Devastated Lawyers Share the Exact Moments When Everything Fell Apart in Court
Being a lawyer is one of the most nerve-wracking jobs in the country. Every single case is something completely different, but you’re almost always in a battle stance. You need a cool head and a will to win. A simple degree won’t get you out of the courtroom with your mind intact. Sometimes, shocking curveballs are thrown your way.
These lawyers had intriguing cases that simply shook them to their cores — in split seconds or one swift statement, the winner was confirmed. Whether it hurt or helped their cases, these situations are the most memorable parts of their experiences in the courtroom.
A Grand Old Flag
I met with the client, in person, roughly five times and had a number of phone calls leading up to the bench trial (the client wanted to fast track to final disposition as much as possible). The client seemed perfectly reasonable, spoke coherently and intelligently throughout, and was on board with our defense theory.
Less than a minute into the state’s opening statement, the client stands up and, in a level voice, matter-of-factly begins objecting to the court’s jurisdiction because the flag had fringe and he refused to be subject to admiralty law…
Things did not get better after that.
Shutting Everyone Out
My first (and last) trial as a young lawyer was on a legal aid certificate. I took on the case a week before trial, representing the wife in a divorce matter. The judge had ruled that there were to be no more adjournments or postponements. The only issue at trial was the quantum and duration of spousal support payable to the wife by the husband. Four days before trial, I received an offer to settle from the husband’s lawyer, on the low side of reasonable. The wife rejected it outright. In my jurisdiction, if you reject an offer to settle before trial and do worse than the offer, the judge can order the loser to pay the winner’s legal fees for the wasted time at trial.
Three days before trial, I concluded that she was incapable of properly instructing me. Two days before trial, I learned that I was the 10th lawyer on the case. She had either fired the others or they had quit. One day before trial, I decided that I had no idea what I was doing and that I was better suited to be a real estate or corporate lawyer. On the day of trial, my client showed up tipsy. I called her to the stand to testify and she was sworn in. Halfway through my first question, she interrupted me turned and looked at the judge. “Your Majesty,” she said, “I would like to make a speech.”
The judge looked at me. I shrugged my shoulders. The husband’s lawyer slipped me a piece of paper… “Notice of Withdrawal of Offer to Settle.” The wife made her speech.
After her speech, the judge looked over at me. “I have nothing more to offer, my Lord,” I said sheepishly.
In the end, the judge ignored the husband’s evidence and his lawyer’s arguments. He ignored the wife’s speech about the husband’s infidelities. And he ignored my inability to offer anything useful to bolster my client’s position. He did the right thing. He ordered support for the wife. The amount included living expenses, the cost of therapy, and the cost of skills development and training that would eventually permit her to obtain employment and support herself.
I switched over to transactional law.
Too Many Changes
As a young attorney, I took the second chair on a civil trial where we ended up with an appointed judge. We moved locations during the trial twice. The last “courtroom” was a fairly big town hall auditorium meeting room that had some HVAC issues.
One day, the temperature was well into the 80s. After a witness was questioned, we all looked to the judge for a ruling. The judge, an older gentleman, did not respond. Everyone in the room—lawyers, jury, support staff, witness—thought he had died. The plaintiff’s lawyer asked if we may approach, but there was no response so we all walked up—a decent distance as this was in no way a regular courtroom. When we got there, the judge suddenly snapped awake. He quickly adjourned for the day, although it was still morning.
It ended up being my biggest loss ever. Our expert was terrible on the stand though nationally acknowledged and great in his deposition. The plaintiff’s expert was of a similar caliber but was very good on the stand. We ended up settling while dealing with post-trial motions. A couple of years later, I ran into the judge who said he was glad we settled as he was going to rule we were entitled to a new trial.
Don’t Stop Them Now
During my first time appearing in court, I was prosecuting a stop sign violation as a student attorney. Once the defendant was sworn in, she said, “Before you ask any questions, I just want to say that I did run the stop sign, but it was just too icy and I couldn’t stop because I was going too fast.” Once I lifted my jaw off the floor, I looked over at the judge and he gave this approving nod-smile combo like, “Yep, I’m thinking what you’re thinking, baby lawyer.” I said way too proudly, “The prosecution rests its case, Your Honor.”
And just like that, I was 1-0 without asking a single question, much less saying any meaningful words.
The Spy Guy
I had a nasty custody battle, so much so, that the ex-mother-in-law retained a private investigator to watch my client and see if her boyfriend came over when the kids were present. (A previous court order barred the boyfriend and kids from having contact).
The father moved for a contempt hearing, stating that she had violated the no-contact order. In my office, she swore she didn’t. On the day of the hearing, the private investigator was full of huff and buff and was called to the stand by the father’s counsel. He proceeded to read off a litany of dates where he had videotaped the boyfriend entering the house. I grabbed a calendar and noticed that all the dates he read off were dates the father had custody of the kids, and thus, kids were not present in the house when the boyfriend was there.
Cross-examination time: I made absolutely sure of every date. Then, I showed the calendar to the private investigator and asked him to read off the days of the week corresponding to the dates. He did so. I then handed him a copy of the visitation order and asked him to read off the sentence which detailed what days of the week the father had custody. He began to see his error. I asked him,
“By the way, to be clear, none of your videos contain any of the kids do they?”
“How much were you paid to do surveillance?”
My last parting shot across the bow: “Are you going to be giving Mrs. X a refund?”…Objection… Sustained…
I won. The other attorney and I still laugh about this and it has been a good 10 years.
The Club Couldn’t Handle Her
I was representing a plaintiff on a hit-and-run case. The plaintiff was testifying and was, despite our preparations, an absolutely terrible witness for her own case. Like, she couldn’t even identify the street she was crossing when she was hit by the car. (It was a major highway and we had gone through the sequence of events countless times the day before the hearing.)
The “gotcha” moment came during cross-examination. The defense counsel pulled out a picture of my client dressed up and ready to hit the club, which was posted to Facebook the day after the alleged accident. I, thinking quickly, objected because the timestamp referred to when it was posted, not when it was taken. The defense counsel showed the picture to my client and asked her when the picture was taken. Sure enough, she said it was taken the day after the accident when she was supposedly in unbearable pain.
No Mistakes Needed
I was a baby lawyer in my first year representing the 19-year-old child of some rich people in San Mateo County, California. My client had gone on a bit of a shoplifting spree and we were cleaning all her cases up with a global plea (meaning we handled them all at once).
Being new, I filled out the plea form wrong, swapping the counts she was charged with for the counts she was pleading to. It’s an easy mistake to make. Every court has its own unique form and I was unfamiliar with San Mateo’s.
The judge calls my line, starts reading off the plea form, notices the mistake and then starts screaming at the top of his lungs, “COUNSEL! WHAT IS THIS?! WHAT IS THIS?! IS THIS YOUR FIRST DAY ON THE JOB? THIS IS A COURT OF LAW AND WE DO NOT ACCEPT MISTAKES! FILL THIS PLEA FORM OUT CORRECTLY OR I WILL HAVE YOU TAKEN INTO CUSTODY FOR CONTEMPT!”
I did not expect a reaction like that. My client, who was wearing an all-pink velvet tracksuit, was looking at me like I was the biggest idiot in the world.
I corrected the plea form. The judge made me wait until the very end of the calendar to take my plea. Afterward, he called me up to the bench. In private he told me, “Sorry to ream you like that. Everyone messes the plea form up so I always pick the youngest lawyer to yell at. The older guys will grumble and complain, but if you noticed they all fixed their own forms and we didn’t have any more problems. Keeps the calendar running smooth. Where did you go to law school?” After that, he invited me to his office for coffee and gave me some really good work advice. Turns out, he likes talking to new lawyers.
Sticks and Stones
The person I was representing was on trial for assault in the third degree and a DUI. In my state, A3 means you’ve assaulted an aid worker or police officer and that is a felony. The allegations were that he was very verbally abusive to the officers and, at one point, kicked one in the face.
We’re sitting at the defendant’s table and the officer is testifying about the statements my guy made to him. It included some pretty horrific name calling. Out of nowhere, my client screams, “You’re a liar! Screw you!”
We lost that trial.
Another time, the judge asked a client whether anyone had coerced him into pleading guilty, and he said, “Yeah, my attorney.” I just about went #2 in my pants, but he laughed and said, “I’m joking. No.”
Raking in the Cash
I was at a hearing arguing that my client was wrongfully terminated because the employer failed to abide by the proper procedures. During the hearing, a witness for the employer tried to offer documents that were fraudulently altered in order to make it look like the proper procedure was followed. I noticed the alteration. The opposing counsel quickly got that witness out of the room, and after a quick adjournment, my client got a large settlement.
Behind Everyone’s Back
Medical malpractice defense lawyer here representing hospitals and doctors. For context, usually at trial, both the plaintiff and defendant will have an expert physician testify as to their opinion on whether the doctor or hospital performed everything correctly.
I thoroughly researched the plaintiff’s expert, who was an OB-GYN. I found out he had been suspended a number of times for his own botched deliveries and for giving incorrect medical testimony to help plaintiff’s cases.
During the actual day of trial, turns out he was not licensed to practice medicine independently without supervision from another physician and he was one year into his three-year suspension. The plaintiff’s lawyers had no idea about their own expert’s background and they just sat there with a blank look on their face. Needless to say, during cross-examination, we destroyed his credibility and won at trial.
Back Again, Huh?
I represented a pro bono client that had just turned 18 and was charged with serious property damage. I walked into his bail hearing and the judge looked at him and said, “I knew you’d be back as an adult.” The judge then turned to me and said, “Counselor, you may want to learn about your client’s history.” No bail.
The Greatest Show on Earth
I had a domestics hearing over some issue (final divorce hearing, custody, something like that).
The mother’s attorney was a prolific idiot in the community. He put on a big dog and pony show because clients like to pay for the billboard. Pretty bad reputation in our legal community.
The father’s attorney stood up and attempted to examine his witness. The mom’s attorney stood up and objected to literally every sentence the father’s attorney said. The judge just kind of just sat there, hoping it would all calm down. He eventually told the mom’s attorney to sit down, but he kept going. Just before the judge found him in contempt, the father’s attorney turned and said, “You may think because you’re older than me, you can treat me with disrespect. You can hoop and holler all you want but you won’t do it at my expense. If you want to put on a show, go join the circus.”
Count Those Blessings
I had a pre-trial conference at 9 a.m. at a court about two hours away. So, I wake my butt up super early to drive in terrible weather to the conference. I get there and we’re waiting for the other attorney. All the while, I’m grumbling to myself about how I’m from out of town and I can still make it on time. Finally, the court calls the other attorney’s office and gets a receptionist who tells us through tears that the other attorney passed away the night before. Needless to say, I was just happy to still be alive and we rescheduled for a few months later.
No Laughing Matter
It was time for the closing argument in an assault case. I’ve learned to grow comfortable with my speaking style, and part of that is to cut loose a bit when it is appropriate. So, I shed a light of some of the state’s allegations given the testimony by the prosecuting witness. There was one guy on the jury panel who thought I was just hilarious. I had to wait for him to stop laughing.
The “gotcha” moment? When the jurors came back to return a verdict, and the same guy was elected foreman by the other jurors.
The verdict was not guilty.
Trampled Under Foot
I was the defendant, representing a nonprofit that I volunteered for. The plaintiff was a 60-something grandma who was looking for a retirement settlement after falling out of her jacked up pickup truck in our parking lot. The premise of her case was that our parking lot was in bad shape and that she fell into a pothole, breaking her leg. Such accident resulted in her having to take Coumadin and diminished her enjoyment of salads at the Friday night fish fry (no, really).
It was going along fine, until my lawyer put up a photo of the pothole, taken on the day of the incident, filled to the brim with water, after a recent rain. He asked the lady if she had gotten her foot wet, to which she replied that she couldn’t recall.
He talked a little more about how perhaps if her foot wasn’t wet, it might have been because she fell out of the truck and didn’t really fall into the pothole. He asked again if her foot was wet, and she affirmed that yes, her foot was wet.
The “gotcha” moment came when he went back to his desk, flipped through her deposition and read the part where she was extremely adamant that her foot wasn’t wet. Then, he did some fancy legal stuff. The case was thrown out and I went back to work.
No Time to Lose
I handled a step-parent adoption in law school. I was appearing before the court on a motion—I literally just had to submit a written brief and sum up my argument so the judge could think about it in his chambers for a few weeks. The judge stopped me halfway through my explanation of the motion, said, “I’m ready to sign the final order,” and executed it right there on the bench. The client happened to come along for this one and broke down crying before we left the courtroom. I felt 10 feet tall.
Well, That Was Fast
One of my first trials as a prosecutor was a theft case involving the employees of a metal recycling plant who had stolen a spool of copper. The other two co-defendants had been convicted so I didn’t imagine having any issue winning the trial. The manager of the plant was my star witness. Talking to him through the interpreter, I just assumed he was on board with the prosecution.
He took the stand and we went through some basic questions. At some point, the interpreter says, “He’s a good person, it was those other guys. I don’t think he did anything wrong.” There was no coming back from that but I delivered my closing like a champ. Not guilty in five minutes.
They See You
The opposing party (tenant) accused my client (landlord) of putting cameras on the roof of the driveway to spy on the tenant’s family. The tenant specifically said she saw my client putting up the cameras, except the roof is pretty high and my client is 5’0″. I got the opposing party to admit she lied under oath. The judge wasn’t too happy and scolded her.
The tenant, who is about 5’5″, said she stepped on a chair on her tiptoes to remove the cameras. If that was the case, it was simply physically impossible for my client to mount any cameras according to the tenant’s testimony.
On cross-examination, the tenant testified that the landlord did not use a ladder or chair to mount the cameras, and then later also testified that she removed the cameras when I asked if she brought any pictures of the cameras. It was complete rubbish, so no, there were never any cameras.
Numerous Failed Attempts Later
I was a family law paralegal and we had one case that was a total mess. It was clear from a week in that the mother’s only goal was to utterly destroy the father in any way she could. We wound up getting temporary custody for the father and actually went to trial because the mother refused to cooperate. The mother was representing herself so my boss said I could stop by and watch a bit for the experience and to satisfy my own curiosity.
The mother called co-workers of the father. I’m not sure why, but she asked a female co-worker, “Isn’t it true that you told (father) that you think I’m a nightmare?” My boss tried to object for relevance but it was too late. The witness looked the mother right in the eye and said, “Absolutely.”
Needless to say, we won that one for the father. It’s been ten years and the mother is still trying to get custody back. She hasn’t seen the kid since he was in diapers, but she just won’t let her revenge plot go.
There’s No One Quite Like Grandma
I was the prosecutor on a case a few years back with a real lack of physical evidence, so it was pretty much a “he said/she said.” The victim was to be my first witness during the trial. I prepped her the Friday before trial. One of my standard prep lines is, “Dress like you’re going to a job interview.” I wasn’t going to be able to see her the morning of trial before going on the record because she had a civil case in another branch during my jury selection.
Anyway, the case begins, finish voir dire and openings. I call her to the stand. She walks in with incredibly done-up braided hair, huge hoop earrings, shiny black leather high heeled knee-high boots, and a skin-tight shiny black leather dress that cut off a bit too far above mid-thigh. The moment she walked in the door, all three of my female jurors started covering their mouths and suppressing laughs. We lost the case at that moment.
I’ve since changed my line to: “Dress like you’re going to church with your judgmental grandmother.”
So They Noticed the Notice?
I was defending a tenant in an eviction case. At the close of my client’s testimony, I thought it would be good to at least offer her testimony about an improper motive for eviction. I asked her, “Why do you think the landlord wanted you out?” Objection, lay opinion, speculation, etc.—overruled—so I repeat the question and she answers by saying, “Um, because they gave me the notice to vacate?”
We all had a nice chuckle about that one, especially the opposing counsel, who had a very loud, hearty laugh while gauging the judge’s reaction.
The judge ruled in our favor in the end, but it was kind of a pyrrhic victory. Still, that’s what she wanted and I won her case—can’t feel too bad about that.
Money Down the Drain
In a divorce, the attorney asked her client if his wife dissipated marital assets during the marriage. He said, “Yeah, she claims $350 per month on hair care and nails. In 10 years, that’s wasteful dissipation.” I asked, given his $350,000 average income as a doctor, if it also wasteful dissipation to spend $5,000 on that toupee that sat on his head. He laughed and said, “I suppose it was.”
Those Mall Deals, Though
I had a client who physically assaulted a store clerk in a mall and the entire thing was caught on video. The client decides to plead guilty, so the only issue in court is sentencing. I argued for probation with a conditional discharge, meaning that if he finished his probation without any violations, he wouldn’t have a criminal record. The judge accepted my argument and was in the process of issuing that sentence. One of the conditions of probation the judge decided to impose was a restraining order with the mall so that my client wasn’t allowed to be in the mall until his probation was over.
While the judge is saying this, my client turns to me and starts complaining loudly; “What do you mean I can’t go to the mall?” The judge stops talking and starts yelling at my client, telling him that he could reject all my arguments and sentence him to jail. The client shut up very quickly after that, but later he had the audacity to try to argue my bill because I didn’t get him a good enough deal. Apparently, probation with no criminal record wasn’t good enough.
Can’t Find ‘Em
I had a case ready for trial. The prosecutor had two witnesses, one of whom was adamant that she didn’t remember anything. He still had the other, so he wasn’t going to dismiss, even though the victim didn’t want to go forward. Five minutes before trial, his other witness walked into court, looked right at my client, looked around a little more, and then said out loud, “Where is [client’s name]?” She was less than a foot from my client. Charges were dismissed as fast as the prosecutor could move.
Out in the Cold
Last week, I was doing a plea with a defendant for a really minor misdemeanor (just fines, no jail). I thought she was tipsy because her eyes couldn’t focus and she was slurring her words. I was a bit curt with her because of this, and because she seemed to be stalling to avoid sentencing. As the judge called on her to approach, she could sign something, so she started swaying. The bailiff and I lunged to catch her, and we had to call 911.
Turns out, she had walked five miles to the courthouse when it was 28 degrees Fahrenheit and windy. She was in the middle stages of hypothermia.
It’s All on Them Now
Robbery case set for trial. Not a good case on our side by any stretch, but we had a decent strategy. I’d spent hours prepping testimony with the client. The trial was about to start and the client suddenly gets cold feet. Says he isn’t testifying. Period. I spend the next two days trying a robbery case having to modify the defense case on the fly because my client was no longer testifying.
Putting Their Foot Down
I’d been up a long, long time preparing for this appellate hearing, and I had my lines of questioning all prepared, and one of them had to do with whether or not an officer had stuck her foot into a door in a given way. And so I ask, essentially, “Is it true that, after prior to affording appellant the opportunity to deny entry to his residence, you took a specific physical action that prevented him from denying entry to the residence and from there proceeded to enter it, but at that point it was an action you took to prevent him from denying access?”
I don’t remember the exact wording, but it was complete gibberish. After a moment of confused silence, the judge asked me “Counsel, are you asking if Detective X put her foot in the door?”
And I’m like, “…Yes, your honor.”
It wasn’t great. Reading the transcript was worse.
Who Says You Can’t Go Home?
It was a civil jury case where it was being decided whether my client had given a house to his girlfriend through a written or implied contract.
There was a typewritten document (unsigned) that the other side said the client gave to the girlfriend showing his intent to give her the house. The client was adamant to us that it was on his computer as a draft and that she’d gone into the computer and printed it out herself; he never gave it to her.
At the trial, when the opposing counsel asked it, he had given her the letter and said, “I might have… it’s possible, I’m not really sure.” The second he said it, I calmly wrote to co-counsel and said, “We’re screwed.” He responded with, “I know.”
There went the case and the $625,000 house.
Client blamed us of course.
Living a Lie
I’m a bankruptcy and foreclosure lawyer. In bankruptcy, you have a 341a meeting, where the trustee sits down with the debtor (the person who filed bankruptcy) and their lawyer if they are represented. They are asked questions about their property and their debts, and it’s under oath. Before you can even file, we sit down for a long meeting where we review every single thing you own and every asset you have so we can make sure everything is accurate. There shouldn’t be any surprises at these meetings.
At this particular meeting, the trustee asks the debtor if he has any other vehicles than the car he listed. He says no. The trustee then shows him a picture he printed from Google Maps showing a huge recreational vehicle parked outside his house and asks if this is his address, his house, his RV. The debtor says yes to all of them. I get angry because dude deliberately lied to me about this. He says he didn’t list it because he’s planning on selling it. The trustee makes him hand over the keys at the meeting to avoid repercussions.
Bankruptcy fraud is no joke.
Thanks for Nothing
I had a divorce client lie and start to throw me under the bus to a judge, saying I had never advised her regarding the effects of certain provisions in an agreement. We had discussed the particular provisions and their effects at least 20 times.
I interrupted my client and immediately asked for permission to withdraw from the case as I could not continue in the representation of a client that I knew was lying on the stand.