A Day at the Courthouse
Most people who visit my office are familiar with the multitude of crime/court dramas shown on any major network television station, including but not limited to everyone’s favorite show Law & Order, and all of its progeny. After seeing such TV shows and the dramatization of a courtroom proceeding, I often hear the phrase “I want my day in Court,” meaning a client wants the judge, or a jury, to decide their case because they feel as if they are not getting most, if not everything, they want in the settlement negotiation process.
In a family law proceeding, a client’s day in Court will often be incredibly different than the day in court the client witnessed on TV. In fact, I dare say I have never heard a client say they were happy they went to court instead of settling outside of the courtroom, especially when it comes to child custody matters.
The first reason a day in Court is different is because actual courtroom proceedings are not nearly as dramatic as what is seen on TV. It is a rare day for there to be extreme displays of emotion, landslide victories and/or an outburst from the back row which completely changes the course of the litigation. The path to “victory” is more elusive than the client ever expected.
Secondly, judges are not as familiar with a client’s family situation as the client and his/her attorney. Judges simply do not have the time to parse through every detail. There is no possible way for an attorney to cover every detail of every aspect of a client and their children’s lives in the short span of time allocated before the judge. While a client may see their case as a slam dunk, it is often quite the different story for the judge. The client should always bear in mind that, most of the time, the judge is meeting the parties for the first time on their day at the courthouse, and will likely only spend a few hours (maximum) with them. As such, the judge makes broad rulings at the conclusion of trial that surprise the client.
Finally, a day in court is incredibly……let me say that again, INCREDIBLY….. expensive. A client can guesstimate that for every hour their attorney spends in court, the attorney will have to spend 2-3 hours preparing. Thus, if the attorney prepares for a full-day hearing, totaling 7-8 hours, the attorney will likely have spent 14 to 24 hours preparing, depending on the complexity of the case. Multiply those hours by your attorney’s hourly rate and you can see how incredibly expensive it is to have your day in court. This is why many attorneys require a trial retainer if the client insists on proceeding to trial.
Having all of this said, there are certainly situations where the other party is unreasonable, thus leaving the client no choice but to proceed to trial. In this case, a trial is often the last resort. The key thought behind proceeding to trial in this situation is that trial is the last resort and means available to reach a final resolution. As stated, it is an extremely rare occasion for a client to say they were glad they let the judge decide their issue(s). Clients are often more satisfied when they reach an agreement outside of the courthouse, because they have greater control over the outcome, and usually, this path is less expensive.