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A Lesson in Court Etiquette: The Sterling Standard
One of the most public probate court hearings of 2014 was that of the $2 billion sale of the Los Angeles Clippers. The approved sale was overshadowed by the question of Donald Sterling still being a co-trustee of the Sterling Family Trust. After Sterling’s wife had him removed from the Trust on grounds of mental incapacitation the question stood; did Donald Sterling have any say in the sale of the basketball team?
It is not difficult to see that a “co-trustee” like Donald Sterling, who is arguing that the sale is invalid, should actually be present for the hearing. However, on the first day, Sterling was called to testify and did not appear when legally obliged to do so, according to the Washington Post. Pierce O’Donnell, Shelly Sterling’s attorney, then moved to have a bench warrant issued, but no warrant was made.
While Sterling did take the stand the following day, he chose to adopt a rather unorthodox approach, criticizing the doctors who examined him (and alleging one of them was drunk during the examination), telling the court that the doctors should not be practicing medicine, and lambasting his wife’s attorney with various sarcastic, condescending, and sometimes profane remarks. He went so far as to tell opposing counsel that he did not believe they had “been practicing for very long”, despite the fact that his wife’s attorney graduated summa cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1954.
Such behavior can only hurt his, and your own, court case. Here are a few useful tips that can be learned from watching Sterling’s case unravel.
Always leave yourself plenty of time to arrive at any hearing in which you are involved. Remember, accidents and distractions occur at the most inconvenient moments and you want to have enough time to deal with them and still be ready for a hearing later in the day. Showing up to any legal action tardy (or, worse, not at all), be it a brief court appearance or a trial, is easy ammunition against you and your case and can result in fines, penalties, default judgments, or worse. Sterling’s attorneys explained that they believed the presiding judge would use more time for a ruling on jurisdiction, but this is no excuse. If you are involved in a hearing, be present regardless of whether you believe you will not have time to testify on a particular day.
State of Mind
It is easy to get irritated and emotional in civil litigation, but it is often best to remain calm, cool, and collected. Being able to converse with counsel, and the court, will not only demonstrate how seriously you take the matter but will also allow you to answer questions and make comments in a coherent and compelling manner. Sterling’s choice to allow his anger get the best of him comes off as overconfident at best and will, ironically, present him as someone who might actually have some mental incapacitation – the exact opposite of what he needs to do. Remember, judges and juries are focused on the subject (you) and will react negatively to rude and inappropriate remarks.
Strategy and Preparation
While legal action is certainly no sport, the proverbial “proper preparation precludes poor performance” remains just as helpful. It is important to be prepared and have a strategy when going into a hearing. Not appearing when required to do so is demonstrative of your lack of preparation and care – regardless of reason, this is how others will use and view it. Worse, showing up and being confrontational is weak and reflects poor strategic skills. Arriving prepared and having, at least, a loosely set strategy in mind will not only save you time, but it will give you the right amount of confidence you need to persuasively present your side of the story when testifying.
As with anything, having the right expert guide you through your legal process will greatly strengthen your case. A good attorney will not only help you prepare and establish a good strategy in answering questions, but will smooth out the entire adversarial process.
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