Preparing for Your First Trial

Paige M. Willan
Tips for your first trial—the one you'll remember and tell stories about for the rest of your life.

Tips for your first trial—the one you'll remember and tell stories about for the rest of your life.

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Working on your first trial as a new lawyer can be exciting, nerve-wracking, and exhausting. Whether the trial will last for one day or for several months, and whether you will be one part of a large trial team or going it solo, this trial will be one that you remember and tell stories about for the rest of your life. If you are taking the lead on the trial, TYL and the American Bar Association, along with your local and state bar association, have incredible resources to help you plan and prepare for developing a trial strategy, examining witnesses, and making closing and opening arguments. But for many new associates, most of the work you will do on your first trial likely will involve exercising skills other than those required of lead trial counsel. This article offers tips for mastering some mundane details a new associate preparing for her first trial will need to navigate. Believe it or not, those details can have a significant positive impact on the success of your first trial.

Love Your Support Staff

Your experienced paralegal, assistant, translator, IT support staff, and trial presentation professionals are your best friends. Those people may have assisted with the preparation for more trials than you will see in the first decade of your career. Treat them with the respect they deserve and listen to their guidance. Generally, those people are experts at their jobs, and they want to help you to be good at yours. You can shine in your own role by listening to their advice and accepting their help.

Manage the Paper

Any trial, particularly one involving multiple witnesses and multiple days, generates inordinate amounts of paper. If you are the most junior member of your team, each piece of evidence or written argument should be at your fingertips and available at a moment’s notice. Below are some tips for managing that task.

Eliminate as much paper as possible. Prepare for the trial using electronic documents until it is absolutely necessary to convert them to paper. Strategies, organization, and even the content of some documents change in the last few days and weeks leading up to trial. Be ready to have a clean, perfect, and well-organized paper copy of everything by waiting until the last reasonable minute to prepare the hard copy, and making necessary changes in an electronic version. Create and update electronic versions of key documents during the course of the trial, to ensure that any paper copies you create or attach to filings are always the correct versions. This strategy will reduce confusion and will save you and your client money.

Develop an organizational system that works for your team. Each attorney and each case needs a different organizational structure to have necessary materials easily available at trial. Sometimes organizing exhibits in binders by witness or by subject matter can quickly help you find what you need. At other times, one copy organized by exhibit number will suffice. Have a conversation with the other attorneys in your trial team and prepare your strategy for organizing paper copies of materials well before you set foot in the courtroom. Did a discovery dispute occur in the case that may impact the presentation of evidence at trial? If so, you may want to have on hand paper copies of key pieces of correspondence. Did background research on the opposing side’s star witness reveal impeachment material? Perhaps you need a binder or folder of materials dedicated just to impeaching that witness. Thinking through key issues and sub-issues will help you develop an organizational system that will leave all necessary documents right at your fingertips.

Remember that versions matter. Before using any document, double-check that you have the correct version. After trial begins, you will want to be using the versions of key documents that have already been marked as exhibits in the trial and admitted into evidence. Before the trial begins, you likely want to use versions of documents that were marked as exhibits in key depositions, and you may need to use versions that have been pre-marked and exchanged with your opponent or submitted to the court as a pretrial submission. Destroy all paper copies of versions that have become irrelevant. If a senior attorney barks at you to get her the agreement of sale that is at the heart of the case, do not just grab the first version that comes to your hand, unless you have ensured that you have readily available the proper version of that document.

Master the rules of authentication. The lead counsel trying any case will have a lot on her mind. As a new attorney, one thing you can master and manage is preparing the proper materials to authenticate documents that will be used at trial. For example, if government records will be used, you may need to get a certification that the record is authentic from a state or federal court or agency. If the original document is in a foreign language, you probably will need a certified translation. Rules for the certification of translations, for example, will differ in different venues. The lead trial attorney likely will not be focusing on certifications for translated documents, but forgetting things like a certification can cause big problems unless they are prepared in advance. Make everything go smoothly by considering what materials you need to gather to authenticate documents well in advance of trial, and ensure that you have those materials prepared before any pretrial submissions are due.

Get Everything and Everyone to the Courthouse on Time and Looking Their Best

On trial days, little things can make a big difference. From quarters to cuticles, have these details lined up and polished to make a good impression not only on the senior members of your trial team but also on the decision maker.

Appearance matters in a courtroom. When the trial finally arrives, you may be very tired. You probably spent the last several weeks or months working hard to get ready. Do not wake up on the morning of the first day of trial only to find that your best suit is in a ball at the bottom of your closet. Do not show up at the courthouse on the morning of trial, look down at your hands, and realize that your nails look like a wreck. Take the time prior to trial to make sure that you are prepared to look professional.

Little things can make a difference. There are easy ways to be a hero on a trial team, especially at the courthouse. Lead counsel unexpectedly needs copies of a document to use with a witness? You know where to find the copier in the courthouse and you have a roll of quarters. An important client’s mobile died, and she needs to make a call? You have a charger or can get one to the courthouse in a hurry. Little opportunities can make a new lawyer shine. To prepare for the little things, research the layout of the courtroom and the courthouse before trial. Visit if possible. Have change, transit tickets, cash, important phone numbers, chargers, tissues, and mints at hand. Think about eventualities I have not described in this paragraph and prepare for them. As I stressed before, lead counsel will be busy. You make sure that everything goes smoothly as possible, and you will add true value to your first trial team.

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Paige M. Willan

Paige M. Willan practices commercial litigation with Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg LLP in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.