How to Succeed with Your Judge
By: Cristin Lowe
If you’ve ever had to appear in front of a judge, you know how intimidating they can be peering down at you from the bench. Learning how to communicate clearly with your judge and navigate the confusing system will make all the difference with your family law case. Most family law courtrooms require attorneys to wait their turn before having their case heard, and as a result, I have had the ability to witness hundreds of cases heard before dozens of judicial officers. I have seen attorneys fail miserably and self-represented parties succeed, which means that while attorneys generally have an advantage over pro per litigants, it is very possible for people who don’t have an attorney to still obtain their goals. From what I’ve been able to observe over the years, here is my best advice for putting your best foot forward in front of your judge:
1. Be on Time. This may seem painfully obvious, but more often than not, people unintentionally show up to Court late. Make sure you assess the parking situation beforehand. Some courthouses have parking garages, but others only have metered street parking. If you have to walk two blocks but were expecting to park right in front of the courthouse, you’ll be late. Every courthouse will require you to pass through security, which means that you may be taking off a belt, shoes, and your watch. If you’ve ever stood in line for airport security, you know what this means. And when it comes to being on time, make sure you’re also on time with filing your documents. If you don’t submit your papers to the Court in a timely manner, not only is your judge “flying blind” when it comes to knowing what is going on with your case, but you are depriving yourself of having a judge who is prepared to help you with your case.
2. Be Respectful. Dress appropriately for your day in court. Pretend you are going to a job interview. Would you wear a baseball cap or ripped jeans? Of course not. So why would you treat a process that involves your children, your finances, and your life with less care than a potential job? This is basically an interview with someone who has the power to make orders over you, so you need to dress to impress. Make eye contact, refer to the judge as “Your Honor,” and be polite to the Court staff and bailiffs. Perhaps most importantly, you need to be courteous to the other party. Do not argue with him or her, either in front of the judge or out in the hallway. The last thing you want to do is disrupt Court proceedings or fuel the other side’s claims that you have an anger issue.
3. Be Organized. Practice what you want to say to the judge beforehand so that your statements make sense. They need to be relevant, brief, and factual. Remember that you may be limited to 20 minutes for your hearing, and that with the other side needing to also speak to the judge, that you may only have 10 minutes for your entire argument. Prioritize what is most important to you, and make sure you supplement, not repeat, what you’ve already filed with the Court.
4. Be Prepared. These days, you can Google your judge beforehand and probably read all sorts of scathing reports about him or her. You will always find someone who feels as though he or she has been wronged by the family law system. Instead of going off of anonymous internet posts, take the time to sit in and observe your judge in action before your first hearing. Almost all family law matters are open to the public. By sitting in his or her courtroom, you can learn your judge’s likes and dislikes. Listen to how the attorneys address the judge—they’ve all been in front of your judge more than you have, which means that most of them have figured out how to please the judge. Anytime I am in front of a new judge, I ask other attorneys for their opinion and make sure that I arrive early to observe the proceedings. Take the time to review the other side’s arguments and claims so that you can respond appropriately.