Much of that first impression will be made by how you present yourself, including your dress, speech, and behavior.
It never ceases to amaze me how many people seem to forget or simply never consider the following three suggestions for proper courtroom decorum.
Dress smart, not to make a statement.
The other day someone asked me what he should wear to court. I started to tell him to wear what he would normally wear to church.
Then, I remembered that there are many local churches that have a “come as you are” dress code that is great for getting some people to church, but is not appropriate courtroom attire.
I realized that I needed to write down some parameters for “Dressing Smart.”
“Dressing Smart” means that you are dressing with the audience in mind. This is especially important when that same audience will be deciding your case.
For example, if you have been accused of neglecting your children, you probably do not want to show up in court wearing an old shirt and torn pants with your hair a mess. If an ex-spouse has accused you of failing to pay alimony or child support, you don’t want to show up wearing a diamond ring or a Rolex watch if you are claiming you are broke.
What you should wear — your clothing should be dignified and respectful. Men should wear a long-sleeved button down shirt with a collar, long slacks, and dark colored dress shoes. A jacket and tie are helpful, but are not absolutely necessary.
Women should wear dresses, pant suits, or long slacks with a blouse or long-sleeved shirt. If you have little funds to afford these items, Goodwill and Salvation Army are great resources and you can find nice outfits for pennies on the dollar.
What not to wear — Avoid T-shirts, jeans, shorts, halter tops, short skirts, open-toed shoes (including flip flops), and sneakers.
Remove nose rings, tongue rings, and hats and sunglasses from your head. Cover up tattoos.
This is not the time to tell everyone about your favorite beer or your Rock, R&B, or Country Music band.
You want the judge or jury to be focused on what you are saying and not distracted by your fashion statement.
I have seen a judge reprimand parties not properly dressed for court, and the judge can even ask you to leave if you are dressed inappropriately. Your case is more important than your look — don’t risk it
Speech. Now that your audience is not distracted by your attire, you want them to listen to what you are saying. At this point it is critical to “think before you speak,” as your choice of words can impact your message.
Prepare your case and what you are going to say before you walk into the courtroom.
If you are asked a question, there is nothing wrong with taking a deep breath, thinking about the question, and then answering it.
You should avoid inflammatory language, which includes profanity and calling other parties names. For example, “I respectfully disagree and here is why . . .” sounds much better than, “You’re wrong, you [insert expletive here] liar because . . .”
Behavior. When it comes to behavior, many would be served by looking at the Boy Scout creed, which includes being trustworthy, loyal, and helpful.
Always be respectful of the court, their staff, and others in the courtroom (including whoever might be on the other side of the case).
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “Your actions speak so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” You can be passionate about your case without rolling your eyes or making faces at your opponent.
I can best illustrate how a party’s behavior impacted the outcome of a case with two case examples. Several years ago I sought an emergency injunction against a defendant whom my client alleged had fraudulently taken his home.
The judge granted our client an emergency hearing. The defendant was so irate about having to appear in court that he called the court.
To say that he was rude to the judge’s staff would be an understatement. I am unaware of what was actually said, but when I showed up there were six sheriff’s deputies in the courtroom with us.
It was a short hearing and my client won. In truth, I had probably won before I showed up to court.
The defendant’s actions mirrored many of the allegations we had made in the emergency motion.
In the second case, the opposing party was very dismissive of my questions and often rolled his eyes. His attitude on the stand (not his words) was that he was right and how dare I ask him any questions.
When the court ruled in my client’s favor, the judge stated that the opposing party was clearly an “angry, arrogant man.”
In short, you cannot separate your appearance and demeanor from your argument — you come as a “package deal” and that includes your dress, language and general behavior in the courtroom.
The few hours that you are in the courtroom are some of the most important hours of your life. If you take the time to consider proper courtroom decorum, you have already improved your case.
Patrick “Leh” Meriwether is a happily married Cherokee County resident and a partner in the law firm Meriwether & Tharp, LLC. He is a certified mediator and arbitrator. His practice focuses primarily on Family Law and Divorce. His firm posts information weekly about different areas of family law on the firm’s blog, www.atlantadivorceattorneyblog.com.