I’m going to branch off in this series about knowing who you’re speaking to in order to talk about the two audiences everyone in the legal profession knows best: judges and juries. This will have real-world application to legal professionals and is the culmination of decades of experiences in presenting and training for continuing legal education. But if you’re not an attorney, don’t tune out quite yet. Courtrooms do have some specific conditions that don’t apply to other speeches you may give, but there are still dynamics that are similar. Judges are decision-makers, but so are clients and board members. Juries need to weigh evidence and hear both sides, but so do a lot of committee members and customers.
Putting in a Court Appearance
The single best way to learn about your judge or justices prior to appearing before them is also one of the most obvious — go to the courtroom, preferably a week or so before your presentation, and sit in on a few arguments. Watch the way they interact with other attorneys to get a sense of individual style. Does the judge ask a lot of questions or is he or she typically quiet? Is there a lot eye contact or avoidance of the attorney’s gaze? You’ll get a much more complete sense of the Judge’s preference for order, format, length of time, and decorum simply by observing them in action.
This particular tip has the imprimatur of the judges themselves – when I teach litigation boot camps, our judges make this recommendation to attorneys every time.
5 Ways to Judge a Judge
Apart from your own personal observation, there are five ways to gather helpful background information on a judge:
- Seek out colleagues who have appeared before these judges and can give you the kind of feedback listed above. Bear in mind that the info may be colored by the attorney’s experience (especially whether the case was won or lost!), but even so, it never hurts to have a little insight into a judge prior to your appearance, even if the opinion is slightly skewed.
- Look up your judge on one of the multiple ratings websites or in the Judicial Yellow Book, published by Leadership Directories. This resource is rich in useful information that you should use to your advantage.
- Read whatever you can get your hands on that was written by this judge. Not just articles in trade publications, but the judge’s published and unpublished opinions, especially those relevant to the legal issue(s) at stake in your case/motion. By doing this, you can discover how your judge feels about a specific legal argument in advance and prepare accordingly.
- Attend seminars, classes or events where they are speaking or get the recordings. Watching how a judge presents is a fantastic way to learn about a judge’s preferences, pet peeves, and things that make him or her happy. At these events, judges tend to be a great deal less formal than they are in a courtroom setting and are much more willing to open up and provide advice and perspective.
- Get to know the judge’s bailiff or court clerk and ask him or her (in a friendly way, of course), how his or her judge runs their motion argument sessions. Avoid personal and political questions for obvious reasons. Some bailiffs or clerks can be cagey or protective of their judges, but a great many of them will be happy to assist you. Don’t be shy about approaching these courtroom sources as they, perhaps more than anyone else, know exactly what the judge does- and does not- like to see from the attorneys that practice before him or her.
The more you can find out about your judge, the more you can tailor your argument and your delivery style to meet his or her preferences and needs.