How to Make a More Effective Appearance in Court

Why Your Clothing and Demeanor Matter

Lawyer and client talking in court with the attorney blocking the court's microphone with his hand.
Jeff Cadge / Getty Images

When you have a court date, it's normal to be nervous and wonder what is the appropriate way to act and what you should wear. Whether you are the defendant, the plaintiff, or a witness, your appearance, dress, and actions can affect how the court sees you and how successful you are in presenting your case.

If you think your attitude or appearance doesn't matter, consider that they may cause you to be cited for contempt of court. Take the 2013 case of a Florida teenager, Penelope Soto who was given a contempt citation for her attitude after she showed a Miami judge her middle finger. As reported by NBC Miami, Soto turned her attitude around after spending five days in custody, realizing she had a drug addiction problem, and apologized to the court. When she returned to court, she was applauded for her change in attitude and appearance.

Respect for the Court

A courtroom is a solemn place, representing the judicial branch of the government, and a judge demands respect as a representative of the government, whether it is federal, state, or local. Specific rules apply to those who are bringing cases to court or who have cases brought against them. In fact, anyone appearing before the court, including witnesses and members of the public, have the responsibility to act with respect.

The keyword in this discussion is "respect." You must have respect for the judge as a representative of the court, and respect for the courtroom process. Here are some general rules that most courts require you to comply with if you are in court:

Be on time for any proceedings. That means at least ten minutes before your appearance time. You might have to sit and wait, but that is far better than running late. Arrive late, and you might find your case passed by.

Your Court Appearance and Wardrobe

Wear business clothing. No wild hairstyles, open shoes, tank tops, mini skirts, T-shirts, or other non-business attire. If you are in doubt about what to wear, dress up rather than down. Also, never wear a hat unless it is for religious reasons.

Items like chewing gum, tobacco use of any kind and in any format including vapes, and food or beverages are not allowed. Neither are electronic devices like PDA's or iPods, or newspapers. Also, in most cases, cell phones are not allowed in most courtrooms. If you are permitted to bring in your cell phone, you must turn it off.

Children are allowed in most courtrooms, but only if they are quiet. If you must bring your children, have someone with you who can take the child out if they become loud or disruptive.

Court Etiquette

In general, you must have permission to move beyond a certain point toward the judge or jury. For example, if you are called as a witness, you will be sworn in. You may not move out of the witness box without permission. If you are sitting at the defense or prosecution table with your attorney, you may not move forward without permission.

The judge is to be addressed as "Your Honor," not "Judge Smith."

Talk only to the judge and in a moderate voice or converse with your attorney as quietly as possible. Sometimes a written note to your lawyer will work better than a whispered conversation.

Do not address the opposing counsel or the other party. When referring to others involved in the case, do not use first names. It is "Mr. Smith," not "Jim," even if he is your brother-in-law.

When and How You Should Speak

You will be nervous, but try to speak in your normal voice using formal English and avoid the use of slang.

Speak only when you are instructed or given permission to speak. Also, don't ever interrupt when someone else is speaking. Don't interrupt anyone, but most especially not the judge. Only one person is to speak at a time, because of recording devices in the courtroom and out of common politeness.

When you answer questions, be brief and to the point. Some people will find it helpful to take a breath before they speak in court. This single breath helps to calm the body. Answer the question you were asked and stop. Do not elaborate any further than to answer the question. Also, keep a positive and open body language. Don't cross your arms in front of yourself, slouch in the chair, or look down at your lap when you are speaking.

If possible, avoid using your hands when you speak. Keep them folded together in your lap. You may find it helpful to hold a napkin or tissue as long as you will not fidget with it.

Watch your temper. Don't argue or raise your voice, and especially not with the judge. Make eye contact with the person addressing you without staring. When you are finished, thank the judge for their time.

In other words, be on your best behavior and consider the solemnity of the courtroom. Show respect to the judge and others in the courtroom.