In Court, Presentation is Everything!
We teach our children, as we were hopefully taught, not to judge a person from the outside; looks don’t matter because it is what’s inside that counts most. I believe that is a very important and very true lesson for all of us…except in court.
A defendant, particularly in criminal court, has no personal identity as far as the system is concerned; you are just another number; a name on a calendar that the Court must get through to finish the day; and until your trial, it is actually presumed that you did the thing you are accused of. That whole “innocent until proven guilty” thing does not actually exist the way you think.
Although the Judge will likely forget about you the minute you leave the courtroom, while you are there and the Judge is focused on your case, you will be the center of attention and the only thing the Court will have to judge you by is…that’s right, how you look and how you present yourself.
Believe it or not, the way you present yourself in court could mean the difference between high bail and no bail, a bad plea offer or a better one, and even possibly a dismissal.
It Starts with the Outfit
Court is a most professional affair. Dressing professionally is a sign of respect for both the Court and the process.
Take a cue from the lawyers: you will see the men are ALL wearing suits with ties and jackets and the women are all dressed in either professional pantsuits or conservative skirts or dresses. You will not see bare shoulders, you will not see facial piercings, and not one of them will be wearing hats or sunglasses.
Men: A clean, long-sleeve, button-down, tucked-in dress shirt is the only way to go. White is best (because it presents a clean appearance), otherwise any normal color is fine. Avoid black or dark colored shirts; that look is generally reserved for the nightclub and the nightclub look does not play well in court.
If you are not wearing a tie, then ALL of the buttons, except the top, are fastened. If you have a matching dress jacket or sports coat, wear it – even if it is hot.
The pants are either dress slacks or matching suit pants. Avoid jeans no matter the color and definitely do not wear shorts.
Socks, yes, and closed-toed shoes. Don’t come to court wearing flipflops of sandals. If fact, avoid wearing sneakers if you can. Proper dress shoes are best.
The Judge is only going to have about a minute or two with you, so you will want to make every second count by looking like you are serious about your case and about whatever situation has led you to that moment.
Women: This one is not as cut and dried as the men because there are so many appropriate options for women. It will be easier to jet tell you what NOT to wear…
If you would wear it on a date or a night out, don’t wear it to court. If you would wear it to the nightclub or bar, don’t wear it in court. And please, please, please…if you would wear it to the County Fair or to wash your car, DON’T WEAR IT IN COURT!
Shorts, even dressy, very nice Ralph Lauren shorts are not an appropriate look for court.
If you would wear it to church – provided that it is a very conservative church – it is probably okay to wear in court. If you would wear it to a high level professional business meeting – during the day – it is probably okay to wear in court.
Avoid bare shoulders and visible feet. I know that seems strange, but it’s like this: sandals or open-toed shoes do not present the kind of serious look you want to convey in the court setting. However, if you are wearing open-toed dress shoes, be sure to wear stockings or hoes. Spaghetti strap tops or dresses likewise fail to respect the seriousness of court. If your top exposes your shoulders, wear a light sweater to cover.
And, cleavage... Court is not the place to show the world what you have and it will most assuredly not gain you any favor with the Judge or prosecution.
Just like the guys, don’t come to court wearing hats or sunglasses.
As for makeup, less is better. Keep it very conservative or none at all. Court is not the place to express yourself through creative or unorthodox makeup.
And the piercings…one conservative stud in each earlobe is fine. Any more than that and it can become a distraction. For sure, pull the one out of your nose. The last thing you want to look like in court is a pig or a bull heading off to slaughter.
Every courtroom or courthouse has an established policy for what is absolutely not permitted in court. Many, if not most, courtrooms prohibit short pants, sandals, sunglasses, hats, and sweatshirt hoods (hoodies) on or covering your head. You will not be permitted to be in the courtroom with those items and, if it is your court appearance, it sucks to be you; come back when you are proper.
Now You Look Right, You Still Gotta Act Right
Looking professional is about half the battle as far as presenting yourself in court is concerned. The professional appearance must be accompanied by professional behavior.
Unless you are a lawyer or someone else for whom being in court is business, being in court basically sucks. Other than maybe a hospital, court is the only place where so many people can look busy doing nothing and nobody has time for you.
Here are a couple things to remember that may help you maintain your sanity.
First, remember that everyone else sitting with you in the gallery (the public seating area of the courtroom) would rather be someplace else, but they, too, have something horrible to deal with. The people who make a stink because things are moving too slow or because they have someplace important to be are the ones who will be seen last by the Judge. Some, not all, but some court staff can be pretty spiteful, so you don’t want to put yourself on their radar.
Next, if you are a defendant, be sure to let the bailiff know you are present and then have a seat. Whatever you do, don’t ask how long it will take or when you will be out of there…just trust me.
Also, BEFORE you enter the courtroom, turn your phone OFF. Don’t put it on vibrate or silent because you still may be tempted to look at it; looking at your phone while in court is a surefire way to get yourself kicked out of the courtroom.
When Will it be My Turn?
If you have a lawyer, wait for him or her to arrive and follow his or her lead. That’s easy. In most criminal courts, defendants with private attorneys are seen first. However, that is not necessarily true of all courts. If you have a private attorney, he or she will make sure you are seen as quickly as possible.
If you are a defendant represented by the Public Defender’s Office, BE PATIENT! Remember that the attorney from the Public Defender’s Office has many clients with many cases each day and can only be effective if they stay organized and on track. They cannot afford (and neither can you) to be distracted by an endless barrage of questions and interruptions. If the Public Defender has your file, be patient, they will get to you.
If you do not have a lawyer at all, what are you thinking? You would not do surgery on yourself, why would you try and navigate the criminal justice system by yourself? Moreover, if you cannot afford to hire a private attorney, the Court will appoint one for you, so there is no reason to try and go it alone.
What Do I Say?
Nothing! If you are a defendant, unless your lawyer advises you to speak, or unless the judge asks a direct question of you and your lawyer says it is ok to answer, you really don’t need to be saying anything; let your lawyer do the talking for you.
However, there are times when a defendant must address the Court. Here are a few important tips for handling that situation:
- Only speak when spoken to.
While it may look like a free-for-all at times, it’s not. Court is very structured and there are specific ways of doing everything. Interjecting or trying to talk over or around the Judge or the lawyers is not only a bad look, it can be harmful to you and your case.
- Keep it short and keep it clean.
When you are standing in court with your lawyer (unless you are on the witness stand testifying) what you have to say is not nearly as important as you think it is. Unless you are specifically requested to do so, standing at the podium in court with your lawyer is not the place or time to tell your side of the story or to try and convince anyone why they are wrong about you. Whatever you have to say, keep it short and to the point.
Despite how you may feel about what is happening or the people involved, court is not the place for F-bombs or anything else you cannot say on the Disney Channel. Keep the street talk or the bar talk on the street or at the bar.
- Tell the truth or say nothing at all.
It is very common for criminal defendants to tell the story they want everyone to believe, even when the story is not 100% true. Some people believe that, if they just stick to a story with enough passion, everyone else will see things the same way. That is never going to happen. In fact, the harder you dig in to the not-exactly-true story you tell in court, the harder the prosecution or the Judge will look to prove that you are lying. Your friends may believe whatever you tell them, but there are no friends in court…it’s all business.
- Answer the question you are asked.
When the time comes for you to answer questions in court, listen carefully to what is being asked of you and answer only the specific question. Do not try to guess or assume you know why the question is being asked or what the asker is looking for. If you are wearing a watch and someone asks if you have the time, the answer is: Yes, I do. The actual time is not the answer to that question.
Let your body do the talking whenever you can
Beyond your clothes and your demeanor, your body will say a lot about you and that can either be good or bad.
A defendant who is standing or sitting tall; who is attentive; who appears to be engaged will present a better look for a Judge and a Jury.
Likewise, a defendant who appears distracted or disinterested; one who sits with his or her arms crossed and head down can be perceived as presenting “guilty body language” and that is not a good look for any defendant.
Lastly, court is confusing and trials can be crazy, don’t react with drama or emotion. When a witness or a lawyer says something untrue or unfavorable about you, do not groan or sigh or flail your arms in disagreement; sit still and listen, your lawyer will clean up any messes made my witnesses or other lawyers. While we are on the subject, if you need to tell your lawyer something in the middle of a trial or really any court appearance, work out in advance how he or she wants you to do that. Don’t interrupt the proceedings to communicate with your lawyer and don’t scribble feverishly on a note pad.
While you are the center of attention in court, everyone will be looking at you…judging you…make the most of that opportunity to shine.