5 Tips for Your First Day in Court

A court appearance is a rite of passage for law students, even if you expect to spend little time in court after graduation. Some attorneys will take many cases to court, while others will handle business behind closed doors.

But experience in court is worthwhile for all law students. During your first case, your hands might be shaking, your heart racing, and your blood pounding in your ears.

Despite the nerves, you know you have to perform well. Time is the best mentor, but a few pointers can make your first court experience a success.

1. Be Thoroughly Prepared

Your success in the courtroom will depend almost entirely on the work you’ve done beforehand. The venue can be jarring and opposing counsel will take every opportunity to throw you off guard.

Preparation will keep you on track. Here are smart things to do:

  • Know the Time: Check the court calendar daily, and stay aware of possible time changes so you don’t miss your date. Be early so you can check with the opposing counsel and your client before court is in session.
  • Know Who’s There: Research the case histories of the judge and opposing counsel. You can learn a lot about whom you’ll be facing by the cases they’ve tried in the past.
  • Gather All the Evidence: This is critical. Work closely with your client and witnesses to put every piece of evidence in place. Gathering evidence immediately after the incident is best, but you can collect some information later, if necessary. Organize your evidence carefully and have an argument ready for when opposing counsel tries to poke holes in your case.
  • Review the File: Set aside an hour on the day before, and a few minutes on the morning of, the trial to review your case file with care. You’ll be confident if you know the case file inside and out. 

2. Dress the Part

An attractive, two-piece business suit was probably on your shopping list when you signed up for law school. You might not need reminding, but don’t forget how much physical appearance matters in the courtroom.

The judge, jury, and opposing counsel will take you more seriously if your suit is pressed, your hair is neatly and professionally done, and your makeup is conservative.

3. Slow Down

Nerves tend to make people talk fast. You might not realize you’re doing it. Stay conscious of your speed and try to speak at a measured pace.

You may have to practice beforehand, but it’s definitely worth it. You’ll sound more confident and believable if you slow down.

4. Don’t Beat Around the Bush

Another natural reaction to nerves is to avoid the question that’s asked. You might have committed an error, or don’t have a clear answer, so fight-or-flight instinct kicks in and you try to make excuses or talk in circles rather than tackle the question directly.

Be concise and direct with every answer. If you don’t know, say you’re working on gathering the correct information.

If you made a mistake, acknowledge that and share a solution to rectify it. Mistakes will happen in the courtroom, but you’ll only make things worse if you try to cover them up.

5. Be Respectful

This goes for everyone in the room, but especially the judge. Avoid phrases such as “with all due respect, your honor…” or “I demand that your honor…” in open court.

Such language indicates that you disagree with the court’s magistrate. It’s not your place to demand or dispute anything the judge says. If you must speak with him or her about something, request to approach the bench.

Treat opposing counsel with respect, as well. Fight for your client’s rights but don’t demean or browbeat the opposing side. It’s tacky and will give you a bad name as an attorney -- something you certainly don’t want when you’re starting your career.

Try to avoid using a condescending or negative tone with the jury, also. If you want to help your client, you’ll adopt a respectful tone for this essential group of citizens.

Confident and smooth court appearances take time to perfect, but you have to start somewhere. Every bit of preparation will bring you a step closer to being effective in a courtroom.

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