Robbins: Court etiquette 101 |

Robbins: Court etiquette 101

Mistake No. 1: Sean showed up that day at court.

He was not a party to the litigation and, although he was a lawyer, he was not representing a single soul in the courtroom on that particular day.

Mistake No. 2: his phone was not turned off. Nor was it set to mute.

His bad.

Phil was on the bench.

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He was a new federal court judge and a former partner of poor Sean.

Phil was rightfully proud that he had been elevated to the federal bench. He was also a known arm twister. “Come see me on the bench,” he had asked, then nagged Sean. Although Sean was proud of his former partner too, at first he had begged off.

Phil, though, was relentless and Sean finally gave in.

When he showed up at the courthouse that day, Sean had other things on his mind. Nonetheless, he took his place in the galley to watch Phil preside. When Phil emerged into the courtroom from his brand-spankin’ new chambers, he spotted Sean and wore a smile. Then, he banged the proceedings to order and the show began.

Partway through, Sean’s phone rang.


Phil looked up and spied Sean fumbling to mute it but … too late. The dignity of the court was already offended.

Phil asked Sean to stand. Sheepishly, he did.

When he did, Phil advised Sean that he had offended the court and would be fined. His fine? Knowing full well that Sean was not a criminal attorney, Phil nonetheless assigned a criminal case. To perform pro bono.

For those of you not in the legal know, “pro bono” means for free. In other words, Phil assigned Sean to represent a financially needy defendant without charge.

Although Sean wanted to protest, respect for the court prevented him. Instead, he answered, “Yes, Your Honor,” and sat down to lick his wounds.

But, as the late Paul Harvey was fond of saying, here’s the rest of the story.

The reason Sean had balked to attend in the first place was on that particular day, his wife was having surgery. Knee surgery, to be precise. Sean had promised to be by her side.

The reason he had his phone on was, well … wouldn’t you? What if something went wrong? What if he was needed? What if his wife, when coming out of anesthesia, simply wanted to hear his voice? Or what if, the kids for whom he was solely responsible that day, had something come up in school?

Why Sean didn’t hold the phone in his sweaty fist on mute was just a dumb faux pas. He was stressed. He was worried. His loyalties were divided. Besides, he had a busy practice and taking time out to watch Phil strut and bang his gavel, well … all right. But he had other things on his mind.

In any event, Sean took the case, and though he grumbled a bit, he did his level best.

Is there a moral here?

Well, yes. Several.

First, if you take your phone into court, turn the damn thing off. Or, at the least, make sure the mute switch is engaged. Second, have your priorities straight. Whatever affection Sean had for Phil, Phil could have waited for another day; Sean’s wife needed him today. And, yup, the call that rang that day indeed was from the hospital. Thankfully, his wife was just groggily checking in. Third, respect for the court means sometimes you have to swallow your tongue. “Yes, Your Honor,” even if you are bursting to say more, is often the right answer.

I have been there more than once.

Even though at times I have been sure that the judge has erred, bickering over it just makes you smaller. The judge is after all the judge. If you believe that a mistake was made or that the law was misapplied, there are other means of resolution.

Respect sometimes requires patience.

How did Sean’s pro bono case turn out?

He never told me. His wife, however, turned out just fine.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices Of Counsel in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Caplan & Earnest, LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, and divorce, and civil litigation. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his email address at His novels, “How to Raise a Shark (an apocryphal tale),” “The Stone Minder’s Daughter,” and “Why I Walk so Slow” are currently available at fine booksellers.    

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