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Anger in the Court: How to Keep Calm and Litigate On

For trial attorneys and litigators, losing your cool in the courtroom is highly inadvisable. As we learned from Tom Cruise in 1992, as well as countless other media representations, both real and fictional, demanding the truth from a witness at the top of your lungs can both make the case and result in a contempt order.

Unfortunately, in real life, contempt orders aren't handed down by a lovable, well known, fictional judge played by J.A. Preston, better known as Judge Julius Alexander Randolph, or Judge Rodney Hepburn, or Judge Banion, or Judge Hooten, or Judge William J. Murphy, or Judge Earl Doucette, or Judge Saunder MacMillan. What's worse is that contempt orders can often be accompanied by a lawyer's second or fourth worse fear: monetary sanctions. Just ask the Chicago lawyer who was just held in contempt for losing his cool in court (and throughout the pleading and discovery stages) and ordered to pay a $50K sanction.

Keep Calm and Litigate On

Perhaps one of the most important parts of an attorney's presentation in court is their composure. Judges, juries, and adversaries, can all sense when an attorney is becoming unhinged. And, as anyone with an ounce of warm blood in their body knows all too well, when you get mad, you don't think clearly and that anger can affect your judgment. Notably, researchers have found that angry minds are more heuristic or superficial when it comes to exercising judgment. Less attention is paid to risk, more caution is thrown to the wind, and as an attorney, in a courtroom, this is not good.

Learning to control your anger while litigating, and especially in court, is critical. If you master this skill, you may even be able to harness your anger for good.

Although getting angry may be an involuntary response to your infuriating adversary, letting that anger out in court, over the phone, or "on the record," isn't likely to win you any points. Fortunately, below, you can read a few tips to help you process your anger when you can't really show it.

  1. Pretend to take notes, but really journal out your feelings quickly.
  2. Put on a pensive face, and do a quick breathing exercise, until you get called back to earth by the judge.
  3. Request a short recess, bathroom break, or for your matter to be passed over and called later on in the calendar.

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