After four years of litigation on a case that involved parties from two different continents and more than 400 filings, I served on my first federal court jury trial team. The jury returned a take-nothing defense verdict in less than 10 minutes, absolving our client of all liability. There were five strategies that paved the way to a smooth and successful trial:
- Be Prepared and Be Organized
There’s an old legal joke that heaven and trial have one thing in common: Everybody wants to go—just not today. The night before trial, it is natural to feel there are not enough hours in the day. But you can be prepared to try the case by focusing on the story you want to tell and the evidence you need to tell that story. It’s really that simple. A key part of being prepared is being organized. We were able to stay organized by preparing exhibit notebooks and witness outlines well before trial and keeping track of the court’s evidentiary rulings during trial. I saw that being organized, somewhat unexpectedly, also helped us handle surprises by allowing us to have access to the information we needed when we needed it.
- It’s a Race to Credibility
Every attorney aims to be the person the judge trusts in the courtroom. The pretrial conference is an excellent opportunity to showcase your credibility and set the tone for trial. An attorney can gain credibility at the pretrial conference by raising disputed and legitimate limine items, stipulating to facts, and withdrawing unnecessary objections. Most importantly, however, an attorney should know the rules of evidence, which are the lifeblood for winning credibility with the court.
- Listen and Pay Attention
While televised legal dramas tend to glamorize grandstanding attorneys or powerful concessions (“You can’t handle the truth!”), I found that listening astutely and paying attention helped us win our most important victories. In one instance, the star witness of the opposing party opened the door to previously excluded evidence. We capitalized on the opposing party’s misstep simply because we had listened carefully. In another instance, we noticed that the star witness was surreptitiously reviewing attorney-prepared notes during his testimony. We brought the notes to the court’s attention, and the notes became a central theme at closing.
- Keep It Simple, Stupid
During trial, we made the decision to go low-tech by using the ELMO projector rather than the court’s state-of-the-art technology system. Our low-tech approach ultimately proved to be a sound decision because our attorneys could freely refer to critical documents during the witness examinations, creating fluidity during trial. On the other hand, the high-tech approach by our opposing counsel created an awkward, stilted presentation because they failed to sufficiently practice with the court’s technology in advance of trial.
- It’s Not Personal, It’s Just Business
A trial may be an emotional experience for the parties, but it doesn’t have to be an emotional experience for the attorneys. An attorney can be passionate about his or her case without spending sleepless nights fretting about the trial. Putting some emotional distance between us and the trial helped us better serve our clients and ultimately secure a favorable outcome.
Saba F. Syed is a litigation associate at Bell Nunnally in Dallas, Texas.
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