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How To Be A Courtroom Cowboy

During my first year in law school one of my professors, intentionally oversimplifying the legal profession, suggested that there were two types of lawyers: office grinders and courtroom cowboys. Grinders spent their days in the office drafting legal memoranda, performing research, and reviewing documents and evidence. Meanwhile, courtroom cowboys spend their days attending hearings, arguing motions, and grandstanding before juries.

In my experience, most attorneys do a little of both. At least that has been true for me. And although I think I was pretty good at both roles, I also had mixed feelings about performing both as well. For example, I enjoy legal research and writing. The most rewarding cases can feel like puzzles where you’re connecting the pieces while using your intelligence and creativity to build a compelling case. It can be intellectually stimulating work. But it also feels really good to get out of the office once in awhile. In fact, I never felt more like an attorney than when I was arguing a motion before a judge or conducting voir dire in a courtroom.

But especially when I was first starting out as an attorney, oral arguments were scary. If I’m honest, they are still pretty scary. I’ve argued before cantankerous judges who almost seem as if they are looking for an opportunity to snap at the first attorney to make a boneheaded move in their department. And I’ll never forget having to argue one hearing on behalf of a foreign client that pretty much amounted to my client thumbing his nose at the jurisdiction of the court. Unless you enjoy being chopped down by well-respected judges, I don’t recommend trying it yourself.

So if you’re like me you’ll want to do everything you can to make sure that things don’t go poorly at a hearing. No one enjoys invoking the wrath of a judge and no one wants to look incompetent in front of their colleagues and/or clients.

Dress Like An Attorney

In the office I tend to dress pretty casually. I don’t normally wear a tie or a full suit. But if I’m going to be at the court house, I break out my best suits, ties, dress shirts, and shoes. Think about the way effective attorneys are portrayed in TV and movies. I’d say that would be a good place to start with your courtroom attire. Dressing the part can help make you feel like an attorney. More importantly, it will make other people treat you like one. Make sure you have at least one good suit, dress shirt, and tie for hearings and court appearances. If you spend a lot of time in court you’ll want more than that. Wear the good stuff to hearings and trials.

Always Be Prepared

This should be obvious, but you must be well prepared before you attend a hearing or trial. Know your case thoroughly and be ready for any questions you might be asked. For example, you should always know the status of witnesses, the status of pleadings, the availability of evidence, all of the arguments in support of your position (regardless of the purpose of the hearing you’re attending), and your responses to all of the opposition’s arguments in favor of their position. On numerous occasions I’ve seen judges chastise counsel who were unprepared to discuss all aspects of their case. Moreover, you’ll feel more confident walking into the courtroom if you are fully prepared.

I recommend going over everything before appearing at a hearing. Flip through the case file, reread all of the relevant pleadings and motions, and consider all upcoming events and deadlines. Make sure you can’t be caught off guard.

Take it slow

For many people it can be scary to present information orally regardless of how prepared you are. If you’ve sat through enough hearings, there is a good chance you’ve seen an attorney quickly fumble through their arguments. Don’t let that happen to you.

If you find yourself getting nervous during an argument, slow things down. How do you do this? Begin by slowing down your speech. If necessary, I take brief pauses in between phrases in order to give myself time to think out what I’m going to say: “Your honor (brief pause) my client’s position (brief pause) is that opposing counsel’s motion should be denied. (brief pause) Section 10001 of the Civil Code states that (brief pause)…”  With even a small amount of practice you can make the pauses sound natural. These pauses have the added benefit of giving the listener (i.e. the judge or jury) time to let your words sink in, thereby making your argument more effective.

Have you witnessed any horror stories in the courtroom? Or do you have any tips for attorneys who lose sleep the night before an oral argument? Let us know in the comments.

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One Comment

  1. Brian Murphy says:

    Listen to this guy all you young attorneys. Having been a grinder for many of my 40+ years of practice before achieving cowboy status , I can tell you that he is 100% spot on.