Reflections from Jeff
A long time ago, when I started practicing law, visual exhibits at trial consisted of manually prepared poster boards brought into the courtroom and changed as necessary throughout the trial. It was an inefficient, time-consuming, and annoying process, but it was the only way to show visual displays to the court and the jury. Fast-forward to today. The staggering evolution of technology now makes the creation of many visuals easy and efficient on a computer, and the presentation generally runs through a digital projector to a large screen or several smaller monitors. As an aside, today’s visuals are better, clearer, sharper, and easier for both judge and jury to read and understand than most I used or saw used by others when I was a young trial lawyer.
I was fortunate in that I won my first two jury trials (one representing the plaintiff and the second as counsel for the defendants). At the conclusion of the first jury trial, the judge exercised his discretion to allow the attorneys a short period of time to ask the jurors questions. The first questions I asked: What could we have done better? What could we have done to make your job easier? Several of the jurors mentioned that a timeline would have helped them understand the case more easily and faster. Once the topic came up, it appeared that all the jurors climbed on that bandwagon.
I took note of what they said and promptly ignored it for my second jury trial. That judge also allowed counsel to ask the jury questions. I asked the same two questions, and, once again, the jury said a timeline would have helped them.
At this point in my career, every jury to which I tried a case told me to create a timeline. I finally got the message. In my next jury trial and every other trial I had, including court trials, I created a timeline. Over the years, I have had several juries and a number of judges tell me that it helped them understand the case.
As I thought about using the timeline, I concluded that I should have figured it out intuitively and kicked myself for not listening more carefully to the first jury. Think about what you do when you get a case and when you present it. If you work like I do, you will create a timeline for yourself to help you understand what happens. Even if you don’t do it as the first thing in your preparation, most of you will likely do it at some point. If you don’t, give it a try; you might just find it as helpful to you as the jury and judge did in my third trial—and in all my trials since.
The adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words” (and maybe more) comes to mind in deciding what visuals to use at trial in addition to the timeline. In my experience, a well-prepared graphic has the power to captivate and persuade jurors in ways that words alone cannot. Visuals can create a sense of connection with the material presented.
Tip 1. Use Timelines to Help Yourself
Create a timeline for your own use in understanding the events of your case. You can refine the timeline as the case develops and you learn more information, ultimately crafting it into the version you will use at trial.
Tip 2. Choose Your Graphics Carefully
Use judicious discretion in deciding what graphics you present to the judge and jury. You don’t want to confuse or overwhelm the jury with an excessive number of non-critical and questionably useful visuals. But, as noted above, always include a well-prepared timeline in the presentation of your case. You can easily create your timeline using Microsoft’s Word, PowerPoint, or Excel programs (or programs that function similarly). If you use Microsoft programs, take a look at the Smart Art features. They can prove very helpful. You might also want to check out Office Timeline, a third-party add-on to PowerPoint. You can find templates for timelines fairly easily online. You can also acquire dedicated software that helps you create timelines.
Tip 3. Select an Appropriate Format for Your Timeline
Timelines can assume many different forms and appearances. Carefully consider which works best for your case and the fact situation it presents. Having any sort of accurate timeline beats having none, but presenting an accurate and visually attractive timeline in an easily comprehensible form wins the prize.
Tip 4. Get the Most Bang from Your Visuals
You can easily create your own timeline and other visuals. While some attorneys have a flare for this type of work, many, if not most, do not. As a result, the graphics they create may prove functional but not as effective as desired. Consider working with professionals in visual communication. Graphic designers and illustrators can help transform complex concepts into compelling visuals that resonate with jurors. Moreover, collaborating with experts can help ensure that your visuals adhere to professional standards and accurately convey information.
Tip 5. Beware the Jabberwock
Using graphics in trial has proven itself effective. You must, however, take care to approach the process ethically and judiciously. Ensure that your graphics consist entirely of accurate representations of the evidence. Misleading or manipulative visuals can damage your case’s and your own credibility, potentially put your license at risk, and ultimately undermine the legal system’s integrity.
Bonus Tip. The Devil Lies in the Details
Having the best possible visuals on a flash drive or your laptop or tablet when you walk into the courtroom does you absolutely no good if you don’t have a way to present them to the judge and jury. Before the trial starts, you should find out what, if anything, the court makes available by way of presentation technology. If the court provides what you need, make sure you have the proper cables to connect to it (assuming it requires cables) or the ability to connect wirelessly to it, if that’s how it runs. If the court makes nothing available (some still do not) or does not make what you want available, you have the burden of arranging to supply what you need. Before you bring that equipment to court, you should inquire of the court what you can bring in and use for the trial. Know that the burden of supplying all equipment that you want but that the court does not offer rests with you. By working with opposing counsel, you may reach an agreement to share costs for supplying presentation technology that both sides will use.
As technology has evolved, so has the manner by which most people receive news and other information. Those same people, when serving as jurors, bring with them to the court certain expectations based on their life experiences. More and more jurors come to the court used to receiving their information visually. As trial lawyers, we need to take notice of the shifting paradigm and adjust what we do to meet the jurors’ expectations. The proper and effective use of visuals and timelines helps you satisfy the jurors’ expectations and presents your information to the jurors (and the judge) in a form to which they have grown accustomed. Never forget that a successful trial attorney molds his or her presentation to make the jury feel comfortable with it. Expecting the jury to adjust to you will, more likely than not, generate unhappy results.