Advice On Trying Your First Case
Here are some tips and advice for any new lawyer about to enter the courtroom and try his or her first case.
Do some advance work and scout the courtroom
Legal scholars differ as to how an attorney should act while moving around the courtroom during a trial. Some believe that an attorney should always request permission to proceed while others believe that it is acceptable to move around until a judge directs otherwise. Many judges allow attorneys to freely walk around the courtroom provided they do so with purpose. A simple solution is to observe the judge in action when he or she is hearing another case. Is the judge strict? Does the judge have any informal rules for attorneys? Of course, always asking for permission and showing the judge the requisite amount of respect goes a long way in any courtroom.
Be civil to opposing counsel
There is a fine line between advocating for clients and . . . being a jerk. Many legal experts believe that civility demonstrates credibility, especially to juries. The goal is to fight the good fight with dignity and class. New attorneys may tend to try to overcompensate for being new attorneys and try to assert themselves in unnecessary ways. Belligerence and over-aggression are occupational hazards for young lawyers. However, Most lawyers do practice civility and those who do not simply have little chance of changing at this point in their lives. Also, do not argue with impeached witnesses. Ask about a statement, impeach it with the conflicting statement, and move on. There is no need to give the witness or court any grief about what may appear as an attempt at presenting a mistruth to the court.
Make sure to always stand when addressing the court
It is not uncommon for young lawyers to be nervous when trying their first legal matter. This is typically accompanied by the fear of walking around the courtroom. As a result, young attorneys sometimes tend to sit and stay seated. It takes real effort to get up and walk around a courtroom for the first time.
Do not wed yourself to a script during the examination of witnesses
An appellate judge once said the following:
“Never write down your questions because if you ask a question you’ve written down and there’s an objection and it’s sustained and you’re looking at your notes, all you’re going to see is the objectionable question.”
Now, most attorneys will refrain from not writing down the questions that they will ask witnesses during a trial. That being said, it is useful and beneficial to write down the answers you are seeking to elicit from a witness.
Keep an evidence notebook handy for all objections
I knew an attorney who kept a separate three-ring binder of evidentiary objections to address any that could arise throughout a trial. The notebook contained an outline and summary of the evidentiary objections that she potentially could make, as well as those evidentiary objections that opposing counsel could raise. The notebook included useful information about how she could respond to these objections. In other words, she was prepared for the judge disagreeing with her.
Do not ask a question to which you do not know the answer
Another wise judge once asked an attorney why she asked a question to which she did not know the answer. The attorney replied that it did not matter in the case at hand. The judge then explained that it may in another case because if the witness had given the wrong answer, the attorney would not have a signed statement with which to impeach the witness.
Be organized but make sure it makes you comfortable
Lawyers have gone from using three-ring binders, notebooks, flashcards, posters, and the like to using laptops, tablets, and other forms of new technology. The key here is to use what works for you. If this means doing things the old-fashioned way with hard copies, so be it.
And one final tip for addressing the court and jury, whether an attorney’s first or 50th appearance in court:
“Brevity is the soul of clarity”
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