The Courtroom Culture

A successful trial lawyer adapts to the courtroom culture. While protocols vary somewhat from courthouse to courthouse and even courtroom to courtroom in the same courthouse, minimum standards of conduct do exist. In the following article, King County Superior Court Judge John P. Erlick provides concrete advice concerning those standards. His advice should be heeded by everyone from the law student competing in a mock trial to the experienced lawyer in trial. Judge Erlick wrote:

If you Google the phrase “lawyers and professionalism,” you get about 1,620,000 hits. That’s a lot of commentary. The purpose of this article is not to debate academically what is or is not professional conduct on the part of attorneys, but rather to provide a more practical guide based on one judge’s perspective from the bench. Defining professionalism may be done using a multiplicity of sources, including the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPCs), which set a minimum standard of conduct, and the local culture in the courtroom, and within the bar.

Local culture or protocol is important to understand, because expected courtroom conduct varies greatly. For example, I recently returned from observing a trial being held in Old Bailey, London’s criminal courts, where the barristers bow to the judge when entering the courtroom and refer to the judge as “Your Lordship.” While those customs are not observed here, counsel in our local federal courts must stand at a podium when addressing the court or examining witnesses, a requirement generally not imposed in our state trial courts.

What does our culture expect of counsel appearing in our courtrooms? Again, that culture may vary from courtroom to courtroom across the state. Nonetheless, there is some uniformity of protocol and professional courtesies expected from counsel. At minimum, counsel should at least consider these issues when appearing in superior court.

Professionalism and the jury

Don’t waste the jurors’ time. Remember, they are taking time away from their jobs, their families, and their lives to hear your case. When you’re late returning to court from recess, you’re holding up the judge, the lower bench, opposing counsel and other parties, and 12 jurors (plus alternates). Along these same lines, make sure you have your witnesses ready to testify. It is better to have one witness waiting in the hallway for 20 or 30 minutes than to hold up the entire courtroom because your witness is late or a prior witness’s examination concluded earlier than you had anticipated.

Respect jurors’ privacy. When I first started practicing law, it was not uncommon to inquire about a juror’s religion during voir dire. Conventional wisdom among jury consultants was that Methodists would decide tort damages differently from Baptists or Jews. We have (thankfully) moved on from that type of blanket stereotyping. The point is that before you ask a sensitive personal question of the jury panel or individual, ask yourself whether you truly need that information for this case and what you will do with the information. Most judges will provide for prospective jurors to discuss highly personal matters outside the presence of the others. If you sense a would-be juror’s discomfort responding to a particular question, it may be appropriate to assuage his or her concerns by offering that option.

Limit your sidebars and requests that the jury be excused. Sidebars and excusing the jury are sometimes necessary, particularly when you have to address evidentiary issues. However, repeated sidebars and excusing of the jury can be disruptive to the proceedings and annoying to the jurors. Ask yourself whether the objection you have in mind is one you could make for the record in open court while the jury is present, and then reserve supplementation of the record or further argument until the jury is excused for a normal recess.

Respect the jury’s “space.” In state courts, you are generally free to move about the courtroom. However, in doing so, you should respect the jury’s space in the jury box. Don’t approach right up to the jury box and don’t lean into it.

Don’t say, “I’ll be brief” when you’re not going to be. Attorneys rely on their credibility, particularly before juries. When you say, “I’ll be brief,” and then launch into a 45-minute soliloquy, what is that communicating to the jury?
Be realistic about the length of your case. Jurors plan and rearrange their lives around the representations of counsel that a case will last a certain period of time. They have to arrange for child care and absences from work, not to mention rescheduling personal appointments and trips. It is better to be realistic on the length of a case. On the best of days, there are five hours of trial testimony. That assumes no interruptions and no delays in witnesses, the jury, or counsel. Generally, with a four-day trial week, that computes to a maximum of 20 hours of trial testimony. A good exercise is to map out all the anticipated witnesses in a case beforehand. Estimate the length of each direct, cross, and re-direct examination. In civil cases, you will need to add time for questions from the jury. Then add time for jury selection, opening statements, and closing arguments. You may need to take time during the trial day to work on jury instructions (although I typically attempt to work with counsel on those after hours). This will give you a rough estimate of how long your case may actually be.

Professionalism and witnesses

Don’t interrupt a witness or cut off the witness’s answers. Time and again, I’ve seen attorneys abruptly cut off a witness who is legitimately trying to explain or elaborate upon an answer. Of course, there are circumstances where a witness veers off course, rambles, or is nonresponsive. In those situations, it may be appropriate to ask the court to strike or repeat the question and instruct the witness to answer it. However, too often I’ve observed an attorney attempt to cut off a witness in mid-sentence. It comes across at minimum as rude — and as trying to keep something from the jury as if you were afraid of what the witness is going to say. Also, when two people are talking at the same time, the record gets compromised.

Don’t hover over the witness. I doubt if many attorneys have actually sat in the witness chair during a trial. For parties and lay witnesses unfamiliar with the courtroom setting, it can be a daunting, intimidating experience. If you must approach an adverse witness to hand him or her an exhibit, ask to approach, and then step back. Stepping back during examination lowers the tension and shows respect.
After a witness has answered, don’t add gratuitous editorial comments. Proper procedure is to ask a question and let the witness answer. I had one case in which I had to admonish counsel because he repeatedly would comment after a witness’s answers with phrases such as, “Oh, I see,” or “So that’s your answer.” It’s inappropriate and unprofessional.

Professionalism and opposing counsel

In the heat of litigation, emotions and zealous advocacy sometimes get the best of an attorney. I’ve rarely seen aggressive conduct be effective in the courtroom. Rather, respectful and reasoned presentations are much more persuasive. This means not interrupting your opposing counsel’s argument. You’ll have your opportunity to respond. That’s the appropriate time to address the points opposing counsel has made with which you disagree. In addition, whether the court has a court reporter or is recorded, interruption of counsel, witnesses, or the court compromises your record. If you have a court-reported courtroom, the reporter is likely to advise counsel that he or she cannot report with two people talking simultaneously. With a video or audio taped recording, you get no such warning and the recording may be garbled.
Don’t address your arguments toward opposing counsel. Don’t turn to him or her and state, “I did so provide those documents to you.” Such conduct rapidly turns up the heat in the courtroom; it personalizes an attack on counsel. Proper practice and common courtesy is to address the court. Direct colloquy with counsel during argument is inappropriate.

Professionalism and the lower bench

Know who they are and what they do. The court clerk handles the exhibits, records the minutes, and assists attorneys with trial notebooks and numbering and marking exhibits. If the courtroom has an audio or video tape record, the clerk is in charge of that. The bailiff does the judge’s scheduling; answers the phones; coordinates motions and hearings; manages juries; and coordinates trial readiness, pretrial conferences, and trial calendars. If the record is not automated, the courtroom court reporter creates the official record.

During trial, please understand that while the bailiff and the clerk are there partly to assist you, they still have their other courtroom responsibilities such as managing the jury, answering phones, and assisting the judge. Please don’t ask the lower bench to make copies for you. Also, our phones are extremely busy. To keep the lines available, we ask that you not use the court phones.

Professionalism and the court

When addressing the court, please don’t refer to us as as “Sir” or “Ma’am.” Reserve that for your parents or commanding officer. The proper way to address the Court is “Your Honor” or “Judge _____.” (Until one of us starts wearing a powdered wig, “Your Lordship” would be entirely unwarranted.) Some judges prefer that attorneys stand when addressing the court. Find out whether the judge before whom you are appearing has such a preference and what other protocols apply in that courtroom. The bailiff will be familiar with the judge’s preferences in this regard, or they may be posted on the judge’s website.

When we’ve ruled, we’ve ruled. If you truly need clarification of a judge’s ruling, you may ask for it. But don’t use it as an opportunity to re-argue your motion. Similarly, as is my practice, if the judge asks whether there are any questions, this is not an invitation to continue arguing or to re-argue your point. Once we’ve ruled, if you want further relief, you have the option of a motion for reconsideration.

Be prepared. Know your case law, your exhibits, and your record. As judges, we do our best to prepare for oral argument on motions and trial issues. That said, during argument, counsel often refer to particular evidence or facts. You should be prepared to cite specifically in the record where we can find it. That makes for a much more efficient hearing. If it’s not in the record, we can’t rely on it in our decision.

Conclusion

The above is one judge’s perspective on professionalism in the courtroom. It is not exclusive or comprehensive of all issues involving professional conduct in the courtroom. I suspect an entire edition of Bar News could be devoted to the topic. Another edition could be devoted to attorney professionalism outside the courtroom. And I’m confident that other judges would have different perspectives — and different priorities than those I’ve discussed above. I also believe there are some universalities about professionalism in the courtroom — courtesies toward the lower bench, respect for the jury, patience with witnesses, and civility toward opposing counsel. As for the court, the best guidance I can give is to know your judge and the judge’s courtroom.

Originally published in the August 2008 issue of the Washington State Bar News. Reprinted with permission of the Washington State Bar Association and Judge Erlick.