I’ve got a court date…now what?
Part One: Your Attorney
Whether you’ve been arrested and charged with a crime, or if you are going through a divorce, a child custody or child support hearing, or a lawsuit, you will very likely spend a day in court.
As a former prosecutor, I’ve spent a lot of my time in courtrooms. Whether you are going to Magistrate Court on a small claims case, or if you are going before a Superior Court judge to argue where your children will live, you can never treat a day in court like it’s just any other day.
Absolutely the most important thing you can do to help your case — regardless of what it is — is to hire a lawyer. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive, the best-known, or the most attractive lawyer in town. For almost all cases, two things matter more than anything else: Does your lawyer have the TIME to devote to your case, including the TIME to come to court? Does your lawyer have jury trial experience?
I’ve seen minor cases — and major ones — linger for years because while the client sat in court on his DUI or drug possession case month after month, his attorney had conflicts, leaves of absence for family vacations, or other reasons that he could not come to court. In many courtrooms, the judges and prosecutors will not excuse YOU from court even if your lawyer won’t be there. Make sure that your lawyer has the time to work your case to help you achieve your goals, so that your education, your career, and your life aren’t put on hold while you spend your days sitting in court.
If your attorney does call you and tell you that she can’t be in court, it is important that you ask her if YOU have also been excused. Don’t assume that you will automatically be excused, especially if your case involves traffic tickets or criminal charges.
It’s a surprise to fans of television shows like “Law & Order,” but many lawyers don’t enjoy trying cases in front of a jury. In fact, some lawyers have made long and full careers without EVER trying a case. While it’s fine to choose that, if it’s what you want, it’s important that you know, going into your child custody hearing, if your lawyer has NEVER chosen a jury, or made an opening statement and a closing argument to a jury. Jury trials can be nerve-wracking, for both the attorney and the client, and if you might get into one, it’s important to know that your attorney is comfortable with a jury.
I recently attended a course on divorce, child custody, and family law. It was an all-day event taught by lawyers for lawyers. One of the classes focused on presenting evidence in jury trials. When the teacher asked a room full of lawyers — more than 100 of us — how many people had tried a jury trial, a small number of hands went up. When he asked how many people had tried more than 10 trials, there were fewer than ten hands in the air!
Whether or not your attorney has “won” cases is not as important as whether or not he or she has “tried” them. Although success is good, being experienced with the trial process is crucial. Ask: How many cases have you tried? In what courts? What was the outcome? Do you feel comfortable trying my case, if it has to go to a jury trial? Have you ever advised a client to go to trial? What are some reasons why you would go to trial? What are some reasons why you would not go to trial? How many cases do you have waiting to go to trial right now? How long will it take for YOU to be ready for a trial?
Not every case can or should go to a jury, but if a lawyer tells you she has never “needed” to go to trial, or if a lawyer tells you that he has “won every case”, you should examine that experience more closely.
Before you ever enter a courtroom, you need an attorney, but you also need to know that your attorney is available to be in court for your case, and that your attorney is ready and able to take your case all the way to a jury.
In Part Two, we’ll discuss what YOU, the client, should do to be prepared for court.