When in Rome: How to Act in Court

When in Rome: How to Act in Court

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Yes, it is an annoying and overused cliché, but an important piece of advice for how to act in court or any other new environment. Going to court is no different than any other new place. There are certain rules and formalities you must abide by—and some important things to avoid.

This article will cover the A to Z of how to act in court. It is impossible to anticipate every conceivable scenario you may encounter, but we will give you detailed guidelines for how to act in court so that you can appear professional, prepared, and confident. This is especially important if you are representing yourself without an attorney ("pro se" or "pro per").

For more information on how to act in court, check out Legal Seagull's video litigation tutorial, Courtroom Introduction: Etiquette, Procedure, and Who's Who?

Dress appropriately.

“Dress for success” is another cliché (sorry!), but it is absolutely necessary whenever you set foot in a courtroom. Dress appropriately for all depositions and meetings with the parties and opposing attorneys, whether or not it takes place in a courtroom. Although this may seem obvious, I have seen more than one non-attorney show up in Bermuda shorts and flip-flops!

Judges tend to be very formal and expect parties to be dressed conservatively. What you wear is a reflection of your attitude towards the lawsuit and your respect (or lack thereof) for the court. If you dress poorly, wear tattered or stained clothes, reveal too much skin, or make poor wardrobe choices, you may be judged harshly, even if you are representing yourself "pro se" or "pro per". Although it may seem superficial, jurors are known to penalize parties who dress in an unconventional or non-professional manner.

Clothing options for men

It is always best to wear a suit and tie to court. If you do not own a suit, look for affordable ones in your area or online. Thrift stores are also a good source for used suits—or you can borrow one from a friend or family member.

If you absolutely cannot get a suit, at the very least you should wear slacks and a dress shirt (properly ironed) with a tie and sports coat. As for shoes, go with brown or black dress shoes.

Never wear: Sneakers, sandals, flip-flops or any other open-toed shoes; a cap or hat; shorts; sunglasses (unless you have a medical condition); jeans; t-shirts; torn clothing; or excessively baggy pants.

Clothing options for women

Although society has become much more progressive in its approach to gender equality, courts have not moved nearly as fast. Judges and jurors still have conservative views when it comes to proper attire for women (yes—there is a double standard!). Avoid dresses and skirts that are too short—nothing higher than the knees—and blouses that reveal too much skin.

Never wear: Sneakers; flip flops; halter tops; tank tops; sleeveless blouses; t-shirts; mini skirts; or shorts.

For both men and women.

  1. Cover up tattoos (if possible): Wear long pants or tops to cover tattoos. If you have visible tattoos on your neck, face, or hands that you cannot cover with clothing, there are several cosmetic products that conceal tattoos. Better to be safe than sorry—you want the judge or jury to decide your case based solely on the facts—not on their opinion or prejudice regarding your tattoos. I once saw a pro se / pro per party appear before a judge with a huge neck tattoo that said “THUG LIFE.” He probably should have worn a turtleneck shirt…
  2. Remove piercings: Do not worry about earrings, but if you have piercings in your lip, nose, chin, eyebrows, or anywhere else visible—remove them.
  3. Avoid loud colors: It is best to stick to conservative colors—black, white, brown, dark green, and dark blue. Do not go too crazy with the colors. If you wear red, pink, purple, lime green, or mustard yellow, you may distract the judge or jury. Keep the array of colors for your bowl of cereal.
  4. Avoid expensive jewelry: Do not expect much sympathy from the judge and jury if you are wearing expensive jewelry—especially if you are asking the court to award you money!

Be punctual.

Always budget enough time to make it to court. Take into account traffic, parking, and courtroom security. Depending on the courthouse, it may take you a while to get through security.

Being late reflects poorly on you and could result in you being penalized and reprimanded by the judge. As the great Vince Lombardi said, “if you ain’t 15 minutes early, you’re late.”

Address the judge properly.

When addressing the judge, always address him or her as “Your Honor.” It is generally appropriate to say “Judge,” but try to stick to “Your Honor.” Never address the judge as “Sir,” “Mister,” “Madam,” “Ma’am,” or “Jonathan."

Stand when you speak to the judge.

Even if there are chairs at the counsel’s table, always stand when speaking to the judge unless you are invited to sit down or you have a medical condition that makes standing difficult or impossible.

Direct all comments and arguments to the judge.

Always speak directly to the judge; do not address your opponent or the opposing attorney. When responding to your opponent’s arguments, speak directly to the judge.

Even though it might seem strange, you are always addressing (and facing) the judge when you talk. This applies whether you have an attorney or are representing yourself pro se / pro per.

Be polite and show respect to the court and parties.

Treat the judge and your opponents with courtesy and respect, even if you disagree with what they are saying. Here are a few words and terms you can use to keep your language respectful:

  • “Respectfully”– you could interject this when addressing the judge or responding to your opponent’s arguments. For example: “Your Honor, I respectfully disagree with Mr. Smith’s arguments because…”
  • “If I may”- this conveys deference to the court and shows that you are respectful of the court’s time. “Your Honor, if I may respond, this evidence is relevant to my case because…”
  • “Counsel”- when referring to the opposing attorney, use the term “counsel.” Never use first names!
  • Please” and “thank you”- as in everyday life, these words are used far too sparingly in court. Whenever a judge, party, or counsel does or says something nice, cooperative, or pleasant, be sure to thank them. This of course is true for all aspects of life, not just for learning how to act in court.

NEVER interrupt the judge (or anyone else).

This is a big no-no! Judges hate being interrupted (especially by pro se / pro per parties). Even if you disagree with the judge, believe he or she misunderstands an aspect of the case, or is misstating the law or the facts, do not interrupt. Wait until the judge has finished, and then politely respond, unless of course the judge indicates that you should stop talking.

The same goes for the opposing party, counsel, and witnesses. You may hate what they are saying—but do not interrupt. Wait until they are done and the judge asks you to respond. If the judge does not offer you a chance to respond, you can politely ask the judge to allow you to speak.

If you are ever admonished or criticized by the judge, never be disrespectful or raise your voice.

Never approach the bench without permission.

The judge may ask you to approach the bench to speak privately. Unless you are invited, do not approach the bench without permission. The last thing you want is to be tackled by the bailiff!

Avoid negative body language.

You may not like what the judge, parties, or witnesses are saying; however, you must make sure you do not exhibit any negative body language. Do not smirk, roll your eyes, groan, or make any other gestures. Doing so could subject you to discipline by the court, and the judge and jury might interpret this as arrogance or rudeness.

Be persistent but know when to stop.

During court proceedings, you might disagree with the judge’s rulings. As long as you do so respectfully and politely, you may ask the judge to reach a different ruling. However, know when enough is enough!

Do not chew anything.

Do not chew food, gum, tobacco, or anything else while in court. Judges do not like it and neither do jurors.

Never lie or mislead the court.

It is unlawful, improper, and just plain wrong to lie or distort the truth in court. If you do so under oath, you could be prosecuted for perjury, held in contempt, or face fines, imprisonment, or all of the above.

Be very nice to the clerk.

The court clerk has a surprising degree of power—which could help make your life a bit easier or much harder. For example, clerks can sometimes reject court filings for very minor, technical violations of court rules. Other times, they may be more willing to “bend” the rules.

Being nice will not necessarily get the clerk to help you—but your chances will probably be better than if you are rude!

Put away your cellphone.

Put your phone on silent mode or shut it off before entering the courtroom. That means no talking on your phone. No text messaging. No Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. And don’t you DARE try taking a selfie with the judge!

It is normal to have some anxiety regarding your first day in court. There is nothing unusual about feeling uncertain, nervous, or even mildly panicked before entering a new environment. Just remember the tips in this article and you will be off to a great start!

Ready to take the next step in your case? Check out Courtroom Introduction: Etiquette, Procedure, and Who's Who? 


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