chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
December 03, 2012 Articles

Nailing Your Direct Examination

Successfully pulling off a compelling witness examination may require turning conventional wisdom on its head.

By Marsha Hunter

Direct examination is pivotal to the outcome of your trial. Your client's story unfolds on direct [examination], at the pace you desire, and with the characters you gather to tell it. Your witnesses get the chance to testify about the facts of your case. The substance of their answers, the relationship they develop with the fact finder, their credibility and demeanor—all can make or break a case. There is no shortage of war stories confirming it, no scarcity of articles and textbooks dissecting it.

Direct examination is also deceptively difficult. Far from being a natural activity, it is counterintuitive to ask questions to which you already know the answer, and only questions to which you already know the answer. Asking questions that hold no mystery can be dull for the examiner and sound boring to a jury. Instinct leads to formulating questions in an arbitrary fashion. Reading a scripted list of questions might seem like the safest path to a successful direct, but it leads to serious pitfalls: falling into an monotonous rut, asking every question with the “singsongy” (and boring) tone, and the most hazardous—failing to listen to the answers being given by your witness.

Teaching courtroom communication skills to practitioners, I have observed that direct examination poses a surprising number of challenges. At National Institute for Trial Advocacy (NITA) programs, the Department of Justice’s National Advocacy Center, and other learn-by-doing advocacy programs in the United States and overseas, I review hundreds of hours of performance video with lawyers every year. Judging from the errors I see, we do not have a systematic way of teaching the fundamentals of direct. We can improve the way we teach it.

In this article, I'll focus on two overarching demands of direct examinations: exuding the right attitude and asking the best questions. How do you bring the proper energy, authority, and confidence to the task, particularly as a woman commanding the courtroom? And how do you bypass the instincts of everyday speech in order to formulate the best questions? Having answers to these two questions will solve many of the difficulties of direct.

Bucking Protocol Let’s turn to the first challenge. What is your role on direct examination? Who are you during that phase of trial? The oft-repeated clichés are not very helpful. Chances are that you have heard advice to “Become wallpaper—disappear,” and “Make the witness the star.” On its face this advice seems logical. If the trial lawyer becomes less prominent, the focus will be on the witness, allowing him or her to be in the spotlight. To make the witness more important, the examiner fades away. The focus should be on the witness and the factual story she has to tell. But let’s think more closely about this concept of a disappearing act. Instructions to become wallpaper and disappear convey exactly the wrong instruction. How should a lawyer flatten out and vanish? What does she do with her body and voice to accomplish such a feat?

The only good answer is that she could stand out of view of the jury, at the end of the jury box, if the judge allows it. This can work well. Practically speaking, though, lawyers tend to take the advice at face value, leaning on the lectern, speaking too softly, reverting to the body language of a wallflower, and generally dialing back energy. Having faded into the woodwork as instructed, it becomes more difficult to make the witness a star. Listless delivery has drained the life out of the examination. How could asking questions with no energy make your witness a star?

In real life, what happens to people in the presence of a movie star or sports celebrity? They go wild. They wait hours in long lines for autographs. Fans have energy, focus, and attention. Stars create their own electricity. If you had Scarlett Johansson or Prince Harry on the stand, you’d be home free in the excitement department. You would have no trouble paying attention to them, and neither would the fact finder.

Of course, you don’t have celebrities on the stand. Most witnesses do not come close to having charismatic star quality, and I’m not suggesting that you manufacture fake energy to compensate. But it is up to you to make your witnesses shine like stars, to ask them the questions which make them at least a plausible featured actor. Watch them, listen intently, and move their story forward by using subtle commands. Actively throw your focus and energy on them. Be fully present and in control. Look and act curious, and help them through the experience.

Here's my suggestion for revised advice about direct: Be a combination of a gracious, sophisticated hostess (instead of wallpaper) and a first-rate film director (instead of an invisible zombie). During her years on the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor was a famous hostess who threw parties for the entire Court, creating and cementing relationships through socializing. In her retirement in Arizona, she is a champion of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, again highlighting opportunities for communication among adversaries. For adroit command of a courtroom, she is a great role model.

The first woman to be awarded an Academy Award for Best Director was Kathryn Bigelow, who won for the Iraq war thriller The Hurt Locker. Movie directors, besides being star makers, understand that featured actors are also important, helping to advance the plot during short, important scenes. Film directors like Bigelow know how to light a face, a room, or a street scene; where the dramatic pauses belong; and which memorable details put facts into focus. They hover over each scene, advancing the story moment by moment, or in film language, frame by frame. Thinking in stop-action baby steps, they meticulously compose their film as they capture the meaning of important details. Directors carefully control how the story advances—in what order and from which point of view. They are the big boss in charge on a movie set. They do not disappear or become wallpaper directing a star, and neither should you directing your witness. Your role, then, is to be in charge of the scene, guiding the story as it unfolds. When you think of the best of Justice O’Connor and Kathryn Bigelow, you combine precision and control, social poise and authority. You usher each new guest into the party, each new actor in the movie.

Use your body, brain, and voice to accomplish your goals. Set the tone by standing in a befriending posture with open arms, asking questions with smooth, relaxed gestures. Pay close attention to the witness as you help him or her fill in details. Among the attitudes you might choose for this job are reassuring, helpful, protective, encouraging, and professionally gracious. Each witness calls for something different, sometimes a softball question or occasionally even a skeptical tone. Make the same judgment Justice O’Connor or Kathryn Bigelow would make by asking what type of intervention each witness needs. Because you will be constantly throwing the focus back to the witness with each question or instruction, you won’t be inappropriately obtrusive. Never ask yourself how you could become invisible.

Moving on to our second challenge, how do Justice O’Connor and Bigelow create the perfect conversations and scripts? By using exactly the right words. The best hostesses know what to say because they have practiced the words of welcome and comfort, relationship and connection. Experienced directors know that a great script highlights details. There are, indeed, precise words to use on direct examination.

Come with me briefly, now, into the linguistic weeds. Direct is tricky because our language instinct leads us down the path of sloppy questions on the one hand and objectionable wording on the other. The improvisational (not reading!) approach I’m advocating requires you to be aware of your precise words at all times. Parsing the language of direct has a payoff, but it requires us to slow down while we analyze it.

Because there isn’t a universally accepted taxonomy (or classification into ordered categories) of direct examination questions, it isn’t obvious or easy to choose the right words. My personal survey of articles, textbooks, and lectures at a variety of trial-skills programs finds references to open-ended, closed-ended, leading, and nonleading questions; to the “good words” versus the “bad words” one should use; the problem of falling into the “did you” trap (called by one creative colleague “did-u-it is”); level one, two, and three questions; and the “W” or journalists’ words. While these ideas may be good rules of thumb, they are by no means universal, and several lack helpful descriptive labels.

Asking the Right Questions Questions—comprised of certain words—are the tools you need as a direct examiner. Different tools have different purposes. To take full advantage of all the tools at your disposal, each one needs an appropriate name. You cannot go rummaging around in a carpenter’s toolbox, looking for a “whatchamacallit” or a “doohickey” or that “thingamajig.” It is not enough to hunt for that pointed versus that nonpointed tool—just as it is not enough to think of questions as merely leading versus nonleading. If you need that pointed tool, meaning a screwdriver, you still need to specify if it is a Phillips or a flat-head end. Knowing the name of the tool and its specific use is essential, just as you need to know the names and the uses of your questions during direct.

In my proposed taxonomy of direct questions below, classifications are based on the answers they will elicit, not on the questions themselves. Assigning descriptive, self-evident names to each type of question makes them easier to remember and use.

1. Open-endedquestions begin with one of seven interrogative words: “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why,” “which,” and “how.” These are words that begin the classic journalist questions, opening up the widest possibilities for an answer. Hostess Justice O’Connor would be adept at asking questions that begin with these words. They draw people out. You may have favorites on this list, or hold an opinion that some are more useful than others. All have a place in your toolbox. Use them in questions such as:

Who attended the meeting?

What was the first sign you saw on the road that day?

When did you arrive?

Where was the red car in relationship to the white one?

Why did you keep the canisters in that room?

Which post office do you usually patronize?

How did the investigation begin?

2. Leading questions often begin with a noun or pronoun, especially with “you.” Leading questions are permissible and desirable, of course, in preliminary matters, in laying foundations, and in referring to facts not in dispute and developing the testimony of a witness. On direct, ask them with curious intonation that generally has an upward-ending inflection. They should sound different from leading questions on cross examination, which are usually spoken with the downward-ending prosody of a statement (and often more aggressively). Some examples:

Sir, you arrived at 3:45 p.m.?

Ms. Rodriguez, you usually shop at that grocery store, don’t you?

The weather was unusually cool for August?

You had forgotten to bring your phone?

3. Verb-start leading questions usually begin with simple past tense or past participles such as “did,” “could,” “would,” and “have.” These questions suggest the answer. They share the verbal music of curiosity with number two. They differ because they begin with verbs, and verbs can get you into trouble on direct. In everyday speech, we frequently ask questions that begin with verbs: “Did you eat breakfast?” or  “Did you go to that movie?” or  “Didn't you think it was funny?” Casual questions may seek an exchange or not—it depends on the moment. On direct examination, use these words with precision to avoid falling into the trap of using them because they trip easily off your tongue. The answers expected from verb-start leading questions are usually short, simply “yes” or “no.” Here are examples of leading questions that start with verbs:

Do you remember April 13, 2011?

Had the sun come up yet?

Did you arrive at 3:45?

Were you standing near the corner?

Could you see over the fence?

Verb-start leading questions advance testimony and are then often followed immediately by an open-ended question or a command.

4. Verb-start nonleading questions begin (similar to number three) with simple past tense or past participles such as “did,” “could,” “would,” and “have.” Again, do not begin a question with a verb unless you are paying attention to the reason for doing so! Verb-start nonleading questions are more open than number three, and allow a witness more latitude to elaborate:

Did you have a driver's license on November 4th, 2011?

Were you sure the master switch had been turned off?

Could you see anything through the smoke?

Had you ever been tubing on the Salt River before that day?

Was the body cold when you arrived?

5. Commands are words of instruction (verbs used with an object), most commonly describe, explain, and tell. Commands may also include words such as show, analyze, clarify, go back, and focus. Film director Kathryn Bigelow would be adept at issuing commands such as “Pause before you say the next line,” or “Stare out the window a few seconds longer.” On direct they control the pace of the examination, preventing a witness from telling too much of the story in one answer. Commands keep the testimony focused on one frame, one moment, at a time. In your role as the director who moves the camera, you may well use these more than any other type of question:

Describe the intersection in more detail, please.

Tell us what you mean by “shoved.”

Explain that formula for us.

Staying in the moment right before you heard the scream, which way were you facing?

Focusing on the moment the red car came around the corner, tell us exactly what you saw.

Let me stop you for just a moment. (Insert open-ended question or command.)

Let me slow you down here. (Insert open-ended question or command.)

Open-ended questions and commands will be your best tools on direct. Leading, verb-start leading, and verb-start nonleading questions will move your examination along smoothly, efficiently, and keep the focus on your witness. Channel the genuine curiosity of the jury, add directorial control, and you are free to think about the substance of your case. You now have the tools to nail your direct examination.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, direct examination, witness, trial, questioning