Young Lawyers Journal
Top ten tips for practicing law in District Court
by Benjamin C. Barnes, clerk magistrate, Palmer District Court
You’ve just completed law school, passed the bar exam and bought a new suit. Now you’re ready to enter not only the courthouse, but the courtroom. Except, when you open the doors, even the moot court team hasn’t prepared you for the basics of district court. You might find yourself thinking: I passed everything in civil procedure and was even on law review, but now what? Take a deep breath and just remember these ten tips for practicing in district court.
You are as unfamiliar with the court as they are with you. Introduce yourself. Say “hello” to the court officers, the session’s clerk, the district attorney’s office, and all other support staff in the courtroom. They will be invaluable in helping you through the process. Do not take for granted that as a lawyer, you can only speak to other lawyers in the courtroom. In fact, it is the court’s staff who have the answers to your questions.
The court is always open to observers. Stop, look and listen. Follow a seasoned veteran, watch a trial, or just sit in the courtroom and observe. Ask questions. There is no such thing as a dumb question.
Confirm court schedules and know the local practices and policies of the district court that you are in. For example, most district courts have motions heard at a certain time each day. If your client is being brought in from jail, most courts have a specific time those cases will be called.
You step up to the bench. Where do you stand? In general, the prosecutor will stand on the left and the defense counsel on the right.
There is a form for everything (e.g., the tender plea form, motion form, appearance form). Find and use the correct form.
In criminal matters, never begin a bail argument with the following: “Your honor, my client has just turned his/her life around.” Instead, do your research, learn about your client and his/her background and hit the important points. The decision whether or not bail will be placed on your client does not hinge on his/her popularity.
In working out a disposition involving probation, talk to the probation officer. Make sure to work out all the agreements prior to court. You don’t want to be surprised—thinking that you’re both on the same page—only to find out that you are miles apart.
Don’t be caught unprepared during the execution of a plea. Review the facts of the case and the elements of the law with your client.
Your client is off to jail. Alert the court officers when the agreed plea involves jail time. Let your client know that there is a possibility that custody may take place right in the courtroom.
When your paperwork is complete, hand it the session’s clerk. The case cannot be called until the clerk has your paperwork.
Welcome to the practice of law in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and remember that each day you come into the courtroom, you’re building your reputation as either a fair and reasonable attorney, or as a person with whom individuals do not want to do business.
Clerk Magistrate Barnes’ tips are only provided as legal information and do not constitute legal advice. The views expressed in this article are Clerk Magistrate Barnes’ opinions only and they are not the express opinions of any Court in the Commonwealth, of any Clerk Magistrate, or of any member of the Judiciary. For further information, please consult with an attorney or research specific references cited therein.