Nothing makes me want to punch a book in the face more than a legal scene where one lawyer calls another "counselor." I don't care what you've seen on Law & Order, we don't talk like that . . . EVER!
As a lawyer, here are my top five pet peeves when it comes to reading fiction dealing with the courtroom:
1. The Rocket Docket
Cases take years to go to resolve. Years. YEARS. I stop reading any story where someone walks into a lawyer's office seeking representation and then is in trial a few weeks later. I'm not saying it is impossible, because there are certain types of cases where that can happen (so do your research), but as a general rule, the wheels of justice move at a glacial pace.
2. The Eleventh Hour Smoking Gun Document or Witness
As a general rule, witness and exhibit lists are filed well in advance of trial, and what is contained on them is often limited by information that has been previously exchanged and/or disclosed among the parties. It is rare that a judge will allow a witness or document not previously disclosed to be used at trial.
3. Hissy Fits in Court
If a lawyer grandstands or goes on a screaming tirade in a court room while examining a witness, he or she is going to get a knot yanked in his or her neck by the judge. Lawyers are expected to behave professionally in court. The judge will not let a lawyer get in a witness's face. A jury is supposed to base its decision on the facts, not passion or prejudice. A judge will do a lot more than pound a gavel if a lawyer starts peacocking around the courtroom. Someone is going to be paying sanctions/a fine and may find himself or herself in custody of a marshal or bailiff.
4. Lawyer in a Big Firm Handling a Small Case
Big firms have big overhead. While lawyers in those firms can do some pro bono work, they also have a certain number of billable hours they have to meet to generate the necessary revenue for the firm to pay its rent, make payroll, etc. Practicing law isn't cheap. Lawyers have high hourly rates, and those rates typically increase based on the size of the firm and the size of the city in which the lawyer practices. A lawyer is not going to be working on a case that will generate a fee that results in the firm taking a loss. Doing so will drag the firm under (on a side note, when I took a class on class action litigation in law school, our professor had us read A CIVIL ACTION to learn the real moral of the story - one case can bankrupt a law firm).
5. Procedural and Evidence Mistakes
If you are going to have a courtroom scene, research it. Audit a class on evidence, civil procedure and/or criminal procedure. There are rules about what can and can't happen in a courtroom. There are rules about what can and can't be presented to a jury. Random misplaced objections and cases being heard in the wrong type of court are common mistakes in fiction, and they alienate people familiar with the legal community.
If you want to avoid drawing objections to your legal writing, be sure to attend my workshop (Law and Order for the Writer: Avoiding Objections to Your Legal Writing) at the RWA National convention in New York. My workshop will be Thursday, July 23 at 12:45: https://www.rwa.org/p/cm/ld/fid=1051
Do you have a professional mistake that drives you nuts (don't get my mother-in-law started on medical dramas)? I would love to hear it. Do you have any questions about writing legal scenes? I'm happy to help.