There may be no more stressful time in the legal profession than in the last few weeks leading up to trial. In movies and on television, the attorneys get all the glory when it comes to handling a trial. In truth, however, paralegals are downright indispensable in trial preparation.
Whether you’re relatively new to trial work or have years of experience, here are some of the top tips for ensuring that your team has the very best shot at success:
#1: Own the calendar
One of the most harrowing things about trial preparation is keeping track of all the deadlines. You have to think about jury instructions, motions in limine, trial briefs, expert reports, voir dire, and about a million other things.
The attorneys are going to be too worried about substantive projects such as opening statements and witness preparation. They need you to worry about details like calendaring. Thus, you will prove yourself a critical part of the team if you’re the one who makes sure everything gets done, filed, and delivered on time.
If you don’t already have one, it’s a good idea to pick up a “100 days to trial” resource like this one published by the Superior Court of California. Of course, you also need to consult your state’s rules of procedure, local rules, and any standing trial orders issued by your judge.
#2: Be an exhibit wizard
Trial exhibits can take many forms. Depending on the type of case, your team might be presenting documents, photographs, or even physical objects. As the paralegal, it will likely fall on you to organize all the exhibits and prepare them for optimal presentation to the jury.
In a document-intensive case, for example, you might prepare document binders that are tabbed and organized by topic, originator, or date. You’ll also need to be up to date on the latest trial technology, verify that your courtroom allows for its use, and upload exhibits for presentation.
Of course, you’ll also want to take several practices runs with that technology given that technical glitches mid-trial are every legal professional’s worst nightmare.
#3: Become a local expert
We mentioned this item briefly above but it is important enough to bear repeating. Well prior to the trial date, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the local rules, local-local rules, and any standing orders from your trial judge regarding procedure, deadlines, court demeanor, etc. Nothing will anger a judge faster than a party’s failure to adhere to published rules. In fact, ignoring the local rules can not only be an embarrassment to the litigants and the trial teams, but it can also impact the outcome of the case.
Additionally, the paralegal should pull a copy of the trial judge’s profile and try to find prior rulings from that judge on issues that will be litigated in your case. If you have time, it can also be useful to have a member of your team sit through a couple of trials presided over by your trial judge. Take notes of things that may help your team.
For example, do frequent objections tend to anger the judge or does she decide each one on the merits? What is her general demeanor toward attorneys? Did you see her get irritated at any point? What caused that? These sorts of “inside tips” can help your team earn quick points with the judge that may help your client’s case.
On a lighter note, the paralegal can also add great value to the team by simply becoming familiar with the area around the courthouse. This is particularly true when your team is litigating a case far from home. Knowing things like the location of restaurants, copy centers, and coffee shops can be invaluable for an exhausted trial team.
#4: Understand what you’re getting into
If you haven’t been to trial yet, it’s a good idea for you to read up on what you’re getting into. Trials are very stressful events. The clients are worried, the attorneys are feeling rushed, and the whole team is generally filled with anxiety.
In light of all this, some pretty awful things can happen in the days leading up to trial. Tempers may flare, feelings may get hurt, and competency may be questioned (often for no good reason other than exhaustion). As long as you understand the group dynamics that may arise within your trial team, you’ll have a good chance of coming out unscathed.
#5: Offer to “play juror”
At the end of the day, what’s going to matter most when you’re actually in trial are the presentations given by the attorneys and witnesses. In order to “get good” at what they need to do in the courtroom, they’re going to need to practice…and practice again…and practice again.
Offer to be a mock juror for your attorneys. Listen to their presentations and take notes on things you didn’t understand, phrases they repeated too much (um…), and even their body language. This sort of critical feedback can be the difference between having a winning trial presentation and, well, the opposite of that.
Do you have any tried and true trial preparation tips for paralegals? If so, we’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.