The Mac Taylor Inn of Court recently had a lunch meeting in the courtroom of Judge Martin Hoffman’s 68th District Court. Eight judges shared tips for practicing in their courts. The judges brought different perspectives to the table—federal court and state court, trial court and appellate court, elected and appointed. Yet, three themes came up again and again in the judges’ preferences: candor, civility, and preparedness.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Renee Toliver urged candor with the court. Judge Toliver recommended that lawyers acknowledge any potential weaknesses in legal arguments and explain how adverse legal authority can be distinguished. Judge Toliver noted that a good advocate will point out such potential weaknesses herself and explain them rather than waiting for her opposing counsel to do so.
Fifth District Court of Appeals Justice Elizabeth Lang-Miers echoed that candor with the court is critical. Appellate arguments are confined to what is in the appellate record, and Justice Lang-Miers cautioned lawyers to be careful about their representations as what is and what is not in the record.
14th District Court Judge Eric Moyé was particularly emphatic about the importance of candor to the court. Judge Moyé urged lawyers to never make a statement to the court before being certain that they can demonstrate that the statement is true. Judge Moyé indicated that, if a lawyer misrepresents something to the court (even carelessly rather than intentionally), this will dramatically impact the court’s estimation of that lawyer. Judge Moyé added that such damage cannot be repaired by an apology.
Fifth District Court of Appeals Justice Douglas Lang stated that his biggest pet peeve is lawyers failing to demonstrate civility. Justice Lang defined civility as treating everyone with respect, including opposing counsel and opposing parties. Justice Lang, along with the late Judge Jerry Buchmeyer and others, founded the Mac Taylor Inn of Court in 1990 for the purpose of promoting civility among lawyers. Justice Lang indicated that he and his co-founders chose to name the Inn after the late Judge William “Mac” Taylor based on Judge Taylor having been such a champion of civility.
Dallas County Civil Courts Associate Judge Sheryl McFarlin expressed that civility is key to being an effective advocate. Judge McFarlin stated that a disrespectful lawyer leaves a bad impression with the judge. Judge McFarlin said that the proper way to address an uncivil lawyer is not by joining him in being uncivil. Judge McFarlin recommended that, when dealing with difficult opposing counsel, lawyers nevertheless confine their arguments to the court to the issue actually before the court, resisting the temptation to complain about opposing counsel. If opposing counsel’s behavior is egregious enough that it warrants sanctions, she indicated that you may file a motion for sanctions. However, a motion for sanctions (and a hearing thereon) is the only time in which it is appropriate to complain to the court about opposing counsel.
Judge Tolliver recommended that, before appearing in court, lawyers know their case backwards and forwards. She also recommended that lawyers attempt to anticipate opposing counsels’ arguments and be prepared to respond to such arguments.
Justice Lang-Miers agreed that preparation for court appearances should always be thorough.
192nd District Court Judge Craig Smith reminded lawyers who intend to use technology in the courtroom that such technology should be part of their preparation. Judge Smith warned against merely showing up to court and trusting that you will be able to quickly figure out the quirks of the court’s equipment. Instead, Judge Smith encouraged lawyers to make arrangements to do a test run of the court’s equipment in advance.
Although it might take additional preparation to do so, Justice Lang indicated that lawyers should make the effort to eliminate unnecessary complexity from their legal arguments. Similarly, Justice Lang advised that it is worth taking the time to eliminate jargon from an argument that could instead be made by using simpler terms. Justice Lang suggested that, with adequate preparation, a skilled lawyer can make any legal argument in such a way that it could be understood by a 12 year old.
Judge Hoffman also advocated preparedness. He indicated that lawyers should know in advance how much time they will need to complete a task in the courtroom so that, if the judge asks, the lawyers are able provide an educated answer. If a lawyer tells a judge that the lawyer can complete a task in an hour, but then is unable to do so, the judge may not provide the lawyer with any additional time. Judge Marty Lowy, formerly judge of Dallas County’s 101st District Court and now serving as a visiting judge, concurred with Judge Hoffman.