It should come as no secret that there is a certain level of decorum you are expected to uphold in the courtroom. However, it may come as a surprise how much improper behavior and disregard of etiquette can impact your case.
While we are always told it’s what is inside that really counts, when it comes to sitting in front of a judge, appearances are everything. If your divorce makes it to court, you must understand that the courtroom is an institution that demands respect (regardless of how you personally feel about the family court system) and follow the proper protocols if you want to avoid looking foolish and potentially harming your case.
Any good attorney will go over what you need to know in preparation for your court appearance, but if you are representing yourself or if your counsel isn’t so great, you may be left in the dark about what to expect. Here are a few tips and mistakes to avoid that will help you survive a hearing in court without damaging your credibility or winding up in jail for contempt:
It may seem totally obvious, but you want to make a good first impression on the judge, which begins with how you look. Treat court like a job interview and dress professionally, but not above your means.
Presenting yourself as a high-roller in an Armani suit with gem-encrusted cufflinks, a Rolex and an $80 pocket square sends a mixed message if you are trying to argue you cannot afford a higher alimony payment.
Wear a simple suit if you have one, but slacks, a button-down shirt and tie work just as well. Keep the colors neutral — you are not trying to draw attention to yourself or win a fashion show — and make sure you avoid tennis shoes or sandals. Simple Target dress shoes will suffice whether you are suiting up or sticking with the business-casual look.
Additionally, you need to pay attention grooming. Make sure you appear professional — your hair should be combed, facial hair should be trimmed, exposed tattoos should be covered and piercings should be removed.
Treat everyone with respect
When you are in court, how you interact with everyone, including the judge, attorneys, courtroom staff and your soon-to-be ex, will reflect back upon you. While outside appearances matter, so too do your reactions and interactions when faced with various questions during examination. You likely won’t be required to speak very much during the hearing, so you need to make the times that you do have the floor count in your favor.
When you are called upon to give your account or a rebuttal, you must again keep a level head and mannerisms. Calling your soon-to-be ex or her attorney a lying [insert creative expletive here] does not give the impression that you are on the side of reason.
Cases are won and lost solely on the judge’s impression of you and the opposing party, so be sure that you appear as the most rational and level-headed.
A simple way to think of it is again like a job interview: You would never get in an argument or speak harshly to someone interviewing you for a job, and in court, the judge and attorneys are the interviewers.
Do not let your disdain for the opposing party show
The court only hears directly from you for a total of several minutes, to maybe an hour or two at the very most throughout your entire divorce. If you appear angry, bitter, resentful or hateful toward the other party, even if she deserves it, the court will see this and assume you behave this way in front of the kids when speaking to or about the other party.
One of the biggest concerns of the court is parents treating each other respectfully in front of the children, no matter how they really feel about each other. Screaming and yelling obscenities at the other side during testimony can completely destroy your case. The opposing attorney may claim lie after lie with the intent to get you to interject and cause a disruption, but you need to avoid sinking to their level.
There will obviously be times where you disagree with something claimed in the opposing party’s testimony, and it may be very difficult to keep a lid on your anger — this is particularly true when the husband is unjustly accused of abuse, domestic violence or threatening behavior. However, you need to bite your tongue and stay calm until it is your turn to speak. Talking over the opposing party or their attorney shows that you are argumentative, could help justify claims of anger control issues and also makes for a bad transcript in the event of an appeal.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series describing proper courtroom etiquette.