How to Scope Out and Navigate the Courts

You might know how to think like a lawyer but what do you know about being a lawyer? If someone asked you to describe a typical day for an attorney practicing in a particular area of law, would you be able to? When a client leaves your office after discussing a legal matter, would you know the steps you need to take and the documents you need to complete and possibly file to begin resolution of the matter? Do you know where the courts are located? Having a bar license does not mean you are any more knowledgeable than when you graduated from law school. Aside from giving you the ability to practice law, your license only indicates that you have passed a character and fitness assessment and now know how to pass a bar exam.

Your clients and peer professionals expect you to do your homework and become familiar with what it is you need to do before you have to do it. This saves the client money, saves time and effort on the part of the professionals who have to work with you regarding the matter, and saves you from having to explain yourself before a bar disciplinary committee. With all this incentive, now is the time to scope out and navigate the legal community landscape that you will soon be traversing as a lawyer.

Familiarize Yourself with the Courts

Consider your expected practice areas. What types of work will you do to take care of your anticipated clients’ needs? How should you prepare yourself for taking on and doing this type of work? What courts are relevant for your anticipated practice areas and expected practice matters? Keep in mind that even if your practice does not include litigation, you still need to know about your local and regional court systems. Decisions could be handed down that impact clients in your practice area. A client may want basic information on something related to the court system. You do not want to appear clueless to a client regarding a seemingly elementary question for a lawyer.

  • Make a list of the courts in your local region and schedule time over the upcoming days and weeks to visit them.
  • Before your visits:
    • Find out the types of cases that are heard in those courts.
    • Get information regarding the requirements and procedures for filing documents, requesting fees, getting on the court-appointed attorney list, etc.
    • Download the local practice manuals for the courts, if available.
    • Obtain a schedule of cases, motions, hearings, etc., and plan to attend some of each. If you attend frequently, you can expect to obtain an appreciation of what judges expect from attorneys who appear in their courts in terms of competence and preparation as well as in courtroom etiquette and decorum. Moreover, even if you never have to appear before a judge, seeing good and bad performances by attorneys helps you put professional life in perspective, appreciating that no one is perfect but everyone should intend to give their best.
  • When you visit the courts, be sure to go early so that you can introduce yourself to the clerks and have time to talk to the attorneys.
  • Ask them about process servers, expert witness providers, and interpreters.
  • Learn about the services that are available through the courts for self-help, domestic violence, drugs, foreclosure, mediation, and guardian ad litem, to name a few.
  • Just as important, find out where the attorneys congregate and make a point to be there. Are there some days that typically have more attorneys present than others? If so, be sure to go on those days. Have questions ready to ask the attorneys that you meet.

Reflect on Where You Are and Project Where You Want to Be

How much regarding your local and regional court system did you already know? How much interaction do you expect to have with the courts as an attorney? How can what you learn now benefit your clients, regardless of your chosen practice area?

For your records and future information, write down information regarding each court as you visit it, the materials you collected, and a summary of what you learned at the visit.


Success After the Bar Exam
This post was adapted from the Law Practice Division’s publication How to Achieve Success After the Bar Exam: A Step-by-Step Action Plan. Written by Joan Bullock, this book will help law school graduates make the crucial transition from student to lawyer.


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