Aside from looking professional and maintaining your composure, there are several other aspects of appropriate courtroom conduct that you need to keep in mind.
Additionally, you should always ask your attorney for advice if you are unsure what you need to do. Running through a mock trial with an experienced divorce lawyer can help you better understand what you are up against when it comes to your first hearing.
You should always ask your attorney if there is anything you need to know for your specific court or judge, but here are a few more general aspects of proper etiquette that you must remember before you ever step foot into the courtroom:
Do not understate problems with the opposing party
When the opposing party has serious issues, such as alcohol or drug abuse, mental illness or domestic violence, don’t feel you have to play it down to look like the bigger man. Men often have a very difficult time speaking openly with the court about these matters since they are private and embarrassing, and this is especially true of men who have been physically abused by their wife.
When there are issues such as these, you have to talk about them openly and let the court know and understand the true gravity of the problems. If there is a serious situation and you try to simply laugh it off or are too vague and evasive when asked to explain the details because it is uncomfortable, it appears as though you aren’t telling the truth or that the incident was really no big deal.
This not only hurts your case when the severity of the issues could have made a judge’s decision swing in your favor, but also damages your credibility if you seem unwilling to fully disclose crucial information.
Watch your body language
Your body language can speak volumes, even when you remain completely silent. Rolling your eyes, furrowing your brows, shaking your head, clenching your fists, angry expressions or showing indignation of any kind when someone else is speaking can be just as loud as screaming at the top of your lungs — and some judges may take just as much offense.
Keeping a neutral expression will be incredibly difficult at times, but you need to put on your best poker face throughout the hearing. Do not assume that just because the spotlight is on someone else that your expressions won’t be noticed.
Additionally, keep in mind that your posture can subtly play into how you come across to the judge. Avoid slouching or other nervous behavior like shaking your legs, chewing your nails, etc., as you want your body language to project the image of confidence, honesty and attentiveness.
Be particularly respectful to the judge
The judge obviously falls under treating “everyone with respect,” but it is important to reiterate the point because the judge holds your future in their hands and is in a position of power and esteem. Even if you do not like your judge, he or she is rude /condescending or shows a bias, you must continue to present the highest respect for their position. It will cause you nothing but trouble if you are disrespectful right back and could even wind you up in jail for contempt.
You should also follow traditional courtroom procedure, which includes standing when the judge enters or leaves the room, referring to the judge as “your honor,” only speaking to the judge at appropriate times (if you are directly asked a question, you have the floor, etc.) and keeping your voice down with a neutral tone.
Never openly question the judge’s ruling or decision when you are in the courthouse — even if you completely disagree or it goes against you. Simply thank the judge for their time and leave with your head held high. You can vent to your attorney about how awful the judge is later (behind closed doors where you can’t be held in contempt).
Other things to keep in mind
Leave electronics at home — Texting, even if your phone is on silent, is distracting and shows that you are not taking the court seriously. This is true even when you are sitting in the back waiting for your case to be called. Even if your phone is on vibrate, it can still be a distraction.
Organization — Shuffling paperwork, having to constantly ask the judge to wait while you find the right document, etc., will get old fast. The judge has many more cases to hear, and wasting his or her time due to your disorganization will put you on their bad side very quickly.
Remember to check in — In most courts, you or your attorney must check in for your hearing. The staff will not call your case if you do not check in, so do not simply assume your case will be called just by showing up.
Leave minor children / new girlfriends at home — You will generally know about your hearing well in advance. Make arrangements to take care of any young children, as they can be a distraction during the oftentimes long wait for your turn in front of the judge. Additionally, many judges look down upon having a new paramour before the divorce is final, even if you started dating after separation. It’s simply best to avoid unnecessarily flaunting your new girlfriend in the courtroom.
Let your lawyer do the talking — Unless you are directly addressed by the judge, let your attorney do their job. They know how to act in the courtroom much better than you, so stay quiet and composed until you are called upon to speak.
Do not let little things harm your otherwise solid case. It may take hours of practice to mentally and physically prepare yourself for a very short hearing, but it is well worth the effort to present the right image. Judges have a very short time to determine their opinion of you before they make a ruling that will dramatically alter your future, so this is one first impression that you must pull off.
As unfair as it may be, if the judge forms a negative opinion of you early in the case, it may impact you for the rest of your life.
Editor’s Note: This is the conclusion of a two-part series describing proper courtroom etiquette.