first court case

Going to Court for Your First Case? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

Americans live by trial and error. That is, most Americans think a trial is an error. Only 2% of federal criminal defendants saw their cases go to trial in 2018.

This statistic may make you think that most Americans don’t go to court. In reality, pleading guilty or having a case get dismissed requires going to court. Whether you are a lawyer, witness, or defendant, you have to prepare for a court appearance.

How do court appearances work? How should you prepare for one? How must you behave during one?

Answer these questions and you can get through your first court case without any errors. Here is your quick guide.


Understand How Court Appearances Work

When a defendant is being charged, they will first appear at an arraignment hearing. This is an opportunity for them to learn about their charges and submit a plea. The hearing is very short so the judge can file their plea and move the case forward.

A preliminary hearing will allow the judge to determine if the case should proceed. The judge can decide there is not enough evidence and release the defendant. They can also grant the defendant legal representation if they can’t afford a lawyer.

If the case does proceed, pre-trial motions follow. The prosecution and defense can file documents about the trial procedures, evidence, and witnesses. Judges review these documents, and they may ask for the lawyers to come to court.

The trial involves the most important court appearances. Everyone must be in attendance, and they may need to appear in court for multiple days or weeks.

Pre-trial court appearances function similarly to each other. The judge runs them, and lawyers spend most of their time answering questions from the judge. In a trial, lawyers are given more leeway, but they must keep things to the point and simple.

Get Organized

The organization is absolutely essential. You need to have documents ready to use at any moment. You need to take notes on everything a judge and an opposing lawyer say.

You can bring binders, notebooks, and computers into the courtroom. It is okay to present digitized documents, but make sure the documents are easy to read and complete. You can highlight important text.

Labels and exhibit tabs allow for easy access. You should visit websites for more information on them before you decide to buy them.

If you are going into a court case as part of a team, you should have a conference. Decide who will speak when and what each of you will say. Develop a shorthand with each other so you can communicate without being disruptive.

Study Local Rules

Each court has its own rules. Some courts limit how much time a case can take or how many pleadings each lawyer can make. State and national laws impact these rules, but judges often have broad discretion to make their own rules.

You should examine the rules on the courthouse’s website. If you can’t find them, you should contact a legal clerk or talk to a judge directly. Judges will disclose their own rules, especially to lawyers on their first court case.

Submit Court Filings

Any case you are involved in will require court filings. You may need to respond to your opponents or to questions from the judge. You may also need to issue a filing if you want to reschedule a hearing or introduce new evidence.

All courts have forms to expedite the filing process. Use these forms whenever you can. File them well in advance so a judge has time to read them.

Make sure you keep copies of your filings on hand. You may talk to a judge about them, or they may present evidence relevant to your case.

Remember that some filings can reach the public. They may get leaked to a news outlet, and someone may draft a filing to see them. You should avoid including intimate or irrelevant details.

Be Respectful

Regardless of which court you go to, you should expect to act on your best behavior. You must wear formal attire that covers your body, including shirts with full sleeves. If it is hot, you can take off a suit jacket, but you should not expose too much skin.

Most courts let you bring water and medication into the courtroom, but you cannot bring food. You can bring a cell phone, though you should keep it turned off.

There may be occasions where someone says something that makes you upset. You must keep your composure, even if the remark was unwarranted. You face a contempt of court charge, which can carry significant legal penalties.

Court hearings can be boring or repetitive. It is important to stay focused and attentive.

Make eye contact with people who are speaking and take notes on all comments. If you are feeling tired, you can drink some coffee. But do not fall asleep or seem exhausted to the jury or judge.

Talk Clearly

You should never talk to anyone unless you are spoken to. Wait to say something. If you must tell something to a team member, write the comment on a note and pass it to them.

If the judge asks you a question, you must answer it. Do not provide more detail than they ask for. When they want more information, they will ask you another question.

Do not mumble or slur your words. You can use simple diction, but you should not be too informal.

Prepare for Going to Court

Going to court does not have to be scary. If you are involved in a criminal case, you can expect several appearances. You must prepare for each one, having documents on hand and following local rules.

Court filings can dictate how a case goes. Make sure you file ones for your side with time to spare.

While in court, you must be respectful and conservative. Wait until a judge asks you a question and then speak without exposition.

You don’t have to go to law school to be smart in court. Read more legal guides by following our coverage.

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