The night before you go to court for the first time, you’re probably a wreck. You toss and turn and have trouble sleeping. A glass of milk doesn’t help. You’re worried about all the unknowns, and, no matter what you do, you can’t seem to get your brain to just shut off already. Will I be able to find parking? Which one of those buildings is the circuit court? What on earth IS a circuit court? Will I be able to find the right courtroom? What if I’m late because I get hopelessly lost? Will the judge give custody to my child’s father just because I’m late? What if the judge hates me? What should I wear?
Just so you know, going to court makes everyone nervous, because no one has a crystal ball. No one knows how the judge is going to be feeling, what cases are going to come before ours, or what the final disposition of the case will be. We don’t know whether there will be an accident blocking traffic on our way to court, and we don’t know whether the other side will be stuck in the same traffic, too. No matter what you do, there’s a lot that will be left up to chance, just like with most everything you do. You never know how the stars will align on any particular day, but knowing that this is such an important day makes that a little more difficult to handle.
When my clients are preparing for court, they are almost always very nervous and anxious about it. They ask a lot of questions in our last meeting before our hearing or trial, especially if they haven’t been to court yet in their case, and tend to call a lot more than normal. Sometimes they have questions, and other times they just want reassurance. I usually give them a general run down of what to expect in whatever kind of hearing they’re facing, whether it’s an initial appearance in a custody and visitation case, a pendente lite hearing in a divorce action, a show cause, a motion, an uncontested divorce hearing, a full blown trial, or something else.
I’m going to court in my case, and I’m terrified. What can I expect?
If you have an attorney, remember, your attorney has more than likely been through one of these hearings before, or at least knows exactly what to expect. Ask. Usually, before I go to court with a client, I try to give her the run down of what is going to happen in as much detail as I can. We don’t always know all the answers to your questions (like what courtroom you’ll be in or what judge you’ll have or how that judge usually decides cases like this one), because each court, courtroom, and judge are different. No matter what, though, we know enough about the process and how things work to give you enough details to set your mind at ease, at least in some respects. But, seriously, no matter how good your attorney is, she can’t predict the future.
Ask the questions you don’t know the answers to. Your attorney understands, and doesn’t think you’re stupid just because you don’t know how these things typically go. You don’t know the rules, the procedures, or the steps that the court requires, and that’s okay. Your attorney will be more than happy to sit down and talk with you about what to expect.
If you don’t have an attorney, or if you’re still looking for a few more tips on how to make going to court a less stressful experience, I’ve put together this list of 9 tips to ensure that your day goes as smoothly as possible.
1. Know where you’re going.
It may seem obvious, but, to truly set your mind at ease, it’s a good idea to know where you’re going ahead of time. If you’ve never been to your circuit or juvenile court before, go sometime before your hearing. Make the drive from your house, like you will on the morning of your hearing, and see how far it is. Check out the parking lots. Is parking close by, or will you have to park across the street or in a parking garage and walk over to the courthouse? Every court does it a little differently, so it’s wise to go and take note. You may not be able to pull right up and dash in the front door. You might also need a couple of dollars to pay for parking, and you don’t want to be worried about the $2 you need to pay the attendant at the parking garage, or having enough quarters to pay the meter for an undetermined amount of time, when you should have your mind on your case.
Remember, too, that you can always go in the courtroom before your case, just to see it. There’s nothing private or secret about what goes on in the courthouse! You can walk right in. Well, you can’t really just walk right in, because you’ll have to go through security first, but as long as you aren’t bringing in anything you shouldn’t have (like a cell phone, pocket knife, gun, or explosive devices), you can come right in. You can wander the halls of the courthouse, find out where each courtroom is, see the clerk’s office, and generally get more comfortable with the setting.
In a lot of courtrooms, but particularly in circuit court, you can just walk in the courtroom, sit down, and watch a case. In juvenile court, if the case involves a minor, you can’t just sit and watch (because of privacy issues for the child). But still, just walking through the courthouse to get an idea of your surroundings can go a long way towards making you feel more comfortable on the day.
2. Ask where the court’s daily docket is posted.
The court’s daily docket gives information on what cases will be heard in which courtroom and at what time. Some courts post their docket online the day before, and others require that you go to the court in person and view the actual printed docket to find out where your case will be. Either way, it’s pretty easy to find out where you’re headed on the day of your hearing.
Ask your attorney whether your court posts the docket online ahead of time, or just do a quick Google search. After all, Google knows the answers to everything! Search terms like “Virginia Beach daily docket,” and you’ll find out whether the court has it posted online. (Spoiler alert: Virginia Beach DOES post its docket online at around 4pm the day before, so you can always check it by going to this link.
If you have to read a docket in person the day of your hearing, don’t worry. It’s really pretty easy. You can ask the deputy posted at security when you first get in the court where it is, or you can ask anyone who looks like a lawyer in the hallways—if someone is wearing a black suit, she is probably a lawyer, but sometimes we do wear other colors, and usually you can still tell. You can also look for a briefcase; it’s a dead giveaway. (Trust me, we get asked questions like that all the time. We won’t think anything of it, and some of us are really nice and will walk you over to it and help you find where you’re supposed to be.)
When you find the docket, the first thing you should do is read the heading on the paper that you’re looking at, and make sure it says that you’re looking at the docket for the right court. If you’re in circuit court, the docket that says “General District Court” at the top of it won’t help you. If you don’t notice that you’re looking at the wrong court’s docket and you don’t see your name printed there, you’re going to get stressed out. Take a deep breath—you’ll find your case, but you won’t find it on the docket for a different court.
In some courts, this isn’t an issue because each court is in a separate building. In others, it can be difficult to know what courtrooms or docket boards go with which court. You may have to ask questions to people you see there, which is fine, but a careful reading of the docket itself should help, too. The docket should indicate the style of your case, which in most family law cases is something like Smith v. Smith, since the parties either are married or were formerly married and share a last name. In other cases, if your names are different, the style of the case (which is basically just a fancy way of saying what the case will be called) will reflect that. The plaintiff (or the person who filed first) will be listed first, and the defendant (the person who is responding to the plaintiff’s petition) will be listed second. There is no preferential treatment.
The docket will also say what kind of case you’re there for, the names of each of your attorneys, if you have them, and the courtroom where your case will be heard. There should be signs posted in the hallway, or, again, you can ask someone. “Excuse me, can you tell me where courtroom 2 is?” Find your way to your courtroom.
3. Arrive early. Never, never, never be late.
It is much, much better if you arrive two hours early than ten minutes late. If you don’t know what traffic will be like because you’re in an unfamiliar area, you should leave so early that there is absolutely no doubt in your mind that you’ll be there with plenty of time to spare.
It will definitely reflect poorly on you if everyone else is there when your case is called except you.
In every court, things work a little bit differently. In some courts, everyone is on the docket for 9am. At 9, the judge starts going through the cases, and each attorney tells the judge where they are in the case. “We need a few more minutes to talk, Your Honor,” an attorney might say, or, “I’ve just got a 5 minute motion.” These updates tell the judge where he should place each matter in terms of importance. If you’re not there, it will be hard for your attorney to avoid telling the judge, which reflects poorly on you to start with, and your case will get bumped down on the docket. You could be there for hours.
In other courts, every case receives a time slot. Rather than everyone coming in at once and getting sorted, your time means that’s when your case begins. If you’re slotted for a 9am hearing and you’re not there at 9am, the judge will be frustrated. These courts have to run a tight ship, because if one case takes longer than expected (or, worse, the people involved show up late), it delays every single other case on the judge’s docket. Not ideal.
4. Dress appropriately.
You should take care to dress appropriately when you go to court. Remember that the judge is looking at you and forming opinions about you based on how you carry yourself. First impressions are important, and you don’t want to give him any reason to dislike or mistrust you before you even open your mouth. Coco Chanel said once, “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.” I think that quote definitely applies here, too. Of course, you don’t have to wear Chanel to your hearing—and, in most cases, you probably shouldn’t.
You want to dress so appropriately that the court can see you as a mother. You don’t want to wear a black suit like an attorney, or a too-short dress and too-high heels and look like a working girl.
It’s probably best to wear a dress, but make sure that the cut, print, and length of the dress are appropriate for a mother. You can wear heels or flats, at your option, but, again, you want to look like a mother. Your hair and makeup should be done, and should look polished. It also usually doesn’t hurt to wear pearls. Hey, it’s cliché, but it works!
If you’re not the type who usually wears a dress, you can also wear a skirt or dress pants with an appropriate blouse or top, but, again, make sure that the cut, print, and color of the piece show the message you’re trying to convey. You definitely don’t want your stomach or your cleavage to show.
You want to look polished, modest, and motherly. It may sound like you’re copping out or not being true to your authentic self, but this is not the time to try to stick it to the man. Cover up any tattoos and remove any visible piercings. As a general rule of thumb, “When in doubt, take it out.” Or cover it up, as the case may be.
For tips 5-9, check out my blog on Wednesday!