For two and a half years, I was a prosecutor for the City of Cincinnati. That means, for two and a half years, I spent every day in the Hamilton County Courthouse. Just being in the courthouse is a sensory overload… You hear things you wish you hadn’t, you smell things that words cannot describe, and above all you see things that you can’t unsee.
Spending every day in the courthouse, I did my fair share of people watching. Observing behaviors of victims, defendants, attorneys and judges. I would pay attention to how they related to each other. And I noticed how this interaction seemingly had an impact on the outcome of the case. Especially as professionals; attorneys, judges, and courthouse staff are taught to look beyond the outward appearance, and to relate to the person you are working with a given case. Defense attorneys with their clients. Prosecutors with victims and witnesses. And courthouse staff with anyone who needs help. And while I don’t have statistical data on this issue, it is clear that when you make a conscious effort to dress and act appropriate for court, there is a direct relation to the way you will be treated and potentially the outcome of your case.
Now, I’m not saying that it necessary to wear your Sunday best at every court appearance. And I’m not targeting any certain role in the judicial system. This pattern of behavior applies to victims, witnesses, police officers, defense attorneys and prosecutors alike. If a prosecutor is not put together or acting inappropriately, the judge notices, the police officer notice, and the victims notice. That prosecutor automatically loses credibility just by the way they carry themselves. If a defense attorney is late, unprepared, has their shirt untucked or their hair is a mess, their client notices, the prosecutor notices, and the judge notices. That defense attorney may have a brilliant legal mind, but something as simple as punctuality or keeping a comb or brush in their bag took away from their credibility.
I understand it is difficult to always be dressed up. But, there are some simple ways to present yourself in a way that shows the other people in the courthouse that you are taking this matter seriously and that you are not wasting their time. Courthouse personnel’s biggest pet peeve is their time being wasted.
1) Always be early. Victims, witnesses, attorneys, clients, experts, all of the above. This shows the other people involved that you respect them and their time.
2) Do not chew gum. Ever. If you just had a cup of coffee, carry a pack of mints. Talking to someone with a piece of gum in your mouth is not inviting to anyone.
3) Dress appropriately. Some judges will kick you out of their courtroom and refuse to hear your case or let you testify as a witness if you are not dressed appropriately for court. This does not mean that you have to be in a suit and tie or ladies in formal attire. Judges know that is not always reasonable. But they do expect everyone who enters their courtroom to dress tastefully.
Gentlemen: 1) avoid pants that sit very low on your hips. I’ve seen several men be excused from court for this reason. I’ve even seen a defense attorney give his client a belt in the hallway. 2) make sure if you have shoe laces, they are tied. 3) Avoid inappropriate sayings or profanity on your shirt. 4) If you wouldn’t wear it in front of your grandmother, you probably shouldn’t wear it in front of a judge.
Ladies: 1) Avoid plunging necklines and 2) avoid short skirts or shorts. I’ve seen ladies get kicked out of the courtroom for both reasons. 3) If you have closed toed shoes, choose those over flip flops. 4) Again, if you wouldn’t wear it in front of your grandmother, you probably shouldn’t wear it in front of a judge. I’ve seen ladies in swimsuits, in short shorts, in tube tops, all asked to leave the courthouse because of their outfit.
4) Put the cellphone away. I’ve seen attorneys get kicked out of courtrooms because they were on their phones. If a judge or prosecutor needs to speak with an attorney and they are too focused on their phone to notice or to pay attention to what is going on in the courtroom, the others involved get annoyed and become less likely to care about what you have to say. If a judge is in the middle of sentencing someone or presiding over a trial, hearing a cell phone go off could instantly infuriate the judge. Just silence your cell phone or wait in the hallway.
Not all judges are this strict. Every courtroom is different. But if you want to make a good impression on the others in the courtroom, and show respect for the judge, this is the best advice I have to offer.