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Practice of Law
Finding Your Way
to in the Courthouse
How do you learn those all-important unwritten rules of courthouse and courtroom practice that vary from circuit to circuit, from courthouse to courthouse, and from courtroom to courtroom? Here's how. (Hint: the circuit clerk is your friend.)
Today, Glenn Newman is an experienced litigator, part of the office of the general counsel at Chicago's Exelon Corporation. But once he, too, was fresh out of law school, with little courtroom experience.
"I was a first year associate with a major Chicago law firm," Newman recalls. Instead of using his firm's docket department to handle the details of filing and scheduling a motion, he filed a motion to dismiss during a court appearance on a matter. "I filed it myself and served it on the other side. I got a hearing date for the judge's motion call. I must have sent a courtesy copy to the judge. I had file stamped copies of everything."
On the appointed day, Newman went over to court. "I sat through the entire motion call, naively thinking my case would be heard." But Newman's case wasn't called, and the other side didn't show up.
"After the call was over, I went up to the clerk and the judge and said I had a motion up at that time. I showed them the papers that had all been stamped. The clerk asked me if I had 'spindled' it up. I'd never even heard that term. She told me 'you can't get the motion heard unless you spindle it up.'"
"I sheepishly walked back to our docket department and asked what it meant. They explained it to me." Newman learned that "spindling" a motion simply refers to the Cook County-specific process of getting a hearing date for a motion and having the clerk put the case on the court's calendar for that day and time.
Twenty-five or so years later, Newman isn't entirely sure what he didn't do. From then on, he let the efficient staff of his firm's docket department handle scheduling.
But his story illustrates what all new lawyers with cases to handle in court must do, whether they work in large firms that provide support such as docket departments or have gone out on their own to practice solo with no staff: learn the unwritten rules of courthouse and courtroom practice that vary from circuit to circuit, from courthouse to courthouse, and from courtroom to courtroom.
The lessons also apply to veteran lawyers who are new to a courthouse. Says Champaign lawyer Thomas Bruno, who regularly appears in half a dozen counties in east central Illinois, "When you travel in a variety of counties, you realize that people in different courthouses use different slang, different jargon, and different abbreviations."
Start with the circuit clerk
Talking to experienced lawyers like Newman and Bruno and to some clerks of Illinois's circuit courts yielded sage advice for new practitioners on navigating courthouse customs. Three themes emerged: Ask questions, be nice, and pay it forward.
"Always start with the circuit clerk's office," advises Debbie Dugan, Circuit Clerk of Pike County. "We'll do what we can to help you."
Dugan, whose court is in one of Illinois's least populous counties, says her office has just six employees and one counter. "Come on in and someone will wait on you. Introduce yourself," she suggests. "We can show you where the courtrooms are and introduce you to the judges and court reporters."
New attorneys should know that every court in the state, large or small, has its own way of organizing its docket. There are court calls for initial appearances on newly filed cases, status calls, motion calls, special settings for arguments and evidentiary hearings, and trial calls.
In the smallest counties, judges may be assigned to hear any and all cases but will still organize them by days and times. In larger counties, judges will be assigned to more specific caseloads and may or may not rotate into different assignments at the chief judge's discretion.
In smaller circuits, it's unlikely judges will be available to hear every type of case every day of the week. In larger circuits, lawyers will need to know in which courtrooms, and in which branch courthouse, the cases they handle will be heard. They'll also need to learn which counters and which clerks handle filing and scheduling their cases.
Illustrating court docket practices, Dugan says her court hears small claims cases on the second and fourth Mondays of every month, juvenile cases on the first, third, and fifth Mondays, and criminal matters every Tuesday. The most common mistake she and her staff see on the part of new lawyers, she says, is scheduling matters on the wrong dates.
"We have a printed schedule showing the available dates that we are more than happy to share with anyone, especially new attorneys. They can pick one up in my office, or we can fax it to them."
Is it on the web?
All federal courts and judges, and most circuit courts in Illinois, have some presence on the internet (see sidebar). The information available will vary, with some circuit courts having a mere skeletal presence and others providing a panoply of services and information, including local rules, general orders, maps, judicial assignments, court forms, filing and case information, office locations and hours, attorney registration information, helpful links to other sites, lists of frequently asked questions (FAQs), and search engines.
Kane County falls into the latter category, with websites for both the circuit clerk's office and the 16th Judicial Circuit. Circuit Clerk Deborah Seyller says, "For any attorney, one of the first steps should be to visit the circuit clerk's website."
New lawyers wondering how to file a case in Kane County would learn from Seyller's FAQ page that Local Rule 2.17 sets out the standard format and requirements for forms and documents to be filed, that every new case must include a "New Case Information Sheet" and what information that sheet must include, that cases can be filed by mail and what mailing address to use, what to include in a cover letter, that they must include a self-addressed stamped envelope for the clerk to return file-stamped documents to them, and how to pay filing fees.
Lawyers would also learn what telephone numbers to use for scheduling different types of cases, how to prepare orders for a judge's signature, how to order forms or obtain them online, that individual judges have different policies on whether faxed documents are acceptable, what charges the court levies for faxes and copies, what fax numbers to use, that attorney mailboxes are available in Room 160 of the courthouse, and that there's a law library on the second floor of the Kane County Judicial Center.
Forget when your next hearing date is, or lose the order? The Kane County Circuit Clerk's website provides a link to look up and view your case online. More questions, or something you need isn't there? The FAQ also lists telephone numbers for information and provides a handy link to e-mail technical support with suggestions. And the clerk's website links to the 16th Judicial Circuit for even more information about court practice in Kane, DeKalb, and Kendall Counties, including the local rules, general orders, and judicial assignments.
Seyller says her county, along with the circuit clerks and courts in other counties, is expanding its online services. "We all want to do what we can because the more we can do online for someone the less they have to travel and stand in line." She recommends that lawyers practicing in Kane County check her website periodically for changes and updates.
Lawyers may also provide their e-mail addresses as part of registering with the circuit court. "If you register with us and we have your e-mail address, we have a way to reach out to you."
"Clerks are wonderful people"
Solo lawyer Maria Berger credits the Ogle County Circuit Clerk's office with teaching her some important rules of practice that she never learned in law school. "Most law schools don't teach you how to practice. The circuit clerks teach you how to work with the court system."
Don't hesitate to admit to a clerk, or anyone else in a courthouse, that you don't know something, says suburban Chicago lawyer Paul Prybylo. "Clerks are wonderful people. They will help you. They won't give you legal advice, but they will guide you and assist you, especially if you tell them that you don't know what you're doing."
Berger says the circuit clerk's office has saved her time, money, and frustration on more than one occasion. "I have had the clerk's office call me and say, 'Maria, you need to get down here right away' because a page wasn't attached to a filing, or a signature was missing, or what have you."
Once Berger needed to decipher a handwritten order. Her copy was "incredibly unclear. I could not read the handwriting, and the attorney who prepared it was dead." Berger called the clerk's office and asked whether the office had a more legible image. "They did, and they pulled it up on the scanner and read it to me over the phone. I didn't have to make a special trip to go down there or pay for a new copy that, chances are, wasn't going to be any better than the copy I already had."
Fellow Ogle County solo Dennis Riley notes, "The clerk can charge you a refiling fee for making a typo in the case number. I've had clerks contact me and warn me that I needed to change it. They can save you money and embarrassment."
Riley agrees that lawyers can learn much from courthouse clerks. "The first day you walk into the courtroom as an attorney, the clerk sitting there has more experience than you do. You want to take advantage of that experience. The court personnel have already seen dozens of attorneys making similar arguments with similar issues in cases similar to yours. They've seen it all. They can help you."
What goes around comes around
Berger's and Riley's experiences illustrate an important rule for any attorney, newly minted or experienced: Be nice to the clerks - and everyone else in the courthouse, for that matter. "You never know when you're going to need a friend in the circuit clerk's office," Berger says, pointing out that the clerks may not only work at the counter but also rotate through the courtrooms. "Even if not, they associate with the judges and other courthouse personnel."
Thomas Bruno says lawyers who behave rudely to court clerks are tagged within the courthouse. "Word spreads pretty fast that the lawyer's an ass. Then, they don't get what they want."
For example, says Chicago lawyer T.J. Thurston, "The judge's clerk who sits in the courtroom might put your case on the bottom of the pile, so you have to sit through the whole call before your case is called." That might mean a couple of hours out of your day. "The clerk might also take his own sweet time in handing your order up to the judge for signature, or might argue with you over how you've written the order." And, Thurston adds, the clerk's view of a lawyer might affect how the judge treats that lawyer, too.
Bruno likens rudeness to courthouse personnel to rudeness to his own secretary. "I treat that as a personal affront. If you're rude to the court clerk, the court secretary, the court janitor, the judge is going to figure that out."
The new lawyer should view everyone in a courthouse, whether a clerk, a sheriff's deputy, a judge, a janitor, or another attorney, as someone who might be helpful and whom, in turn, the lawyer might be able to help. As part of orienting yourself to a new courthouse, says Prybylo, "Talk to people. If you're an attorney, you need to know how to talk to people even without a script."
Own up to your ignorance
Prybylo says he likes to explore courthouses where he hasn't practiced before. That's one way he finds other lawyers to meet and provide him with answers to questions about local practice.
"Every courthouse has a place where you'll find attorneys gathering, commiserating, exchanging, having coffee. It might be a lounge, it might be the law library, or the bar association, or the crowded hallway, or the lunchroom." Introduce yourself, he says, and ask questions. "'Hi. I'm a new attorney. I'm just trying to learn the ropes. Mind if I listen in or ask you a few questions?' I've done this on elevators and made a lot of acquaintances that way," Prybylo says.
If you can't spend a day orienting yourself to a new courthouse in advance of your first hearing there, on the appointed day, "Get there early. Don't arrive at the courthouse with your client in tow, because then you're in the awkward position of asking rookie questions and revealing in front of your client how new you are at this game and what your insecurities are," Bruno recommends.
Reiterating others' advice not to be afraid to admit that you're new, Bruno says, "Most people will wrap their arms around you in a loving way if you own up that you're unfamiliar with the procedures and want to know how it's done there."
Kill rudeness with kindness
What if someone's brusque or rude to you? "Kill the rude ones with kindness," Bruno advises. "You need to realize that other people don't want you to treat them in a way that's demeaning. Say to someone 'Excuse me, but you look like someone who knows how to do this better than I do. Can I ask your advice?' It's a rare person who would be rude after that."
And even if someone is unpleasant, Newman says, "Be patient. As soon as you get testy, it's all over." Fighting with a clerk, or anyone else, won't help you, he says. "They'll remember you next time."
"Don't allow any ego issues or unfounded fears to prevent you from asking questions," Bruno continues. "Asking can make the butterflies go away. Lawyers are afraid that everyone else knows everything and they're afraid to let others know they don't know something. It is not a weakness to reveal that you don't know something or that you've never done something before."
If you've asked other lawyers, or the bailiff, or the courtroom minute clerk, how the judge in your case conducts his hearings, Bruno says, "then once your client arrives, you'll be able to say with confidence 'The judge is going to want you to sign this form here, and then we're going to go down the hall, and then this will happen, and then we're finished.'"
Prybylo and the other lawyers interviewed emphasize the two-way nature of help. "I met an attorney in the Daley Center who needed to get something done," Prybylo remembers. "He was from Wisconsin. While I was talking with one of the deputies, he came up to me and asked 'Are you an attorney?' I said yes. He handed me his card and asked 'Can you help me?' I went with him and helped him get whatever it was he needed done. It felt wonderful."
A firm believer in collegiality, Prybylo says, "You need to develop the frame of mind that we're all in this together. We can fight like cats and dogs in the courtroom, but outside, it's entirely different. You need to build up friendship."
Pay the good will forward, Riley says. "That advances the profession of law, as opposed to the business of law." Saying he's taken full advantage of the willingness of others to help him with their knowledge and insights, Riley says, "I like to think that I pay it back."
ISBA's virtual communities
One of the best ways for new attorneys - or even experienced ones - to find other colleagues willing to help out with advice on rules written and unwritten, and to help others, in turn, is to sign up for and participate in ISBA's online discussion groups.
"The ISBA lists are such a resource," says Riley. "If I were going to another county, I would get on the ISBA list and post that I've got a certain type of case I'm going to handle in whatever county it was and could somebody give me an idea of the procedures. You get great responses from the lists. They give you access to thousands of perspectives, no matter what your practice is."
And with multiple perspectives, says Thurston, "you can evaluate them and not have to rely on just one person's advice."
Thurston adds, "Do not be afraid to ask any question. You might get someone who will yell at you for a newbie question. If you do, I'll be there to defend you. It's better to ask what you think might be a stupid question and get the answer than show up in court and wish you'd asked that question."
Helen W. Gunnarsson, a lawyer in Highland Park, is an Illinois Bar Journal contributing writer.
Info about Illinois trial courts and circuit clerks
- The Illinois Supreme Court keeps a list of circuit court websites at http://www.state.il.us/court/Links/circuit.asp and other court information at http://www.state.il.us/court/CircuitCourt/default.asp (not all Illinois circuit courts have websites).
- The SIU School of Law library keeps a list of Illinois circuit court rules at http://www.law.siu.edu/lawlib/illaw/illjccr/index.htm.
- You'll find links to these resources, as well as Illinois-based federal district and bankruptcy courts and more, at the ISBA Practice Resource Center at http://www.isba.org/resources/links/courtscasesstatutes.
- The ISBA also keeps a list of Illinois circuit clerk links on the practice resource center at http://www.isba.org/resources/links/circuitclerks.