How to prepare for family court in Texas

Once upon a time I practiced a fair amount of family law in Texas where I assisted clients with divorces, child custody, child support, modifications and enforcements. I can say that the judges in family courts care a lot about the presence and appearance of the parties in front of them. Judges only see parents in family court for as little as a few minutes so your first impression may be your only impression. Presenting yourself in a professional manner and showing you care about your case may be a deciding factor in the outcome of your hearing.

Many people in Texas spend thousands of dollars hiring a family law attorney to represent them only to do a poor job representing themselves in court. No matter how experienced or skilled your attorney if you are not a good advocate for your own position you will not get the best value out of your attorney’s work. A little preparation can pay off big time for you and help your attorney present the best case.

Here are some tips to help you shift the court experience in your favor:

1. Prepare ahead of time before your family court hearing in Texas.

One very important way to appear confident and communicate persuasively to the judge is by preparing yourself before you get anywhere near the courthouse. If you bring documents, organize them so they are quickly accessible to you and your attorney. Bring two copies plus the original (if your attorney is not doing this for you) so there are copies for the judge and the opposing side. Understand why you are going to court and what you are asking the judge to do (or not do). Organize your thoughts. What are the specific reasons why you want a desired outcome? What are the specific facts that prove your side? (If you have an attorney, and you should, then you should coordinate on these points with your attorney.) Preparation and organization will set you up to be a more confident and persuasive communicator.

If you hired a family law attorney then your attorney will prepare you for what you need to do and bring to court as well as what to expect at an appearance. In my experience a prepared client is more calm, more organized and appears more serious which can make a stressful situation less stressful for the client and likely to produce a better outcome. Judges also appreciate prepared and organized clients. You want the judge to like you and believe you take the judge’s time seriously.

2. Dress properly for the courtroom.

I hate to treat other adults like they should live by a dress code but when it comes to the courthouse this is just how it is. Many family court judges in Texas hail from a conservative political view and have more traditional views about clothing, hair styles and overall appearance.

Think about the message you want to convey and whether your appearance is consistent with that message. If you claim limited financial resources then you shouldn’t show up for court with flashy jewelry or designer clothes. If your message is that you are committed to being at home raising your children then you shouldn’t look like you are ready to hit the club. Or if you want to send the message that you are serious about your responsibilities and you want the judge to take you seriously then you need to look like you take this seriously. Business to business casual attire is appropriate. Never jeans or shorts. Never, ever jeans or shorts. No matter how nice they are or how much you spent. Never.

Here are some basic points based on what the judges expect and some things I have seen around the courthouse broken down by gender:

Men:

If you have a nice, conservative suit then that is usually your best option. If not, dress pants, a dress shirt and dress shoes is your uniform. Tie is optional. No flashy colors, patterns, or materials. Think about what you would wear for an interview. Fortunately as men our clothing options are limited. Navy slacks, white dress shirt and either black or brown shoes is an easy uniform for court. Be boring.

  • No casual shoes/sneakers. In some parts of Texas dress boots are acceptable for court and sometimes only on Fridays. I would err against it.
  • No baggy clothes. Look, I understand that is a style for some people but it will not be a style your judge likes. I promise. You are doing yourself no favors wearing ill-fitting clothes.
  • If you have tattoos then dress in a way that covers them up (e.g. tattoos on the forearms = long sleeve dress shirt). It’s the 2020s and ink is more common and acceptable but take the safe approach and cover what you can.
  • Shave that morning. If you normally keep facial hair, make sure it is appropriately trimmed and groomed.
  • If you need a haircut, get a haircut.
  • Keep jewelry to a minimum.

Again–boring is a good rule of thumb. The fewer chances you give the judge to think anything other than you are respectful and decent the harder it will be for the judge to think anything different. You want the judge to think you care more about the outcome of the hearing than anything else.

Women:

Women are a tougher group because you all have more clothing and jewelry options and typically put more effort into your appearance. It is really more about how you wear what you wear than particular items you should or should not wear. Our courts are modern enough that it is appropriate for women to come to court wearing dresses, skirts with shirts, suits, or even pants, but not so modern that things you might even wear to work are going to be inappropriate in a court. Business casual, heavy on the business side, is generally your target. Like men, boring is a safe target.

  • Heels or flats are fine as long as they look reasonably professional. No really tall heels or bright colors. Tame colors are good.
  • If you wear pants then the pants should not be skin tight. The judge should not question whether you are wearing yoga pants. No athletic/athleisure wear.
  • If you wear a skirt or dress then the hemline should be reasonably long. A few inches above the knee is high enough. No miniskirts. I don’t care if you saw old episodes of Ally McBeal. No short skirts. Additionally, the same rule for pants applies to your skirt or dress. Nothing too tight.
  • The neckline on your shirt should be reasonably high. You do not need a low cut shirt to show off the goods to the court.
  • Jewelry should be conservative and definitely not noisy. Leave your dangly earrings and necklaces for another time. Definitely no bracelets that are going to make noise on a desk or witness stand.
  • Hair, makeup and perfume should all be toned down. No wild haircuts. Keep the makeup light.

If too many men come underdressed to court then too many women come dressed for a different event. Court is the most stringently professional environment you will probably ever attend. Be conservative, be boring. I’ve had women tell me they thought dressing provocatively might woo a male judge. I assure you the probability that it helps is far less than the probability it will give the judge the wrong impression.

3. Prepare to arrive at family court early.

In Texas if there is one thing you can count on it is traffic. In Texas you never know when traffic will stall your commute especially in a larger metro area like Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio. You do not want to be late for court. Judges consider their time a highly valuable commodity and wasting the judge’s time is not helpful to your case. Also consider that you are likely paying for your attorney on an hourly basis so the more time your attorney sits around waiting for you the more you will pay for maybe a worse result. You want to make the best impression possible so appearing on time and ready for the judge is a huge win for yourself.

Plan your commute days in advance. If you need to ask for time off of work or arrange for the kids to get to school early do so in advance. Plan your commute to court as well. Google Maps does a great job of letting you plan a trip at a given time which will help predict how long it will take at a specific time of day. Allot more time than you think you need for parking, getting through court security and finding the right courtroom. I always tell clients to test their commute on Google Maps then add an hour. It may not be exciting to sit in a courthouse waiting for your hearing time but bring a book or something to do on your phone to pass the time. It is worth the inconvenience.

4. Know where to park near the Texas courthouse.

Parking around courthouses can be a nightmare. If your family court is in a downtown area then you may compete for parking with every business downtown. Even if the court has a parking garage or lot it can pack early in the morning which means needing to find alternative parking at the last minute. You do not want to lose half an hour of time chasing down a parking space and end up late to your hearing. The judge will not care why you are late. The judge will just be mad and think poorly of you and maybe your attorney as well.

Locate three parking options ahead of time. If option one is full then you have two backups ready to go. Your family law attorney can give you ideas where to park. I always tell clients several options for parking and an idea of how likely each will be to fill depending upon the hearing time.

Be ready to pay for parking, too. Most parking at downtown courthouses will require payment even if you park in a government-owned lot. Most city or county parking will charge $5-10 for several hours. Some private lots charge as much as $20-30 on a daily rate only. Curbside meter parking can be a cheap option with a downside. Around courthouses police parking meter monitoring tends to be diligent. You don’t want a parking ticket and you may not be able to race outside to fill a meter once you enter the courtroom. Today many parking lots and meters around courts employ apps for payment–give yourself a few extra minutes to download and set up an app for payment. Also bring cash in case you have to park in a cash lot.

5. Phone is off when you are in the family law courtroom.

Today everybody has cell phones and we’ve accepted their presence as a part of even civil society in most functions. (There are still courthouses in Texas where judges do not even let attorneys bring in cell phones.) Make sure before you bring your phone into a courtroom that you turn it on silent or a quiet vibrate. Judges do not appreciate phones ringing and even less a game or video blaring sound. I’ve seen judges kick people out of courtrooms (even lawyers) or move their file to the bottom of a pile because a phone went off in the courtroom. Remember: your job at court is to only give the judge reasons to agree with your side. Don’t give the judge easy reasons to feel differently.

6. Behave respectfully from the time you park until the time you get back in your car.

A lot of the rules described here involve the courtroom but your opportunity to set a good or bad impression begin earlier. You never know when a judge, juror, clerk, bailiff, court reporter, or opposing attorney might be around you. From the time you park to going through security to walking around the courthouse to find the right place and back again consider how you behave as though the judge is walking behind you. The judge might actually be walking behind you. You won’t know if the judge’s coordinator is in the elevator with you and something you do might offend the coordinator and get back to the judge.

I had a divorce case with kids once in Dallas set for a temporary orders hearing. The temporary orders hearing is a huge part of a divorce case. I represented dad in this divorce and the parents both wanted to fight for primary custody of the kids. I came to court with dad who did everything I told him to do. He came early, dressed nicely and was polite with every person he saw. Mom was also represented by an attorney. Mom came in on time and was perfectly polite with everybody in the courtroom. After the hearing the judge said she would consider the evidence and send us a ruling later in the day. I went up to talk to the judge after the hearing about another case and overheard the court reporter telling the judge about mom talking on her phone walking into the courthouse about how much money she made on a side business she denied having in the hearing. You can guess how that turned out.

7. Check in with the bailiff in the assigned courtroom (if you do not have an attorney).

When you walk into a courtroom typically you will have to check in with the bailiff. If you appear with your attorney then your attorney should check in and let you know where to sit. (Don’t be offended if your attorney sits in front of the partition with other attorneys. The judges want access to the attorneys in the front part of the courtroom.) If you do not have an attorney then you will need to check in and let the bailiff know who you are so they can let the judge know you are present. The bailiff may let you know what you need to give the judge before the hearing. If you wander in without speaking to the bailiff  you may be unprepared for the hearing.

8. Refer to the judge as “Your Honor” or “Judge” only.

Judges wear stuffy robes as a sign of tradition and respect so show the person in the robe the respect they expect. When speaking to the judge you should only address the judge as “your honor” or “judge”. Preferably only “your honor” which is more respectful. in Texas it is common to use “sir” and “madam” as a sign of respect but judges have a specific title and “sir” or “madam” is not correct. The judge may not be put off by your attempt at respect but again you want to do everything to set the best impression. Never refer to the judge as:

  • You
  • Mister
  • Ma’am
  • Judge [Name}
  • Honor
  • Honorable

Just “your honor” or “judge”.

9. How to prepare if you don’t have a family law attorney for Texas family court

Many people appear in family court for divorces, child custody cases, modifications, child support enforcements and other family law issues without an attorney. Not everybody can afford to hire an attorney and only under limited circumstances will Texas provide a family law attorney for your case. I encourage anybody heading into family court in Texas to hire an experienced family law attorney. You may need to borrow money to hire an attorney or give up on somebody you saved to buy but the cost of a poor divorce outcome or custody decision may be more harmful than the cost of an attorney.

If you decide to go to court without an attorney then here are some tips to prepare for a family court hearing:

  • Read any document you receive from an attorney or court involved with your case.
  • Attend every hearing scheduled no matter the inconvenience because a judge can grant a default order against you if you fail to appear.
  • Review any document served on you for your duty to respond in writing. An initial petition will be served on you with process which is a copy of the petition plus a citation (summons) telling you when you must appear or respond in writing. Usually you want to respond in writing.
  • The county courthouse will have a law library available with forms and rulebooks. Take advantage of the law library so you have access to rules, law books and form books to help you write documents to the judge.
  • The court may have a pro se helpdesk where you can get basic advice on what procedural steps you need to take. Check if the local court has a helpdesk and take advantage of it.
  • Organize any documents you consider useful and take them to court. Organize your thoughts and reasons why you oppose whatever the other party asks the court to do.

Judges, especially in family court, tend to be more forgiving towards parties without attorneys; however, they cannot give you legal advice or tell you what you should do. They will often relax procedural rules and may explain rules to you but they cannot advocate for you. They will not make it harder for the other side just because they have an attorney. Just the opposite, they may give the attorney the opportunity to control the momentum of the case which can be extremely harmful to you. The more you try to prepare and act professionally the more you can try to level the playing field. Most family law attorneys realize you don’t know the process and trying to take advantage of you will usually set the judge on edge so they will try to work with you to reach a resolution to the case. Keep in mind that no matter how professional or fair minded the attorney that attorney does not represent you and cannot advise you on your legal rights.

While these rules seem stuffy and out of character in modern society you are correct. Judges wear honorary robes because that is what judges have done for hundreds of years. Courthouses are places of tradition and judges think highly of that tradition. They are the closest in our society to European nobility and aristocracy. No matter how silly you consider those traditions if the judge cares you should care for your own case.

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