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Wanna be a lawyer? Well, get thee to a courtroom!

By November 13, 2009law practice

Screen shot 2009-11-13 at 3.33.49 PM The quickest way to learn the ropes of any business is to go where the rubber meets the road.  So I'll let you in on a little secret that no one knows about.  If you want to learn how to be a lawyer you need to learn how behave in court, and how to read a judge.  If you can figure out, on the fly, how to banter with a judge in open court then you can be an effective lawyer. If not, then don't fret. Clients don't usually know if you're effective (until it's too late).

So, how do you become effective as a lawyer? 

Before you attend your first law school class (and this is important, because once you start going to class you'll get lulled into thinking you're actually learning how to be a lawyer), go to court.  How do you learn how to be a lawyer?  Obvious answer: by watching lawyers do their thing.  Later you will have some sense of how to do it yourself.

So, go to court.  Park your butt in a seat and watch the lawyers come in and argue their cases.  Actually, before you watch lawyers, go watch ordinary people. You'll learn a lot by watching them too.  So, go to traffic court.  If your traffic court is anything like the one we have here in New Orleans you will not only learn, but also be entertained.

The other day I happened to be in traffic court, and I feel like I learned a lot (or maybe I was just very entertained).  Most of the cases in traffic court are handled by the assistant city attorney working out of a back office.  The CA might negotiate a lesser charge (especially if an attorney shows up, which is not the norm), but unless you have one of those kinds of cases you wouldn't know what goes on back in the 'secret room.'  Fortunately some cases get handled in open court by the judge. And this is where the entertainment comes in.

It's fascinating to watch ordinary people come into court and try to convince the judge to let them off the hook.  I watched about 10 people in a row, who had previously failed to appear in court and therefore had arrest warrants issued, try to explain their plight to the judge.  Most of them were dressed like drug dealers or prostitutes. (Tip #1: first impressions count).  None of them had thought through their 'explanations' and simply get trying to get the judge to accept that they 'just forgot' or 'didn't get the notice.'  (Tip #2: spend some time preparing a credible argument).  Even though the judge made it clear that he was not going to accept these kinds of excuses people kept stepping up with a carbon copy of the losing argument. (Tip #3: be prepared to abandon an argument that is not being well received by the judge).

Another thing that amazed me was how many people brought in cellphones and then allowed them to ring out loud.  The courtroom was festooned with signs warning about having cellphones go off.  When a cellphone would sound the judge would instruct the guard to confiscate it.  So, can you imagine?  People were going into try to get out of a $100 contempt fine, and losing both the fine AND their cellphone. (Tip #4: don't go to court if you can't follow the local rules).

You might be laughing, thinking that YOU would never do anything so stupid.  Perhaps you wouldn't.  That doesn't mean you'll be an effective lawyer.  You still have to learn how to read the judge and figure out how to craft an argument that is appealing to him or her.  And you have to do it quickly, based on all the factors that you pick up while you're in court. So, after you spend a few hours at traffic court head over to the next level state court and check out the proceedings there.  Keep working your way up the jurisdictional food chain, and take notes.  You will see some great lawyers and you will see some pathetic ones (mostly the latter).  You'll see some great judges and some mediocre ones.

Watch how the good lawyers are quick to adapt.  Notice how the mediocre ones are over-confident and inflexible.  Watch how the good lawyers deal with bad judges, especially ones that are harsh and rude. That's when you'll see something that will actually help you as a lawyer. 

Sure you have to go to law school and pay tuition.  Going to court will cost you nothing but time.  But you'll learn more by going to court and watching real proceedings than you will ever learn in law school. Even if you spend all your time in traffic court. 

I'm totally serious.


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