Keep the focus on the client
“I need you to come down to court with me tomorrow.” When you hear these words from your boss, do you feel pleasant anticipation or hear the knell of doom? Although accompanying your boss or another member of the firm to court can be one of the most interesting aspects of your job, many secretaries don’t make the most of the experience because they are not sure what’s required of them, either in terms of general etiquette or in terms of the tasks they are being asked to do. Here’s a quick introductory guide to both.
The most important thing is to get clear in your own mind what your boss wants you to do. Very often s/he will ask you to come down to court purely so that you can observe the process, and see how what you are doing on a day-to-day basis is used out there in the wide world.
This is a really valuable opportunity, so make the most of it. Read up on the facts of the case before you go, if you can. If you are travelling to the hearing with your boss, you may well be able to ask some questions about the case and about what is going to happen at court that day. Do remember, however, that if you are travelling on public transport your boss will not be able to discuss the case in great detail because of client confidentiality.
As an observer, you are expected to blend into the background when you are at court, and let your boss and the barrister, if there is one, get on with their jobs. You may be dying to ask why something has happened, but don’t interrupt; make a note and save it for later. In fact, if you have gone to court simply as an observer, it is a good idea to arrange a ‘debrief’ with your boss within a day or two of your visit, so that you can ask questions and generally get a better understanding of the court procedure that you saw.
Sometimes your boss wants you to come along to carry out a specific task; the most common one is taking notes of the proceedings and of any meetings outside court. Other possible assignments may be to look after the large amount of paperwork that the case has generated, and to find specific documents when they are asked for. Your boss will almost certainly make this clear to you when s/he asks you to attend court, but if you are in any doubt, asking a targeted question like “Will you need me to take notes?” should clarify the extent of what you are being asked to do, because it makes it clear to your boss that you need some specific instructions. Obviously, if you are being asked to take notes, make sure that you have plenty of working pens and a new notebook!
As for the etiquette of attending court, there are two principles to keep uppermost in your mind: first of all, you are there representing your firm and you should act accordingly; and second, the most important person on the day (for your boss and therefore for you) is the client. The client will on most occasions have spent a lot of their own money getting their case to this stage, and will almost always be anxious and stressed about what is to come. Don’t do anything which will make you appear unprofessional, because that will add to that anxiety and stress.
It is worthwhile bearing in mind that courts are still, even in the 21st century, formal and conventional places. They are not the places for very short skirts or plunging necklines, or for noisy jewellery. A good rule is to dress in a basic business suit, or the closest to it that you have, and a shirt rather than a top. Avoid any jewellery that will jangle when you are writing, which will attract the judge’s attention for all the wrong reasons. Keep everything as neat and simple as possible. Remember that the focus is on the client.
The use of mobile phones is forbidden inside the courtroom and is in fact a contempt of court, so make absolutely sure that you have turned your phone off before you go in. It’s usually useful to keep your phone switched on outside court so that if necessary you can make and receive calls on your boss’s behalf, but if you have been taken down to court as an observer, don’t spend your time outside court checking your phone – it’s not courteous to the client, it will go down badly with your boss and it means that you’re not paying attention to what is going on around you.
If there are long periods of waiting (and be warned, there often are), use your time constructively either by watching activities on other cases (remember to note down any questions that occur to you) or helping with support tasks such as locating documents in the file or organising photocopying. Even offering to fetch a cup of tea for everyone can be a significant help. Don’t, under any circumstances, take photographs or send tweets.
Whether you attend court as an observer or to assist your boss more practically, your role is to provide support and stay in the background. As far as the client is concerned, s/he is paying for your attendance, even if you are there as an observer, so don’t do anything which gets in the way. Attendance at court quite often involves chatting with the clients, and you can be a big help to your boss if you can put the clients at ease. However, you are not a lawyer, so don’t express any opinions to the clients about how the case is going, even if they ask you to do so. If they seem particularly concerned about something, you can relay that to your boss.
Finally, don’t speak during consultations between clients and lawyers. You might think that this is so obvious that it does not need saying, but I have known it to happen! Again, it’s a question of reminding yourself of the defined roles and what the client is paying for, which is legal advice from the lawyers in the room, and not a general conversation about the rights and wrongs of the matter.
Stay pleasant, stay helpful and stay supportive, and you should enjoy your court experience.
Next month, we’ll look in more detail at what happens outside and inside court.