The best trial lawyers move around a courtroom with such ease that you'd think they were trying the case in their own living rooms. When you are up against such lawyers, you'll be surprised by how disarming it can be. Sometimes their mistakes just won't seem to matter. In fact, you'll wonder, was that a mistake at all?
While this sort of confidence comes only with experience, there are some shortcuts you can take to being comfortable in a courtroom. Try these six:
- Meet with the Judge Every judge has special trial procedures and quirky personal rules that are best learned before you violate them. The more you know about the judge's personal trial procedures ahead of time, the more comfortable you will feel at trial. Question the judge at a pretrial conference or arrange a meeting that's convenient for opposing counsel. Put the question as directly as possible: "Your Honor, do you have any special trial procedures that I should know about?" Don't worry about sounding like a novice; you won't.
- Talk to Other Lawyers Asking the judge directly is good, but so is asking other lawyers. Find out about as much as you can about the trial judge by asking lawyers with firsthand knowledge. Does the judge require more formality or less? Will he impose limitations on your ability to move around the courtroom? How is his demeanor? What sorts of things will make him angry?
- Learn the Layout of the Courtroom If you are trying a case in an unfamiliar courtroom, spend some time there the week before. Consider where you'll sit, where you'll put your files, and how you'll get from one place to another with a jury box full of people who will all seem to be watching your every move. If you have an extensive computer set-up, conduct a dress rehearsal with your staff. You will be glad later that you did.
- Get to Know the Courtroom Personnel I suppose some lawyers don't take the time to learn the names of every member of the judge's staff before the trial begins, but this is not only risky, it's rude. Try to do more than learn their names; engage in some small talk and get to know a little about them too. Not only will you appreciate their smiles after a difficult day of trial, but they might be a big help when it comes to courtroom logistics. During a trial, you can't have too many friends.
- Be Yourself Sure you have seen some great lawyers who you would like to imitate at trial, but imitation just won't work. You're a lawyer, not an actor. Focus on the lawyering, try not to be too self-conscious, and don't be hard on yourself when you mess up. The showmanship may come naturally, but if not it won't matter: you'll be acting like yourself, which will make everyone happier (and much more comfortable) in the end.
- Overprepare There's no better way to make sure you will be relaxed at trial than to overprepare in the weeks before it starts. You won't be able to prevent the heart-stopping surprises that complicate every trial, but you will be more likely to keep your cool when they come.
Publication Note: Originally published 12/30/05. Republished today with minor edits.