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Courtroom drama: it's time for aspiring lawyers to take their seats

Courtroom drama: it's time for aspiring lawyers to take their seats

Neide Lemos


Reading time: five minutes.

Law school has you flicking and highlighting through countless textbooks, but all the action is in court.

The more cases you read, the more you’re drawn into the legal principles, judgments and academic viewpoints. It can be easy to forget that textbook cases are real and actually happened. Although watching Harvey Specter in Suits or The Good Wife has you gripped on legal drama, the fiction is far from the real-life action that you see in court.

Here’s why you should schedule some court visits in your diary.

Benefits of court visits

Throughout the duration of my law undergraduate course, I always found that attending court was the most exciting part. While visiting court is not a substitute for mini-pupillages and other forms of legal work experience, it will complement any legal work experience you get. If you are struggling to gain legal work experience, attending court is a great way to demonstrate your interest in the law and will provide you with a topic of discussion at interviews.

Read Volunteering at the PSU – why bother?’ for an insight into what it’s like to volunteer at the Personal Support Unit (PSU) in the Royal Courts of Justice.

For example, when you attend a court hearing, you will (among other things):

  • gain an insight into what goes on in the legal system;
  • observe the practical application of the law rather than just theory;
  • learn how lawyers present legal arguments in court, including how to structure a reasoned argument, the process and aspects of litigation;
  • understand how lawyers think, while improving your way of thinking, including how to adapt to fresh evidence, how judgments are made; and
  • listen to how language is used to evoke emotional responses.

Most importantly, attending court will help you to decide whether a legal career is for you; whether you wish to qualify as a barrister or solicitor and the area of law you wish to practise in.

Which court should I attend?

You can attend most cases in the public gallery unless the judge says otherwise, or a minor is called to give evidence. I recommend observing a range of cases, including: 

  • Magistrates Court: almost always, all Criminal Court cases start in this court. Summary offences (eg minor assaults and motoring offences) can be heard only in the Magistrates Court. Whereas either way offences (eg drug offences) can be heard in either Crown or the Magistrates.
  • Crown Court: at Crown Court, be expected to observe serious criminal cases, including indictable only offences, sentencing for serious offences and cases that are sent to trial – this court will bring your criminal law textbooks to life.
  • County Court: unlike Magistrates, the County Court deals with civil matters (eg evictions and debt recovery). If you like tort law or you’re interested in personal injury, which falls under tort, then this is the court for you. 
  • High Court: criminal cases can be appealed in the High Court. However, the High Court mostly deals with civil cases within three divisions (ie, Family, Queen’s Bench and Chancery).
  • Court of Appeal (CoA): the CoA hears appeals from the lower courts so expect to see a variety of cases from criminal to civil cases. Check out the recent CoA cases on their YouTube channel.
  • The Supreme Court: The Supreme Court is the top-ranking CoA. Anyone is permitted to watch cases at this court, live and on-demand.
  • Tribunals: these operate in specialised areas, where decisions about disputes are made following a less formal approach than a court proceeding. 

Before you go to court, it’s recommended that you check the list of hearings that will be taking place on that day and the courtroom that will be open to the public. If the case you want to observe is taking place remotely, make sure you email the relevant court in advance. If asked, explain that you’re a law student and/or an aspiring lawyer that wants to observe the case. 

You can also access listings via CourtServe to help you plan your day in court to ensure you get to observe a range of cases. 

What if l am interested in commercial law?

While litigation isn’t for everyone, going to court is useful for all aspiring lawyers, including aspiring corporate solicitors. Law is vocational, as much as it is an academic discipline. The Supreme Court cases can often become strong authority and the decisions made tend to be followed in practice.

These cases start off in the lower courts, so it is useful to gain an understanding of how a case is initially heard as it may have an impact on a contract you need to draft – for example : a ‘no set off’ clause was analysed by judges in AMC III Purple BV v Amethyst Radiotherapy Limited to provide guidance on the extent the courts are willing to interpret the clause. Attending court can assist you in non-contentious matters as it provides you with an understanding of the defences that are used to avoid a dispute.

Courtroom etiquette

Remember that a courtroom is a professional place. The last thing you want is for your phone to ring because you forgot to turn it off, so either put it on silent, turn it on airplane mode or switch it off completely. On your first court visit to a crown court, you’ll realise that you should stand when the judge enters and leaves the room. Don’t stress, the court usher will give you a cue. If you enter and exit the courtroom when the court is in action, don’t forget to bow to the judge.

While there’s no need to overdress to observe a hearing, if you’re likely to apply for a marshalling experience at that court or you’re sure that you will be making an appearance as a trainee (or when qualified), you should remember that first impressions always count so dress appropriately to present yourself in a professional manner.

So, if the public gallery is open, what are you waiting for?