I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while. The Spring 2014 issue of the Mississippi Lawyer contained question and answer interviews with federal and state court judges in conjunction with the Young Lawyers Division Midyear Conference.

A recurrent theme in the interviews was the importance of a lawyer’s reputation to judges. Some of the comments are below:

Judge Tom Lee (U.S. District Judge):

…your reputation usually precedes you, so treat your clients, your adversaries, your peers and the court with respect and courtesy…and be honest and straightforward in your presentations to the court. Judges come to know which lawyers they can, and those they can’t expect that from. You always should strive to be one of those that a judge would consider trustworthy and reliable…

Judge Sul Ozerden (U.S. District Judge):

Credibility is extremely important. The judges do talk and lawyers develop a reputation for whether they can be relied upon to write good briefs, to cite the record reliably and accurately…

Judge Michael Parker (U.S. Magistrate):

Right now, you are establishing your professional reputation. And what will it say?….How you treat not just members of the court, but the members of the profession makes all the difference in the world. Don’t forget that the advesary you are fighting with today might be the judge of tomorrow…a good reputation matters on all levels…

Judge Allan Alexander (U.S. Magistrate):

Everybody learns everybody else’s reputation. If your’re bad, we know you’re bad…

Judge David Ishee (Miss. Court of Appeals):

…you can spend 20 years building a good reputation in this business. You lie to a judge one time, and that 20 years is gone….There is absolutely nothing worse than somebody who wants to be known as the jerk lawyer…

 Judge Margaret Carey-McRay (Circuit Judge):

…You are building professional reputations. Civility and professionalism are important as one builds a solid foundation for the practice of law…

Judge John Gargiulo (U.S. Magistrate/ previously Circuit Judge):

…what I think you should be most concerned with is building your professional reputation…

My Take:

After you have practiced for a while, you can tell when you’ve earned the respect of a judge. Practicing in a judge’s courtroom is much easier once the judge trusts that you are competent. This is one of the things that makes being a young lawyer difficult.

The young lawyer who the judge has never seen before could easily get grilled by the judge more than a lawyer who has a good reputation and the judge trusts. And it’s not that the judge is afraid of being lied to. The judge is more likely to be afraid that the lawyer doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. Judges are more likely to trust lawyers who have proven themselves to be competent and honest.

This makes trying cases extremely hard for young lawyers. Not only are young lawyers dealing with their own nerves and inexperience in the courtroom, they also have to deal with judges who have increased skepticism because the young lawyer has no track record with the judge.

When I was a baby lawyer there were times that I felt like judges were giving me a hard time compared to some of my old veteran colleagues. Now I realize it wasn’t about hazing the young lawyer, it was about who had earned the judge’s trust by building a good reputation. Judges don’t give trust to you just because you’ve passed the bar.

Judges are keeping score on lawyers’ reputations and trading notes on who they can trust. This is a huge issue for all lawyers.

But it’s not necessarily that hard to earn a judge’s trust. If a lawyer is honest and competent, he or she will earn the respect of the judge over the course of one trial. You can literally see a judge’s attitude toward a lawyer transform over the course of a trial.

And once that happens, practicing in that judge’s court is going to be easier.