I recently posted a Legal Guide about how to dress for your first official court appearance with your attorney. Another important part of the discussion of the first court appearance is how you should behave. When we at the Law Offices of Raymond G. Wigell, Ltd., are retained by a new client, we begin immediately by prepping them for court. Usually, the first court date consists of us filing an appearance, receiving any discovery that the state has, or setting a discovery status date so that the state has about a month to procure and tender the first batch of discovery. It may seem like not much happens on the first court date, but a lot does. And your first appearance in court with your attorney, before the judge and the prosecutor, is very important. As soon as you step into the courtroom, you're being watched by multiple courtroom personnel.
Here are some things to remember.
1. Be early.
I said this in my previous legal guide, even though that was more about appearance. Still, this is so important that it bears repeating. Show up 20-30 minutes early. You'll need some time to make it through the long lines and security to get into the courthouse. While your attorney may not plan on getting there a little later, don't let that concern you. He or she might have a morning commitment, and very likely has a court ID card that lets him or her bypass the lines. Your attorney's arrival time isn't important: what matters is that you are there early and know where you're supposed to be.
2. Be calm.
Don't pace around the hallway. Don't speed-walk down the corridors. Don't talk loudly to whoever you're with about your worries or your anxieties. Don't constantly run your hands through your hair or exhibit other nervous behaviors. It's fine to be nervous - expected, really. But it's important to have a calm exterior. Make it through security. Find your room. Enter and sit down in the audience seating. Don't barge in and immediately make a beeline toward court personnel. Just keep your wits about you and stay calm. If you feel like crying or feel a panic attack coming on, quietly leave the room and find a bathroom. If you can't find a bathroom quickly enough, find a quiet or out of the way spot. Return as soon as you are able.
3. Be quiet.
This is not the time to turn to whichever member of your support system accompanied you to court and read off some hilarious tweets. This is not the time to crack jokes and laugh. This is not the time to click your pen on and off a million times. Just respect the courtroom environment and its personnel and sit there quietly. You can absolutely chat with the person that came with you, but always be respectful. If you're told to quiet down, immediately quiet down without offering excuses.
4. Get up as soon as your name is called.
Usually, the clerk will call your name and your attorney will stand and say something that indicates that the two of you are present. Your attorney will then head right over to where he or she is supposed to stand, either in front of the judge or at a podium depending on the courtroom set up. When you hear your name, stand up. This gives the courtroom personnel a chance to quickly identify you, and it lets them know you're present. Try to get to your attorney's side quickly, but don't push people out of your way and barrel toward him. Even if it takes you a minute to get up there, your attorney will (or should) make the record that you are present in court on bond.
5. Let your attorney talk unless the judge asks you a specific question.
Always let your attorney talk. He or she knows the coutroom culture and more importantly, the procedure. You do not. Keep your mouth shut. If the prosecutor says something you don't like, it doesn't matter. Make a note to talk to your attorney about it later. At the time, just keep your mouth shut. If the judge asks you a question specifically and looks at you, only then should you speak. Speak calmly and clearly and loudly. Don't rush; in slowing down your pace a little, you're giving your attorney the ability to smoothly jump in to protect you in case you're about to say something you shouldn't, or about to say something that might prompt a question from the state or the court that your attorney does not want to answer at that time. Any time a client is asked to speak for himself is a stressful time for an attorney, who has been trained to almost always speak for the client during proceedings. There are any number of things that can go wrong when a client is asked to speak. In not rushing with your words, you help your attorney maintain a little bit of control over the situation and you give him or her the ability to jump in and help you if it's called for.
6. Do NOT argue with your attorney in the courthouse.
It doesn't matter if you feel your attorney bungled up in the biggest possible way. Whatever you want to discuss with him or her, don't do it in the courtroom or even near it. Find a very out of the way spot, maybe the cafeteria or the parking lot, if that is acceptable. You never want to argue with your attorney in any spot where the judge, courtroom personnel, or prosecutors can see you. While in court, that attorney is your defender. You two are a united front. It doesn't matter if you hate his or her guts: do not ever let on that you are anything less than a united front in court. When judges or prosecutors see attorneys and clients bickering, it creates a serious weakness in your case. It gives the prosecutor the insight that he or she might be able to manipulate the case to your detriment since you and attorney don't get along, and it shows the judge that there are problems in that relationship. If you want to tell your attorney to go to hell, do so at his or her office or over the phone. While in court, you two are happily joined at the hip.
7. Do not try to talk about your case in the courthouse.
So the cout proceeding just concluded, and something huge happened. The prosecution tendered some discovery that you think is particularly damning. Or maybe you just got a great idea about something that your attorney can use to strengthen your case. Or maybe you remembered something from the sequence of events leading to your arrest that you previously forgot to tell your attorney. It doesn't matter: keep it quiet. The courthouse is NOT the place to get into a discussion like that. The courthouse is not the place where business of that nature is conducted. Either talk to your attorney over the phone later, or make an appointment to come into the office to discuss whatever you want to discuss. The courthouse is a very public place. Anyone could be listening in, and anyone could be watching you. If you look angry in your discussion, a prosecutor that glances your way might misinterpret it and presume you're fighting with your attorney, which, as discussed above, can be harmful to your case. More importantly, your business is your own, no one else's. Courtrooms are crowded places. You don't want anyone else to be aware of the specific details of your case, simply becaue it's none of their business. Wait until you're in a secure location, like your attorney's office, before having that discussion.
8. Don't be offended that your attorney isn't your buddy in court.
Your attorney is absolutely your defender, and has your best interests in mind. But even if he or she is super cheerful and warm and friendly and jokes around when you're at his office, don't be offended if he or she isn't like that in court. At the Law Offices of Raymond G. Wigell, Ltd., we are quite personable and friendly when it comes to our clients. But in court, we're not there to be your friend. We're there to take care of your case. It is not our intention to be rude or cold. If you feel offended, try to remember that there is plenty of time for friendship and warmth at the office, but the nature of the courthouse is entirely different.
Keep these ideas in mind and hopefully, your court appearances will be slightly less stressful.
Criminal Defense Attorney