The majority of my family law practice is in Tarrant County where I assist clients with divorces, child custody, child support, modifications and enforcements. I spend a lot of time in the Tarrant County Family Courts and that gives me opportunities to see how a lot of people appear and behave in the courthouse and courtrooms. Although the family court judges in Tarrant County are generally fair-minded, there is a lot of information they can glean from you and your claims based upon your appearance and behavior. The last thing you want is to spend money on court costs and attorney fees to set the judge against you for something minor while you are in the courthouse or the courtroom. Here are some tips to help you shift the court experience in your favor:
1. Prepare ahead of time before you reach the Tarrant County, Texas courts.
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 are bringing 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.
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 because the judges expect a certain level of professionalism and decorum. They are mostly older adults who grew up and live in more conservative communities where modern style is not always their cup of tea. The way you dress can also suggest certain things to a judge that may harm your position or strengthen the opposing party’s position.
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:
If you have a nice, conservative suit then that is usually your best option. If not, dress pants and a dress shirt with dress shoes is your attire. 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 and there are not a lot of ways to do it wrong as long as you are well-groomed, your clothes fit reasonably well and you make an attempt to look professional.
No casual shoes/sneakers. Cowboy boots are a maybe because it’s Fort Worth but I would really encourage dress shoes instead.
No baggy clothes. Look, I understand that is a style for some people but it will never be a style your judge likes. I promise you. 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).
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.
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 appropriate in a court. Business casual, heavy on the business side, is generally your 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.
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 (top?) 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.
After reading all of that you should get the message that I am serious about keeping the attire conservative. I see many women in the Tarrant County Family Courts building who look like they are ready for a night on the town rather than fighting over who should have custody of their kids. I know some women think they have a tactical advantage with a male judge or opposing counsel dressing like this but the judges know what is going on and they are more likely to be annoyed by your lack of decorum than cut you a break for it. You also risk having that judge think you look like a whore and treat you worse for it.
3. Prepare to arrive at the Tarrant County courthouse early.
Between traffic getting into downtown and all the construction, your drive could be quick or it could be far longer than necessary. You don’t control traffic and the judges generally dislike when people are not on time. A little extra time enjoying your tax-paid courthouse is better than an angry judge. Look up the number for the bailiff in the court you are expected to appear before and keep it in your phone. In the event you are going to be late you need to call the bailiff and ask him to let the court know you are stuck in traffic. If you have to be late then the judge is more likely to cut you slack if you were courteous and let the judge know.
4. Know where to park in Fort Worth, Texas.
The Tarrant County Family Courts are next door to a reasonably priced parking garage. There are also some lots east of the parking garage. Any of these are good options. Avoid the parking meters. The Fort Worth police zealously ticket people on those meters and you may end up in court for longer than you expected. The last thing you want is to have your meter run out while you are in the middle of your hearing. It’s not a terribly expensive ticket but it is way more expensive than paying for parking in the garage.
5. Phone is off when you are in the Tarrant County courtroom.
Few things anger a judge more than hearing a phone ring or buzz while court is in session. I know, you may be very bored waiting in court for your hearing but the judges all have a rule against cell phone use in the courtroom. Make sure it is off while you are in the courtroom. Silent might avoid sounds but you still may want to pull out your phone and check on it while you wait for your turn before the judge. Just turn it off. It’s an easy way to aggravate the judge.
6. Behave respectfully from the time you park until the time you get back in your car.
You never know whether a judge (or a member of the judge’s staff) who will preside over your hearing is around the corner or walking behind you in the courthouse. Do not speak ill of other people (even if you really want to) or get into arguments in the courthouse (and especially not the courtrooms). You might see lawyers arguing in the hallways but different rules apply to us. That’s our job. We know how to keep it restrained and when to turn it off. A judge who sees you arguing is likely to think you are emotional and unreasonable. That doesn’t help you out. If you are dissatisfied after your hearing then the same rules apply. You don’t need word getting back that you were badmouthing the judge after the hearing.
7. Check in with the bailiff in the assigned courtroom (if you do not have a divorce attorney).
If you do not have an attorney, go to the courtroom bailiff and let him know why you are there. The bailiff is responsible for checking you in and if you had to obtain a file from the clerk’s office then you also want to give that file to the bailiff. The bailiff will either instruct you to sit or let you know opposing counsel wants to talk to you. It is unlikely you will be first up before the judge but if you are, the bailiff will let you know.