Listen to the Judges

One of the benefits of practicing law for nearly two decades is that, by this time, I know the judges. I’ve either appeared in front of them dozens of times or, just as likely, I know them personally after spending years dealing with them when they were just regular lawyers.

Now, this isn’t to suggest that, even with 20 years of experience, you don’t have to give the judge respect, just because you’re so familiar with them. It means that you come to realize that judges are people too, and they’re subject to the same frustrations, flaws, and distractions that all lawyers are.

In the past two weeks, I’ve spent time with 3 different judges in social settings, and here’s some wisdom that I’ve picked up.

Stop it with the discovery disputes. They hate them, and two of the judges said “I wanted to tell them to be adults and just figure it out.” That’s easier said than done, especially when it’s the other side who is being the jerk. I guess the take-away is, unless it’s really bad, try really hard to get it resolved and, if you do have to court, make it clear how hard you tried to get it resolved.

Get to the point. Another frustration is that the parties want to push all their facts and legal citations toward the bench, and essentially ask the judge to figure it out. And, yes, that’s the judge’s job. But, if you can make it as clear and easy as possible, you should.

And, a big part of that is presenting clear, straight-forward briefs, without any extraneous legalese.

I really like this article, “How to Write So Judges Will Like You.” “Life on the other side of the gavel is busy, filled with hearings and trials and conferences and five hundred lawyers who all think their motion is an emergency that deserves immediate and undivided attention….get to the point quickly.” 

The next time you’re writing a big brief, before you start, take a moment and read that article. We practice law in a time when heretofors, comes nows, and by and through undersigned counsels just aren’t expected by modern judicial readers. It’s a waste of space and time, when a judge needs you to get to the point, say what’s really going on, and why you’re right.

Stop it with the fidgeting and listen. One judge shared a story about presiding in a small courtroom, about 7 feet away from plaintiff’s counsel before trial. And, as the judge was discussing preliminary pre-trial issues, counsel just couldn’t stop arranging everything. Pens. Post-its. Folders. Files. The judge couldn’t even focus, because it looked like counsel wasn’t listening. And that was irritating.

Now, as all trial lawyers know, that’s a nervous time. You’re rehearsing your opening statement, terrified that you’ve misplaced your exhibits, and worrying about 50 things at once.

That’s a fairly extreme example, but here’s one I see a lot: Lawyers simply can’t stay off their phones, even during their own court proceedings. Sure, sometimes there are emergency e-mails, but, generally, it’s mindless checking of twitter or texts.

I remember, as a young lawyer, some of the older lawyers would set up shop on the back row and open up the newspaper and read it while waiting for their case. Can you imagine that? That’s somebody who isn’t paying any attention–I mean, people used to do that at football games as a show of disrespect to the other team.

Staring at your phone is the modern equivalent. It makes you look unengaged and bored by what’s going on.

So, again, all of this is hearsay, gleaned from conversation here and there. But, keep this in mind the next time you’ve got something coming up in court. These may have been words from your Judge.

Author: David

I am a creditors rights attorney with Bone McAllester Norton PLLC in Nashville, Tennessee.

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