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‘May it please the court’: District Court edition

“May it please the court” is a phrase that goes without saying. As legal practitioners, everything that we do should be with the goal of pleasing the court. Unfortunately, that does not always occur.

I have been practicing before the District Courts in Maryland for several years now. Along the way, I have observed several instances in which the actions of a litigant (or practitioner) were not so pleasing to the court. Here are a few tips to ensure that the court is pleased to have you in front of it:

1. Arrive early. By arriving early, you will have an opportunity to greet/speak with your client and the opposing party, discuss preliminary issues and proceed with your case. If you have to request additional time to do those things, the court may not be too happy or may flat-out deny your request.

2. Exchange exhibits prior to trial. Inevitably, there will be questions, discussions or even debates regarding exhibits. It is better to resolve those issues prior to trial so they will not have to be debated in front of the judge. Furthermore, it helps to move the trial along if the parties stipulate to certain exhibits.

3. Give an accurate time estimate. Unfortunately, attorneys have a reputation for underestimating the amount of time that it takes to try their cases. You don’t want to be the attorney who estimates 20 minutes and ends up taking an hour to conduct examination.

4. Request to “specially set” when necessary. To follow up on No. 3, the court will not always ask you for the number of witnesses that you have or a time estimate of your case.  If you have three or more witnesses or anticipate taking longer than an hour, let the court know. The court may request that the parties specially set the case — that is, the parties may be assigned to a lighter docket or will be the only case on the docket for a given day.

5. Stay formal. Avoid speaking to the court in an informal matter. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, individuals will use phrases such as “Look, Your Honor,” or direct the court to do something. Remember, your job is to argue a position, support it and request that the court find in your favor.

6. Do not engage in debates with opposing counsel/party on the record. The judge is the final arbiter — you do not need to convince opposing counsel of your position. If an opposing party mischaracterizes something that was stated, clarify with the court. Do not direct statements toward opposing counsel. Most importantly, hash out any issues with opposing counsel prior to trial if possible.

7. Don’t overindulge in the court’s indulgence. Begging the court’s indulgence is a request, not an entitlement. If after every question or exhibit you need to request the court’s indulgence, you’re beginning to overindulge. The solution to this problem? Be as prepared as possible.

If you have any other tips for District Court, please leave them below in the comments section.

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