Appearing in court for the very first time is one thing that many young lawyers worry about. Whether it’s for a summary judgment hearing, a consent order, or a court case management conference, the right preparation is highly necessary. You might have the feel of the procedure and the environment when you instruct counsel at a court hearing. But opening your mouth in front of the judge for the first time is quite different.
Let’s say you’ve done your homework – prepared outlines of questions, made details argument notes, or taken the essential depositions. But a good family law attorney knows it’s more than just that. To make your first court appearance a success, you have to think through the way the trial will unravel. And here, we give you the three most important factors to concentrate on.
As a lawyer, the tendency is to over-prepare. You need to review everything multiple times so you won’t make a fool of yourself when you’re in court. That’s great. However, always think about what you should really focus on. Which party is your client – defendant or plaintiff? What do each of the parties want and why? What points to make with the opposing counsel’s witness? Apart from that, study the complaint, from the evidence to statements you need to prove or disapprove.
Also, make sure to develop a strong case theme. Identify your weaknesses and strengths, and your opponent’s. And most importantly, determine the story to tell at the trial. From your opening argument, demonstrative aids, witness examination, to your closing statement, each one should be telling one convincing story.
The types of documents you need will vary widely. In most cases, these include written submissions, speaking notes, a list of materials to rely on, Court draft orders, and an affidavit.
Once you’ve identified all the necessary documents for your case, organize them. Prepare copies for yourself, the judge, and the other party. Don’t hand out any original documents to the other party or even the judge unless you are ordered to do so.
For many lawyers, having a trial binder for different kinds of court hearings is a must. The binder contains both your notes and evidence for the case. Here’s what trial binder sections might look like:
- Reference – This section contains the case summary such as factual and legal issues and the key players of both sides. It should also include contact details of the judge, trial staff, client, witnesses, as well as the opposing counsel.
- Pleading and Discovery – This includes major pleadings (answer, complaint, and counterclaim), discovery responses (interrogatories and orders on discovery motions), as well as major orders (pretrial and scheduling order, order granting summary judgment, and other important orders).
- Voir Dire – Such section contains juror profiles and panel charts, a notes section, an outline of voir dire questions, as well as the list of grounds for challenges for cause.
Other important sections to include are opening and closing statements, witness examination, an outline of the order of proof, trial motions and authorities, exhibits, and jury instructions.
After determining the best story to tell and preparing all the documents, you can now practice your presentation for the trial. If you’re the plaintiff, you speak first. Tell your story and make the necessary legal points. Practice how you can give a better map for the legal elements so the judge can easily follow. If you’re the defendant, you speak next. Assume that the judge understood the facts provided by the other side and proceed to discuss your defense statements.
No matter which party you’re on, always speak politely, slowly, and deliberately. Speak calmly without losing a tone of confidence and command. You can also dress up during your practice to get the best feel of it. Dress professionally – put on a plain, collared shirt and a coat.
It will be helpful to do all this in front of a friend in the same profession to get unbiased and harsh feedback. This helps you determine if your story is persuasive enough and what areas are unclear or weak.
Furthermore, watching some trials about a similar case can give you ideas on how to effectively present your story and evidence. And as most trials take days or weeks, take time to watch every portion. You’ll be more relaxed if you know what to expect.
Preparation for a court appearance comes with a broad range of areas to focus on, and the above-mentioned tips are just some of them. Nevertheless, keep in mind that you’re competing for the trust of the judge and the jury. And the best way to win it is to direct the flow of the proceeding. Be prepared, show confidence, and make that courtroom your own.