Knowing the law is only one piece of success in district court. In today’s episode Jake Minick gives tips on how to navigate the complex waters of North Carolina’s Criminal District Courts. Success in district court is about building relationships with the key court players and creating and maintaining the right perception of your character. While there are no shortcuts when it comes to winning in District Court practice, listen now to get 10 easy ways to elevate your game.
Understand why relationships with court personnel are critical to your success in district court and how to improve them
Find out how to create the right first impression in court and why this is essential to your long term success
Think preparation is not important? Think again. Learn why preparation is the #1 way to build your reputation
You can’t effectively practice in criminal district court without understanding its purpose. Gain insight into the purpose of district court
Episode 7 Transcript
Hello, fellow freedom fighters and welcome to another episode of the NC DWI Guy podcast. Today, we are going to be talking about what district court success looks like. As North Carolina trial attorneys, we spend a ton of time in the courtroom. So today we’re going to talk about what practices we can adopt that will help us best succeed in the courtroom, in that day-to-day grind.
Today’s podcast is particularly geared towards younger attorneys, attorneys with no or little experience in the courtroom, but it’s always a good reminder for all of us to think about how we are presenting ourselves in the courtroom. So getting in the keys to success in district court, I’m going to start with one that’s not really on my list, and then I’m going to go one through 10.
But the first thing to remember about district court success is to be humble. If you don’t know the answer to something, ask. If you’re looking for help, present yourself in a humble way to the judge, the DA, the clerk. Explain, “I don’t know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. Could you please point me in the right direction?” If you approach that question with an attitude of humility, I guarantee you that you will have success. I guarantee you that people will help you if you approach them in a humble manner.
I’ll never forget one of my first cases that I had in the courtroom, the judge asked me if I was making a general appearance on behalf of my client. I had no idea what a general appearance was. So I said yes, but I must have looked extremely unsure about what I was saying yes to, because almost as soon as I got out of the courtroom, one of the public defenders in Henderson County came up to me.
Super nice guy, came up to me and said, “Hey, I don’t know if you knew what you were saying when the judge asked you just now if you are making a general appearance.” He proceeded to explain to me the difference between a limited and a general appearance. But the moral of that story is don’t say something that you’re not certain about.
There was no damage done in that situation, but if I had just asked somebody what that meant, nobody in the courtroom would’ve got mad. I just was embarrassed to not know what that was. Don’t assume; don’t think you know something if you don’t know it. Ask and you will get help. Ask a fellow attorney in the courtroom. Ask the public defender, ask a clerk, ask to approach the judge. Ask for help and you will receive help.
So getting into the keys to success. Number one: Understand district court. District court is about process: filing motions, moving cases, clearing dockets in courtrooms, and then doing it over and over and over again. If district court is not systematic, it breaks down.
If district court is not systematic, it breaks down. Watch and you will see the players in the courtroom that make the process more difficult than it should be. It is like nails on a chalkboard when the symphony that is district court gets interrupted by a squeaky instrument. Don’t be the squeaky instrument.
Understand the district court system in each county you practice in, and then take advantage of the opportunities that each system presents. Study the timing of the docket call. Determine when you can talk to the DA. Sometimes it’s the day of, sometimes several days before. Study when trials are set and trial priority. Understand district court.
Number two: Relationships are critical. In fact, they are the foundation of successful district court practice. Don’t underestimate how important it is to treat people well. A courthouse clerk can save you hours and hours and time over the course of several years if you are kind. You’re going to have to deal with the same DA in district court day in and day out. Make the DA look forward to seeing you.
Be somebody that people want to see and talk to. Don’t be the reason is that an audible sigh can be heard when you enter the courtroom. Being nice is, most of the time, the best practice tip for district court. Be nice, be kind, be patient, be humble.
Number three: Make the right first impression. Everybody knows that you only have one chance to make a good first impression. Make a good first impression. Get to the courtroom early and watch what is going on. Understand the cadence and local nuances of each courthouse. Be polite and respectful to every person that you talk to from day one, from case one. Make the right first impression; that first impression is going to last, and it is very difficult to overcome a bad first impression.
Number four: Trust is essential. Trust allows you to influence others. You can only build trust slowly by consistent, honest dealings with the DAs, judges, clerks, et cetera. It takes a lifetime to build trust, but only a moment to destroy it.
You could be doing all the right things day after day after day. If you deviate one time, if you decide to do something slimy one time, people will remember that. They will not remember all the good things that you did. One lie, one angry outburst, one small screw-up, and you will have lost the trust of whoever it is that you are dealing with, perhaps permanently.
We all make mistakes. No one wants to make a mistake, especially in front of a judge or professional colleague. But owning up to your mistakes will earn you the respect and trust of those that you’ll have to deal with day after day, sometimes for years on end. Don’t mess up trust.
Number five: Dress matters; it matters. In court, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. There’s a lot of unknowns. There’s a lot of things that you cannot predict. Don’t let dress be one of those things. Wear professional suits and clothing that looks nice. If you want judges and DAs to take you seriously as a young attorney, dress the part. As people say, dress to impress.
Early on in my career, I was moving offices a couple of days before Christmas, was moving offices from one part of town to the other in Asheville. Was lifting a lot of boxes, moving furniture, putting desks together and I was in jeans and a t-shirt. I forgot that I had a limited driving privilege that I needed to get signed.
I didn’t want to get too distracted from moving, and so I ran to the courthouse in what I was wearing, which was jeans and a t-shirt, and these were not nice looking jeans. I figured there’s not going to be anybody in court; it’s a couple of days before Christmas, they don’t have regular docket. I actually had to go looking to find a judge in a courtroom because most of the courtrooms were closed.
I found one judge. I found our chief judge here in Buncombe County. I sat behind the bar waiting to approach the judge. The end of all the cases that had been called that day, and there weren’t many of them, I asked to approach the judge. He motioned for me to approach, did not have a very inviting look on his face. Took my limited privilege, signed it, handed it back to me.
This is a judge that normally we have a good conversation back and forth at the bench. He asks about my kids. He asks about how I’m doing, how my practice is doing, what my vacation plans are. Good judge; cares about attorneys, cares about what’s going on in our lives.
But on this particular day, the only thing that he said to me is: “Never come into my courtroom dressed like that again.” And that was it: “Never come into my courtroom dressed like that again.” I will never forget that. I will never forget that.
I do tend to still go over and file things dressed down. I’ll try to catch a judge in the hallway to avoid putting a suit on sometimes. But I’ve never forgotten him telling me that: dress matters. It makes it easier to get things done. It makes you look serious, and it tells other people in the courtroom that you are taking the courtroom seriously. Don’t let dress be something that you mess up. It’s easy to win on.
Number six: Every courthouse is its own universe. Every courthouse is its own universe. You do not practice in North Carolina. You practice in Cherokee County, in Union County, in Wayne County, in Brunswick County. You practice in a county; you do not practice in North Carolina. If you go from one county to the next, you might as well be going to a different state. Every courthouse is its own universe.
Just to give an example. If you have a client that’s going 92 in a 55, you might find that a DA in one county will reduce that charge to an improper equipment, another to 14 over, another won’t make any deal to you at all. These decisions are typically based on different policies and not individual discretion of those DAs. It’s based on the county policy, on the DA of that county’s policy.
Instead of being frustrated by the fact that each county is its own universe, accept it. Don’t complain about it; don’t gripe about it. You can’t change it. Accept that every county is its own universe. Things get filed differently in each county, you receive discovery differently in each county. The docket is called differently in each county. Breaks happen at different times in each county. Accept that and adjust your client advice and case strategy accordingly.
Number seven: Be prepared. Be prepared; be overly prepared. Write down what you’re going to say, even if it’s something simple. Over-prepare for sentencing, over-prepare for trial. Have written legal motions on a particular issue handy and ready to give to the judge. Be known as the attorney that takes court preparation seriously. You can earn respect for your preparedness.
Number eight: Put cases on the same day. If you can handle two cases on the same day, as opposed to the same two cases on different days, figure out how to get them together. District court is about efficiency, at least it should be. Understand where efficiencies exist and then handle cases at the same time.
Your profit per case is going to be higher if you handle three cases on one day versus those same three cases on three different days. As an attorney, what are you selling? You’re selling information. But in the mindset of attorneys, we’re selling time, the billable hour, right?
Now, we criminal defense attorneys have figured out that the billable hour sucks and that we shouldn’t be charging people by the hour for the most part. We generally in district court charge flat fees no matter how long or how easily I’m able to handle this particular matter. It’s a flat fee.
Figure that part of it out, but don’t forget that time is what you sell. Every second you save is a second you can spend somewhere else. You can reduce expenses such as gas, other team members’ time, paper when you batch cases on the same day. If you can do it, try to get multiple cases on the same day.
Number nine: Make everyone’s life easier; make life easier for everyone in the courtroom. If the DA or judge need a friend of the court to explain something to a pro se defendant, step in and offer to help. If the DA is going to have to fill out a dismissal form to dismiss your case, offer to fill that out for them.
If you’re adding a case onto the day’s docket, offer to go to the clerk’s office to retrieve the file. If the judge grants a motion to suppress, offer to draft the order. Should do that anyways for different reasons, but offer to draft the order. Take it off of the judge to do that.
Court personnel are helping you do your job. They’re helping you do your job. Everybody in the courtroom, when your case is called, is working to help you. Make their lives easier, and they will be more ready to do that.
And number ten: Know your judges. One of the first things that an attorney told me coming out of law school was: “Forget what you learned in law school. Know your judges.” This may be the most important understanding of how district court works. Judges are people. They’re people, and they each have their own habits. They each have their own jurisprudence.
Knowing their sentencing philosophy and the issues that are important to them in a trial is critical to achieving good outcomes for your clients. Become a student of the judicial mindset of each judge that you practice in front of. Judges are people. They’re not machines; they’re human beings. Know that.
Look forward to talking to you all again next time. Until then, this is the NC DWI Guy signing off.