One of those absolutely crucial lessons most law schools don’t teach, but which you need to know if you’re going to appear in court, is the importance of making nice with the courtroom staff. A lawyer’s rapport with members of the courtroom staff–the clerk, the bailiff (or courtroom assistant), the court reporter and the research attorney(s)–can have a significant impact on how the lawyer is viewed and treated by the judge.
Obvious? Sure. But it’s not always a two-way street. Practicing in urban courts, we frequently encounter clerks who are (or believe themselves to be) overworked, underpaid and underappreciated, or just plain nasty. I struggled sometimes when I was a brand new snot-nosed punk of a lawyer and I was trying to get something scheduled or filed and it didn’t fit with the clerk’s vision of the world. Because I was brand new and terribly snot-nosed, I naively thought it was just a matter of getting the court clerk to see things my way. Being snot-nosed, I wasn’t always patient and respectful when things didn’t go my way.
I like to think I’m wiser now. At least I realize that I was coming at it all wrong. I know now that I’m a visitor in the clerk’s domain. I’m the one needing relief, or a favor, or just to stay on good terms with the judge. With years, I’ve also learned that jurors frequently take their cue from the way the judge treats the lawyers. If the judge is impatient or frustrated with one of the lawyers in a trial, jurors tend not to like or trust that lawyer. For better or worse, the courtroom staff–and the judge’s clerk in particular–often have the judge’s ear. If I mistreat the clerk (even slightly or accidentally) and that fact filters back to the judge, it can haunt me throughout the case, through trial and, potentially, prejudice my client. Since I might never get a chance to rectify the situation, I might get a raw deal with that judge for years to come.
So I do the smart thing. I mind my P’s and Q’s when it comes to the courtroom staff.