Knowing how to address the judge, where to sit, and when to stand before ever walking into a courtroom in a professional capacity will help ease any nerves you may be feeling.
Following are 10 rules of etiquette that are good to know, no matter how many times you’ve plied your trade before the bench.
#1 Addressing a Judge
At some point, you will speak directly to the judge or refer to the judge while in court. When you do so, you address the judge as “your honor” when speaking to them directly. When referring to them in court, you say, “his honor, or her honor, or the Court.” Formality is required when in a courtroom.
A judge is a judge until they are a judge of a state or federal court of appeal or the U.S. Supreme Court — then they are a justice. You may call them “Judge Smith or Justice Smith or the judge or the justice” when speaking to them or about them outside the courtroom. It’s wise to avoid simply calling them “judge” even outside a courtroom unless you are friends or at least quite friendly.
If you are appearing before a tribunal or panel of judges, use the term “your honor” when speaking directly to an individual judge or use the judge’s specific title if you need to make it clear which judge you are speaking to or about. Judges’ titles include Chief Justice So-and-So, Chief Judge So-and-So, Justice So-and-So, and Judge So-and-So.
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#2 Seating Arrangements
In a courtroom, a bar or railing separates the spectator seating from the area where the work is performed by attorneys, bailiffs, the court clerk, the judge, and others. As an attorney, you “pass the bar” when you become credentialed to move from the public space to the professional side of the bar. The seating arrangements in a courtroom are as follows:
- The judge sits at their desk or “bench” at the front of the courtroom. All spectators, plaintiffs, and defendants are seated facing the bench, with the counsels’ tables located in front of the bar and the spectators behind the bar.
- The lower bench is made up of the clerk of the court, the court reporter, possibly the judge’s law clerk, and the bailiff, all of whom are situated in front of the bench, with the bailiff sitting or standing more to the side. The open space between the counsels’ tables and the judge’s bench is called the “well.”
- The jury box is located on one side or the other of the well, with the witness stand between the jury box and the bench. Which counsel’s table you sit at depends on your role on the day. The tip-off is that the plaintiff’s table is usually situated closest to the jury box.
#3 Arriving at Court
If your case is on the docket for a certain day at a specific time and you arrive on that day exactly at that time, you will be late. You should arrive early so that you are in your seat, next to your client, with your papers arranged as you like in front of you and your briefcase out of the way at the time the docket says you are to appear in court.
Being on time and prepared shows respect for the judge, the lower bench, the witnesses and jurors, other attorneys, and all those with a need to be present when your case is called.
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#4 Showing Respect to the Court
In addition to being ready to go when your case is called, there are other ways you show respect to the court, including:
- A court appearance always requires you to have a professional image. Avoid fabric with loud or busy patterns. Muted colors are welcome. No ripped, torn, or wrinkled clothing. Remove hats worn as fashion statements.
- Visit the facilities before entering the courtroom. Asking the judge for a bathroom break (unless you’re ill) may be irritating to the court and reflect poorly on you.
- Bring extra pens and pencils, notebooks, and chargers or extra batteries for electronics.
- Mute all your electronic devices and do not put them on vibrate. Phones can still make noise when they vibrate. Store your phone out of sight unless you will be referring to the information it contains during the proceedings.
- Be polite to every person in the courtroom and the courthouse. No matter what is happening in your life to cause irritation or a bad mood, you should remain pleasant and polite from the time you get out of your car until you get back in after court.
#5 Introducing Yourself in Court
The judge may or may not ask you to introduce yourself. If there is an appropriate moment, it’s a good idea to do so for the record and to help the judge remember your name. Judges may preside over many cases in a day and not remember everyone’s names.
Stand and greet the court, then state your name and who you are representing. For example: “Good morning, your honor. My name is John Smith. I am representing the plaintiff, Ms. Jane Doe.”
#6 Communicating in Court
There are a few dos and don’ts when speaking with others in court. They may be unwritten rules, but they will serve you well:
- Do not mumble or let the sound of your voice fall off at the end of a sentence. Speak precisely, properly (no slang or vulgarity), and loud enough for all parties to easily hear, except when you’re not speaking for the record, then softly, softly.
- Look at people when you talk with them and when they talk to you. It’s important and impactful to do.
- No matter what the judge or the opposing counsel, a witness, or anyone else in the room may say or do to irritate you, do not let your irritation show by word or deed. Watch your tone of voice and your body language — no matter what, you should maintain a professional and pleasant demeanor.
#7 Interactions With a Judge
There’s more to interacting with a judge than calling them “your honor,” such as:
- Rising to your feet is something you may do a lot of when in court. You stand when the judge enters the courtroom or leaves the courtroom. You stand when speaking with the judge.
- If the judge is speaking, everyone else should be silent. Never interrupt or talk over the judge. It’s rude, it will rile the judge, and the court reporter will not catch everything you say. If the judge interrupts you, stop talking, listen, and provide a direct answer if one is required. Don’t hedge or opine; just answer and follow that with an explanation if necessary.
- Only one person speaks at a time in a courtroom. If you are in front of a panel of judges and they start talking to one another, you stop talking and politely wait for an indication that you may resume talking.
- If you disagree with the judge once they make a definitive statement or ruling, there’s no benefit to telling the judge you disagree. Save your views for the appeal. Keeping calm and remaining respectful will do you and your client no harm. Conversely, don’t verbally agree with or thank the judge if there is a favorable statement or ruling, as they will not want any appearance of siding with you to taint the proceedings.
- When advocating for your client, be vigorous but do not devolve into sarcasm or disrespectful words or tones. That only shows your lack of professionalism.
- Do not communicate directly with the attorneys representing the other side. Channel your questions, statements, and remarks to and through the judge.
- Ask the judge for permission before approaching the bench or witness stand, the jury box, or other individuals in the well.
- Watch your body language. Do not let any negative thoughts or emotions show through a frown or the slap of a notebook on a tabletop. Stay professional.
#8 Preparation for Court
Being fully prepared for a court appearance is professional, beneficial to your client, and respectful to the court. Steps to take include:
- Proofread everything. Spellcheck is good, but reading the documents after running them through spellcheck is best. Poor grammar and misspelled words do not reflect well on you or your firm.
- The courtroom is not the place to inform yourself about your client or case. You came to the table to represent your client, and you’d better be ready to do so. You should know more about your client and the case than anyone in the room. You should also know what has been done to settle the case and if there’s anything more that can be done outside the courtroom to reach an agreement.
- Share all the required information, such as the exhibit list and witness list, with the court and opposing counsel before stepping into court.
- Know the facts of your case. If you have made assumptions about any part of it, you should check to confirm what’s true while you are preparing your case. Do not walk into court and make a statement to the bench based on an assumption. If you’re caught flatfooted, don’t guess. Fess up and tell the truth. If you accidentally misrepresent in court, it reflects negatively on you and may harm your client and case.
#9 Presenting Your Case
You will make copious notes while building your case. By the time you’re in a courtroom, those notes should be in your brain and ready to spill out of your mouth. Memorize as much as you can of the facts and the essence of what you want to say. Reading your opening statement rather than simply speaking to the court is a no-no. The same goes for the witness questions you’ve prepared and your final argument.
An impactful message comes from the heart, not a notepad.
It’s acceptable to glance at your notes to make sure you’ve covered everything you planned to address, but do not read your thoughts to the court.
#10 Odds and Ends to Tuck Away Just in Case
- If you’re appearing in a court new to you or in front of a judge you know nothing about, read the local rules. Talk to the clerk of the court or members of the bar about any peculiarities or preferences, or rules specific to that court or that judge.
- Expect the unexpected. Work out potential scenarios and your responses — be prepared. For instance, your team missed one of the opposing counsel’s requests for information, and you’re faced with a motion to compel discovery. What do you do?
- Learn on the job. Pay attention to every word and action in court. You might pick up tips for handling your next case.
- Speak like a normal person. Don’t throw around “may it please the court” every time you stand up. Read the room. Your word choices are important for clarity but should reflect where you are and who’s listening.
- If your client will be in the courtroom with you, have a conversation with them a few days before about the dos and don’ts of the court. Emphasize how the client should dress, when they will need to stand, how to address the judge, what to say, and when to stop talking. Their body language and tone of voice should remain neutral and contained. If they’re in doubt, they can watch you, and you will indicate what they should do.
- You and your client should bring no consumables into the courtroom, including gum or hard candy.
- You and your client should wait until you’re out of the courthouse and in a private space to discuss what happened in court or anything about the case.