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War Stories: Just When You Think You Have Heard It All

Hearings and Trials: Expect the Unexpected

You never know what is going to happen when you go to the courthouse for a hearing or trial. Just yesterday, a fellow lawyer was in court when the opposing attorney broke down in the middle of trial. The lawyer was having serious financial and personal issues which overwhelmed him. The Judge granted a motion for mistrial and the trial will have to start over when the lawyer gets better or a new lawyer steps in.

Over the years, I have seen and heard unexpected things in court. Once, I arrived early for a hearing to find the hearing before mine still going on. A well-respected partner from a Dallas law firm was on the witness stand defending himself from several drunken hateful emails he sent to opposing counsel. A national law blog got hold of the story, published some of the emails and eventually the lawyer lost his position with his firm.

I have arrived to a hearing to find a visiting judge who I don’t know. I have prepared for an hour long hearing only for the judge to say I have five minutes. I have waited two hours past my scheduled hearing time. I have seen other attorneys be late to a hearing and get severely chastised by the judge. I have heard arguments to the judge and jury that were brilliant and some that were terrible. Judges have asked questions I never anticipated. Witnesses have said things on the witness stand that were, for lack of a better word, mind-boggling.

Lastly, I have been at hearings or trials where the judge is in a bad mood. Lawyers remember hearings when they get on the wrong side of a judge or they are in a bad mood. At one such hearing, the judge asked me a question and I thought she was done speaking. I began to answer and she immediately chastised me for interrupting her. It was not my intention to interrupt her and the anger in her voice rattled me. Opposing counsel told me after the hearing that he felt her temperament towards me was inappropriate. The judge only lasted one or two terms and I heard I was not alone in being treated that way by her. But the lesson stuck with me and I never interrupt a judge and always wait until I am sure a judge is done speaking.

The best way I have found to handle the unexpected is to be well rested, prepared, arrive early, rely on experience and be honest and transparent with the judge or jury. Even with all that, I still never know what I am going to see or hear. And that is one of the fun parts of practicing law. We love to tell stories that begin with “You are not going to believe this, but when I was in court today …”

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