This odd-looking character would be sitting at counsel table, calmly trying to balance a pencil on his fingertip, and sooner or later, everyone in the courtroom was focusing on that, not necessarily on the witness' testimony.

15) Wear moderately conservative clothing. This is not a fashion show. Clothing that is not conservative risks offending someone, while it pleases others. We want to please everyone.

16) Never bring food into the courtroom. The jury isn't eating in court, don't disrespect them by eating yourself.

17) Never chew gum. Seems obvious, but people do it.

18) If you need water, drink out of a cup, never a plastic bottle. That "snap, crackle, pop" sound can be annoying.

19) Turn off your cellphone. Nothing offends a jury more than if you're on your phone or reading your text messages while they're trying to do their important civic duties.

20) Never, ever, ever show up late. If there are going to be obstacles to your showing up: parking is tough, the elevators are slow, plan ahead for those obstacles. 

Closing Comments

It's not always easy to stay in line. Most lawyers, of course, are professional and courteous, even while zealously representing their clients. But chances are at some point you'll come up against someone who is discourteous, improperly pushes the envelope or simply cheats.

Or maybe it's someone you just can't stand. If you try a case against someone like that, you have to keep your emotions in check, no matter what. It will not help you or your client if you break the rules.

Or maybe you'll wind up trying a case in front of a judge who you think has made some serious errors, or whom you dislike. Do what you need to do to preserve your objections, and do your best to win if you can. But don't let a flicker of your displeasure show. The judge certainly won't like it. And if members of the jury notice, they probably won't like it, either.

In short, be courteous and observe courtroom etiquette. Do it because you respect the court and the judicial process. Do it because it's the right thing to do. And do it because you're that kind of person, and the judge and the jury should know and appreciate that.

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