Five Tips for Preparing for Your First Court Hearing
1. Be prepared:
- Get a good night’s sleep prior to court.
- Force yourself, if needed, to eat something for breakfast, so you have
energy for your day in court. Your brain needs protein, so eat some. Avoid
caffeine so you don’t need to use the restroom during your hearing.
Eat something with lasting energy that will not upset your stomach.
Prepare your own “care package” ahead of time:
- Bring a water bottle, snack bar, breath mints (not gum), note pad, a couple
of pens, a check book (in case you unexpectedly need to write the court
clerk a check), and some quarters (in case you unexpectedly need to make
photocopies) also, bring cash to pay for parking.
- Practice with your attorney (or a friend if you don’t have an attorney),
what you will say to the court. If you have an attorney, insist that the
attorney meet you at least a day prior to the hearing, to run through
your direct and cross examination, and to talk about what to expect.
Organize your documents:
- If you are representing yourself, outline all of your arguments so if you
mentally freeze, you only need to look at your notes.
- Have 4 copies of all your exhibits (for the court, court clerk, yourself,
and opposing party), neatly organized.
- Bring an extra conformed (file stamped) clean (not marked up) copy of the
pleadings that were filed for your hearing (sometimes the court misplaces
your documents). Also, bring a copy of your opponent’s pleadings.
Dress Professionally, Conservatively, and Respectfully:
- Your manner of dress should show respect for the judge. Dress conservatively
and professionally, like you are going to a business interview or to church.
If you don't own a suit, that is completely fine, but dress nicely,
and use clothing that covers up any tattoos. Men should be well-groomed
and shaven. Women should have conservative make-up and a non-distracting
hair style, no short skirts, excessive high-heels, revealing blouses,
or audacious jewelry. No t-shirts or jeans.
- Bring layers. Sometimes the court’s air conditioning does not work
too well. Sometimes the air conditioning can be quite cool. If you are
wearing a coat or sweater, make sure your outfit will still look appropriate
if you take your coat or sweater off.
- If you will be representing yourself, go to court on a day prior to your
hearing, and sit through some hearings for about an hour or so. It will
take away a great deal of mystery and anxiety for you, and you will learn
invaluable skills for how to check in with the clerk, and conduct yourself
before the judge.
2. Be sensitive to the judge’s perspective:
- Due to budget restraints, judges are too few in number and their daily
calendars are excessive. Typically, your matter will be just 1 of 20 or
so matters on the court’s calendar.
- The judge has heard hundreds or thousands of cases just like yours, some
worse, some not so bad. No matter how crazy your case is, the judge has
probably already heard something like it before.
- If your hearing involves a situation where the other party has been uncooperative
and has been causing problems, the judge will usually start from the perspective
that it is really both parties that are the cause of the problems. You
will need to convince the judge otherwise.
- The judge has the heavy responsibility of efficiently getting through many
cases each day, and making hard decisions with little time, that can have
a profound impact on the parties and their children (if any). Judges have
to try and sleep at night knowing that maybe they made the wrong decision
on a tough call.
- The judge is a real person, with his or her own problems (perhaps even
marital) outside of the courtroom. Like any other person a judge can have
formed biases over time. The judge may be idealistic and interested in
making a positive impact in the world (usually the newer judges), or may
have become bitter and cynical, or could be somewhere in between.
- Your judge may have a strong command of family law, or may be newly appointed
with no prior experience in family law.
Do an internet search of your judge to find out more about his/her background:
- This will give you a sense of what the judge deems important, and his/her
- Ignore criticisms of the judge posted on the internet. There is a winner
and a loser in most hearings. The losers will often post scathing comments,
so ignore them, because they offer little insight or validity.
- If you are representing yourself, don't expect the judge to cut you
some slack just because you are not an attorney. Also, the judge can’t
give you advice about the law; he/she can only rule on it. Thus, the judge
will probably tell you that he/she can’t advise you. If you see
an attorney you like during your hearing, get his/her card because maybe
you will want to use him or her in the future.
3. What to do when you arrive at court:
- Show up early, so you can find the courtroom on time. Show up at least
1 hour early if you need to file court papers on the day of your hearing.
In that case, you will probably have to go to the central clerk’s
office to file documents and then return to the courtroom. Most courthouses
open by 8:00 a.m., with initial court hearings starting at 9:00 a.m.
- Avoid bringing in metal objects to the courtroom, because you will have
to go through a metal detector to get into the court.
- As you go through the metal detector, ask the bailiff what floor your courtroom
is located on; that will save you time checking the directory on the wall.
- Put your mobile phone on silent mode. If it is noticeable when it vibrates,
turn off vibrate mode. Judges get VERY irritated when mobile phones cause
disturbances, and some bailiffs will confiscate your phone if it rings.
- When you get to your courtroom, look on the wall next to the door, or on
the door itself. There will be a docket listing all the cases the court
plans to hear that day. Look at the number next to your case. Then walk
into the courtroom and wait in line to tell the bailiff or the court clerk
assistant, which number case you have. The bailiff or court clerk assistant
will give you a slip of paper to put your contact information on, and
the docket number of your case. (If you have an attorney, he/she will
do this for you.) This is called “checking in.” If you are
appearing on an “ex parte application,” your case will probably
not be listed on the docket, so don’t worry about that.
- Don’t talk when the court is in session. You can always step outside
the courtroom and talk.
- Before hearing argument, the judge may or may not initially call each case,
just to see of the parties are present, and to get an estimate of how
long each matter will take. This is called a “calendar call”.
The court will usually then take the short matters first, and the longer
matters last. If there are many matters on the calendar, the court may
tell you to go out in the hall, try and resolve your matter, and to come
back after lunch.
- When your matter is called, there will be a table for you to stand behind.
On it will be signs that say “Petitioner” or “Plaintiff”
and “Respondent” or “Defendant”. Stand behind
the sign that applies to you. Petitioner and Plaintiff mean the same thing,
and Respondent and Defendant also have the same meaning.
- If you have a lunch break during your hearing, avoid caffeine, and eat
simple foods that will sit well in your stomach. Turkey has a chemical
that is calming. A plain turkey sandwich is a good choice for lunch. Lunch
break is usually from 12:00 p.m. - 1:30 p.m.
4. How to address the court:
- With the greatest respect.
- Address the judge as “Your Honor”.
- Wait for your turn to talk. Don’t interrupt the judge, the opposing
party, or your attorney.
- Don’t turn and talk to the opposing party and/or his/her attorney
while addressing the court. That is extremely disrespectful to the judge.
- Listen carefully and answer the questions asked by the court. Don’t
evade or delay answering the judge’s questions to discuss something
else you want to talk about.
- Be short and to the point.
- Don’t roll your eyes, shake your head, etc., when you hear the opposing
party or counsel say something that is not true or that you don’t
- Stay composed. It shows that you are rational, reasonable person. Being
emotional, crying, etc., shows lack of control and restraint. Judges see
people cry and have temper tantrums just about every day; this only hurts
your case, it does not gain you empathy.
5. When you are finished with your hearing:
- Stay composed, regardless of the result. Don’t gloat, cry, or storm
out of the court.
- Thank the judge and the court staff for their time.
- Make sure you don’t have to wait around after your hearing to receive
any papers from the court, like a conformed copy of an order.
- If you have an attorney, ask him/her to debrief you before you leave the
courthouse, to summarize the effect of what occurred in court, and any
follow up action.
- If you don’t have an attorney, before you drive off, sit in your
car, or find a quiet place in the courthouse away from the courtroom (like
the cafeteria where you can treat yourself to a beverage). Then write
down notes of anything important that occurred that you don’t want
to forget. Also write out a task list of what you need to do in the future.
Did the court make the wrong ruling?
- You have extremely limited time to file Motion For New Trial or Motion
For Reconsideration (usually about 10 days), or an appeal (usually only
about 60 days). Thus, don’t delay consulting with an attorney if
you feel the judge made the wrong ruling.
- Congratulate yourself! Regardless of how you did in court, getting through
a court hearing is commendable.