Category Archives: Direct examination
Readying Your Experts for Traps and Tough Questions
Depositions are dangerous time for your expert. Dangerous traps lies just around the corner. You cannot relax. Here are some thoughts on this important topic.
1. Tendencies of your expert: If you can obtain and read past depositions of your
expert to see not only what type of questions are asked but how he reacts. Does he ramble or
argue? Does he fail to listen to the question or dodge it? Is he argumentative or polite and
professional? You may want to run through some questions, especially problems so your expert
is ready to address them. If the expert is new to the practice, I would video tape the questioning
so the expert can see how he reacts objectively evaluate his performance.
2. Do not hide bad evidence from your expert, deal with it. If you hide bad
evidence from your expert, you will expose your expert to potential embarrassment. He may
even be force to abandon your side of the case because he was not prepared for what was coming
and unwittingly made imprudent concessions earlier in the deposition.
3. What does the expert consider authoritative as a learned treatise? This will
be asked. How will he answer the question? If at all possible, avoid doing the deposition in the expert’s office. It will only provide bookshelves full of ideas for authoritative materials to ask
and cross examine your expert about at trial
4. Screen your expert. Make sure you have already screened your expert’s curriculum vita in
advance for any bluster or bull not supported by the facts. Hopefully, this was done before you ever hired your expert.
5. Obtain Historical Medical Records. The prior medical history of a Plaintiff can
seriously undermine a case’s value and the client’s credibility. It is important to obtain all significant prior medical history from a client. If you don’t, the defense attorney will. Without a full medical history, a client is prone to make misstatements and create fertile ground for purposes of impeachment at the time of trial. Likewise, expert witnesses will be unable to address and deal with any potential weaknesses you might have as a result of any pre-existing medical condition or prior injury. While it is tempting to limit your pretrial production of records to those postdating the injury, it is better to do the investigation yourself ahead of time.
6. Prepare a Medical Chronology – A detailed medical chronology prepared ahead
of their deposition, will give you a means to identify and refresh the expert’s memory regarding past illnesses and injuries, and avoid making misstatements at the time of the deposition, or worse, at the time of trial. In addition, by reviewing the past medical chronology with your expert, you can address responses to the resolution of prior symptoms and/or problems.
7. Prior Lawsuits and Claims – It is important to promptly identify any prior
litigation your expert may have been involved in as either a litigant or as a witness. The prior proceedings can create a ready resource of impeachment through the use of pleadings, discovery responses and depositions. Failure to identify such easily verifiable information can also make it appear as if your expert is a liar. The prior litigation also provides background information on your expert that could lead to surprises.
8. Compound Questions – Compound questions are questions, which incorporate two questions in one. They are very deceptive and dangerous because a yes or no answer can be interpreted as an affirmative response to the underlying predicate. For example, “Do you beat your wife only on Tuesdays and Thursdays?” is actually two questions in one. The first question is, “Do you beat your wife?” and if yes, is it only on Tuesdays and Thursdays? Make sure your expert can identify an undisclosed predicate to a question which makes it compound in case you fail to object.
9. Summary Questions – Another classic approach to the compound question is to
summarize an expert’s prior testimony, and then ask at the tail end a yes or no question. Experts often focus only on the yes or no question, and forget that by answering the question without objection or clarification they are affirming the entire scenario outlined in the question. While you, as an attorney, should object to such questions, it is important to educate the expert on these problems as well, in case you fall asleep at the switch.
10. Box Questions – Questions in Absolute Terms – Questions cast in absolute
terms can also be a problem. Opposing counsel wants to limit your expert’s basis for his opinions and show that he overlooked or ignored some important facts. If he is attempting to exhaust your
expert’s knowledge of the facts on a topic, your expert should indicate “that is all I can recall at
this time.” This leaves an opening to refresh your expert’s memory and supplement or correct the answer through the errata sheet. Whenever an attorney uses such terms as, “Do you always” or, “Have you never,” they are attempting to lock your expert in absolute terms. There is nothing wrong with being absolutely sure, you just want to make sure that that is, in fact, the case. If there are exceptions, then the expert needs to avoid answering such questions in the affirmative. On the other hand, defense attorneys will use such absolute terms as a means of unnerving an expert and backing them off of their testimony. The point is, make sure if you answer in absolute terms, that you’re absolutely correct.
11. Milk-Toast Answers – The flip side of this is to water down answers with
qualifiers such as, “I think,” “I believe,” or, “In my opinion,” when you actually know the facts. Make sure your expert avoids using such terminology. It is better to indicate that you don’t know or recall than to guess or speculate. Once again, the primary rule is to answer truthfully and accurately.
12. Do not exaggerate – Don’t take a good case, try to make it a great case, and turn
it into a bad case. Do not be an advocate. Be an expert.
13. Remember you are a professional. Don’t respond in kind to impolite or rude
comments by opposing counsel. The only thing a witness has absolute control over is their behavior and demeanor. By emphasizing this point with your expert, you can both empower and relax them. No matter how rude or aggressive the other attorney is, it’s important for the expert to remain calm and composed. By doing this, the deposition will typically be shorter. When an opposing attorney senses he has drawn blood, he will simply bore in with more of the same. An expert can tactically overcome this by simply remaining calm. Likewise, the expert needs to be cautioned to avoid any sarcasm or insincere solicitous comments.
14. Identify and explain what items which are privileged – Another classic
question to unnerve a witness t that attorneys will often use is, “Have you talked too anybody about this case?” Sometimes, a witness will think that they’ve done something wrong by discussing their testimony in advance. The expert should be put at ease that there is nothing wrong with preparing for their deposition or meeting with you in advance. In fact, most jurors expect attorneys to meet with their witnesses, in order to properly prepare for trial or a deposition. Discussions with counsel are privileged as work product because they are communication with counsel. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(b)(4)(C). If the question is posed by opposing counsel and you fall asleep at the switch, you want to make sure that your expert seeks a clarification as to whether the attorney is, “Asking for information discussed with counsel.” If your expert has discussed the case with other persons, you want to identify this well in advance of the deposition. Some experts, especially teaching experts, will discuss pending cases during their lectures. I can recall one case where this occurred and the expert was impeached at trial with tape recordings of his lecture with devastating effect. Loose lips sink both ships and cases.
15. Review all evidentiary foundations – You should review the appropriate
foundational requirements for the admission of any records, tests, or other analysis which is not stipulated to by the opposing party. Remember under Rule of Evidence 703, your expert can
consider matters outside the evidentiary record at trial in reaching his opinion.
16. Standard of proof or level of confidence required – this distinction has
somewhat dissipated. However, a number of judges are still requiring use of the magic words.
Typically at the beginning it make sense to asked that you expert give his opinion in the case
based upon a reasonable degree of medical or scientific probability unless instructed otherwise.
Caution your expert to avoid using the phrase “possible” since it is legally meaningless.
17. Reliance on materials outside of the court record. The facts or data in the particular case upon which an expert bases an opinion or inference may be those perceived by or
made known to the expert at or before the hearing. Experts may testify to opinions based on inadmissible evidence, provided that it is of the type reasonably relied upon by experts in the
field. Federal Rule of Evidence 703. Typically, I would ask the expert ‘if in reaching his opinions and conclusions in this case, did he use only materials reasonably relied upon by persons in his field?
18. The Subpoena Duces Tecum Trap – Make sure any subpoena is dealt with well
in advance of the deposition. You should personally review with your expert all items sought
and insure nothing is “lost” or destroyed which is in existence at the time the subpoena is issued.
A privilege log should be prepared for any items withheld and a motion for protective order
sought if agreement cannot be reached on how to handle the subpoena. Blanket claims of privilege are not favored. The party seeking to avoid discovery has the burden of establishing the
essential elements of the privilege being invoked. United States v. Lawless, 709 F.2d 485, 487(7th Cir.1983). The claim of privilege must be made and sustained on a question-by-question
or document-by-document basis. Id., citing United States v. First State Bank, 691 F.2d 332, 335(7th Cir.1982); Matter of Walsh, 623 F.2d 489, 493 (7th Cir.1980), cert. denied, 449 U.S.
994, 101 S.Ct. 531, 66 L.Ed.2d 291. Spoliation of evidence by your expert in response to a subpoena can lead to sanctions, a contempt citation and an adverse instruction to the jury. Spesco, Inc. v. General Elec. Co., 719 F.2d 233, 239 (7th Cir. 1983); see also Adkins v. Mid- America Growers, Inc., 141 F.R.D. 466, 473 (N.D. Ill. 1992) (“In cases where evidence has been
intentionally destroyed, it may be presumed that the materials were relevant.”).
19. Give the shortest accurate answer… Remember a deposition is not a
conversation – The purpose of a discovery deposition is to learn as much as one can about the
opposing expert. When answering a question give the shortest accurate answer. Explain only
when asked. Do not ramble. Repeat after me: A deposition is not a conversation. A deposition
is not a conversation. A deposition is not a conversation!
Run through these points with your expert so he can avoids the “traps” of litigation and not end up stuck in the “sand.”
Getting Your Expert Ready for Court – How to Play the Course and Avoid the Rough.
What does an Expert Witness Needs to Know About Court Proceedings? Here are some thoughts to keep you expert out of the rough:
1. Review all evidentiary foundations. You should review the appropriate
foundational requirements for the admission of any records, tests, or other analysis which is not
stipulated to by the opposing party. Remember under Rule of Evidence 703, your expert can
consider matters outside the evidentiary record at trial in reaching his opinion.
2. Standard of proof or level of confidence required. This distinction has
somewhat dissipated. However, a number of judges still require the use of the “magic words.”
Typically, at the beginning, it makes sense to ask that your expert give his opinion in the case
based upon a reasonable degree of medical or scientific probability unless instructed otherwise.
Caution your expert to avoid using the phrase “possible” since it is legally meaningless.
3. Reliance on materials outside of the court record. The facts or data in the
particular case upon which an expert bases an opinion or inference may be those perceived by or
made known to the expert at or before the hearing. Experts may testify to opinions based on
inadmissible evidence, provided that it is of the type reasonably relied upon by experts in the
field. Federal Rule of Evidence 703. Typically, I would ask the expert ‘If in reaching his opinions and conclusions in this case, did he use only materials reasonably relied upon by persons in his field?
4. Role as an educator/not an advocate. KISS—Keep it simple, stupid! Avoid
technical terms. Use models or diagrams whenever possible. Above all, make it interesting! The expert should be enlightening, not boring! In this regard, less is more. Get to the point early. The expert needs to be an educator, not an advocate. That’s your job.
5. Professional demeanor. Make sure your expert has the knowledge and control
to avoiding taking the bait! No matter how the opposing attorney acts, your expert must stay
polite and professional. Avoid sarcasm or insults. Credibility will ultimately be lost.
6. Review of demonstrative evidence. If you are going to use charts, models or
diagrams, make sure they are properly disclosed in advance, and if possible included with your
expert’s report. Likewise, summaries under Rule 1006 need to be produced in advance.
7. In court demonstrations or “experiments”. Make sure you practice them and
they will definitely work. You don’t want to hear, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
8. Review prior materials for any mistakes or errors. Look one last time for
problems. Deal with any mistakes or error on direct, and deal with any shortcomings honestly.
You will gain credibility and avoid the sting of these topics on cross-examination.
9. Absent Subpoena Duces Tecum, limit materials brought to court. Bring only
those items which have previously been produced. Be ready to answer questions regarding
compensation paid, and hours of work spent. Remind your expert that he is paid for his time, not
10. Contrast and compare expert’s qualifications with those of any opposing
expert. Show what he brings to the table that the other expert is missing, whether it is in the way
of experience, time spent, or knowledge. Show the jury why your expert is the better guide.
11. Cover adequacy of facts included in any hypothetical questions. If you plan
or may ask a hypothetical question, make sure you review the relevant factors in advance of trial
with your expert so you are both on the same page. Write out your question so you are
consistent in the way you ask it.
12. Likely tactics of opposing counsel. Know your opponent. In the seminal book, “
The Art of War” Sun Tzu advises:
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the
result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Ask around and learn your opponent as well as yourself and your own case, and you, too, will
have nothing to fear.
Top Mistakes in Choosing Experts
Here they are…
1. Hiring an expert too late. Experts can be helpful and sometimes essential in
properly investigating and evaluating a case. They can provide guidance in drafting discovery requests and determining whether information has been overlooked, withheld or lost. They are also invaluable in assisting in deposition preparation and questioning of the opposing expert.
2. Being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Do not save pennies and shortcut what
needs to be done at the cost of your case! Go through the cost and benefits of what needs to been
done early on and decide whether it makes sense to pursue your case through trial. For example,
product liability cases and medical malpractice cases are very expensive to litigate. By getting an expert involved early on, you can assess whether the case merits the time and money required
to be successful. If you defer expert involvement, you may well incur expenses and invest time that was better spent on another case.
3. Obtaining the wrong type of expert. Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight! Make sure you understand the science and technical issues well enough to properly select and screen your expert.
4. Hiring an inexperienced expert. Experience in the courtroom matters. It holds true for attorneys and experts alike. Get an expert who “has been there and done that.” This is not the place to cut costs!
5. Failing to check an expert’s background. You know your opponent will do so,
so why wouldn’t you check your expert’s background? It’s cheaper to check out your expert
than to have to pay for two experts or lose your case because of problems which could have been
6. Buying a Volkswagen when you need a Mercedes. Get the person who fits the
job, not just your budget! As a Plaintiff’s attorney you will lose your case, disappoint a client
and cost yourself money which you can never recover. As a defense attorney, you risk losing a case and a book of business. If the insurer does want to do it right, then they better be ready to pay, or overpay the claim.
7. Forgetting that “Garbage in equals garbage out”. You must provide your
expert with solid evidentiary material or rock solid assumptions if he is opining on ahypotheticalquestion. If your incoming information is not reliable or ascertainable, you are lost from the
8. Failing to educate yourself. You cannot hire the right expert if you don’t
understand the area of expertise involved. One excellent source to check is the Reference
Manual on Scientific Evidence 3rd Edition published by the Federal Judicial Center, which
covers all of the common areas of forensic and scientific analysis that usually arise in civil or
criminal litigation. Here is the link:
Click to access SciMan3D01.pdf
9. Underestimating the value of a good communicator. First and foremost, your
expert must be a good communicator and educator. No one will care how smart he is unless they
can understand and connect with him as a person. He has to be interesting and make the jury
want to lean forward and learn more – not take a nap! As Theodore Roosevelt quipped, “No one
cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
10. Lacking clarity on the issue in dispute and the theme of your case. What is your case’s theme? How does your expert move your case forward? Can you phrase the
technical issues so they meld with your broader themes in the case? Don’t forget the forest for
Proper Objections at Your Expert’s Deposition
Palais de justice historique de Lyon, France
Objections should be kept to a minimum. The Rules contemplate that
objections should be concise and afford the examiner the opportunity to cure the objection. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 30(c)(2) (noting that “objection[s] must be stated concisely”); id., Advisory
Committee Notes (1993 Amendments) (noting that “[d]epositions frequently have been unduly prolonged . . . By lengthy objections and colloquy” and that objections “ordinarily should be limited to those . . . grounds that might be immediately obviated, removed, or cured, such as to
the form of a question”). Rule 30(c)(2) provides:
Objections. An objection at the time of the examination—whether
to evidence, to a party’s conduct, to the officer’s qualifications, to the manner of taking the deposition, or to any other aspect of the deposition—must be noted on the record, but the examination still proceeds; the testimony is taken subject to any objection. An objection must be stated concisely in a nonargumentative and nonsuggestive manner. A person may instruct a deponent not to answer only when necessary to preserve a privilege, to enforce a limitation ordered by the court, or to present a motion under Rule 30(d)(3).
The Notes to the Advisory Committee for the Amendments of 1993 state that “[w]hile objections
may, under the revised rule, be made during a deposition, they ordinarily should be limited to
those that under Rule 32(d)(3) might be waived if not made at that time, i.e., objections on
grounds that might be immediately obviated, removed, or cured, such as to the form of a question or the responsiveness of an answer.” Rule 32(d)(3)(A) & (B) state specifically which objections must be made or waived:
(A) Objection to Competence, Relevance, or Materiality. An
objection to a deponent’s competence—or to the competence, relevance, or materiality of testimony—is not waived by a failure to make the objection before or during the deposition, unless the ground for it might have been corrected at that time.
(B) Objection to an Error or Irregularity. An objection to an error
or irregularity at an oral examination is waived if:
(i) it relates to the manner of taking the deposition, the form of a
question or answer, the oath or affirmation, a party’s conduct, or other matters that might have been corrected at that time; and
(ii) it is not timely made during the deposition. [Emphasis Added].
The Rules should be abided by during the course of the deposition.
Form objections. While unspecified “form” objections are certainly concise, they
do nothing to alert the examiner to a question’s alleged defect. Because they lack specificity, “
form” objections do not allow the examiner to immediately cure the objection.
Permissible objections. If an objection could have been obviated at the time of
the deposition and it is not made, it is deemed waived. The only objection you should make are “insufficient foundation”, “compound”, “argumentative”, “asked and answered,” and “work
product privilege” or “attorney client privilege.” All other objections are available and can be
raised at a later time.
Below is a list of potentially impermissible objections (check your jurisdiction):
1. Speaking Objections. Speaking objections are not allowed and can draw
sanctions. Your objection needs to be short and concise.
2. No right to consultation. A witness has no constitutional right to consultation
while testifying. Perry v Leake, 488 US 272 (1989).
3. Recesses. It has been held a deponent has no right to consultation during
depositions and during recesses. Hall v Clifton Precision, 150 F.D.R. 525 (E.D. Penn. 1993).
4. Communications during recesses. There is no attorney client or work product
privilege for discussion between attorney and deponent during recesses. You can ask what they
talked about. Id.
5. Questions by Defending Counsel. An attorney cannot state on the record their
interpretation of a question asked. Hall, supra.
6. If you know or if you understand is a speaking objection (coaching). Suggestions such as
“if you know” or “if you understand” are raw unmitigated coaching and never appropriate.
Serrano v Cincinnati Ins. Co., 2012 WL 20871 *4. (Kansas)
7. Calls for speculation. Objections to “speculation” are not form. It’s also
coaching. Serrano, supra.
8. Vague Objection. Saying a question is “vague” is improper speaking objection.
Serrano, supra. Likewise, a lawyer cannot object saying he/she didn’t understand the question.
9. Multiple objections. Rambo-like multiple objections prohibited. In Re
Stratosphere, 182 F.R.D. 614 (D. Nev. 1998).
10. Excessive number of objections. Excessive number of objections is
sanctionable. Fed. R. Civ. P. 30(d), Committee Notes 1993.
Credibility, Credibility, Credibiiliy
There are three things to keep in mind when preparing a witness… Credibiliy, credibility, credibility. Let’s face it; the most persuasive witness is the witness who is most credible. Such a witness speaks clearly, calmly and plainly, does not exaggerate, does not dodge the question, and is able to look the jury right in the eye as they testified. They do not argue, make flippant remarks or engage in sarcasm. It really makes no difference how smooth your witness is, how nice he looks or whether he is glib, if he is not believable. A con man may have these traits, but that doesn’t mean a juror or jury would trust them. A party or witness needs to resist the temptation to make their testimony better than it really is. As mentioned before, “you don’t want to take a good case, try to make it a great case, and turn it into a bad case.” Here are a few general tips in checklist form for your witnesses:
1. Review any relevant documents, especially statements or depositions.
2. Review any exhibits with the witness and make sure they can authenticate them properly.
3.G o back to the scene of the incident at issue and take in all the details. The witness should try to visualize what occurred.
4. Dress appropriately in business attire or a suit if proper. Do not dress in a flashy manner.
5. The witness should be advised of any exclusion/separation orders or motions in limine which have been granted. Regardless the witness should stay outside of the courtroom until called to testify and should refrain from speaking with other witnesses or strangers who might be a potential juror or witness. Tell the witness they are not allowed to talk with anyone about what has happened in the courtroom.
6. If asked if you spoke to anyone, be honest and say yes. Advise the witness that there is nothing wrong with speaking with you before testifying and if he is asked about it there is nothing to fear. This is part of the preparation process so that the jury’s time is not wasted and evidence can come in an orderly fashion. Emphasize the need to be truthful and accurate and tell the witness if they are asked that this is the primary purpose in meeting with them in advance.
7. Always be a lady or gentlemen no matter how rude the other attorney might be.
8. Conduct yourself in a dignified manner. No chewing gum or tobacco in the courtroom. Be mindful that once on the grounds you never know who might be watching. This includes attorneys, jurors or the judge.
9. Take the stand and clearly accept your oath in a calm fashion.
10. Speak loudly and clearly so that all the jurors can hear your answers and look at them when you answer.
11. Be yourself and speak in terms you are comfortable with, but avoid slang or curse words.
12. Stay factual and avoid exaggerating, guessing or giving opinions where facts will do the job. Stay away from terms such as “I believe” or “I think” as they indicate that you are guessing. These terms create “milk toast” answers of little evidentiary value and are dangerous. If you don’t know the answer or cannot recall then simply say so. Again, don’t guess or speculate.
13. Do not memorize your testimony. Pat answers lack the ring of authenticity and candor.
14. Listen carefully to the question and do not answer a question that you do not understand or which has more than one correct answer.
15. Do not quarrel or argue with the other attorney no matter what.
16. Give a direct answer to a direct question. If it can be answered yes or no, then answer it in that fashion. Do not try and explain the answer if an explanation is not asked for by the other attorney unless an explanation is truly required. Before doing so ask the attorney politely, “May I explain my answer?” If he or the judge says no move on and wait for the next question to be asked.
17. Be careful of absolute terms and questions to “box” you in as a witness. This includes question that use language such as “So that is all that happened?”, “You are sure?”, “So you never did…?”, “You always…?”, etc. It is better to respond ”That is all I can recall,” if you forgot something. The answer, “I don’t know” means it has never been in your brain, while “I don’t recall” means the information sought has been in your consciousness, but you are unable to retrieve the information at the moment.
18. Cover with the witness the foundation for “refreshing recollection” under IRE 612 and “past recollection recorded” under IRE 803(5)
19. Don’t try to sneak in answer. If there is an objection stop immediately until the Court has ruled and you have been either instructed to move ahead or a different question is asked.
20. Don’t play attorney and object to questions yourself. That is the role of the attorneys, not the witness. That being said, you always have the right to understand the question being asked.
21. If you have received a subpoena and witness fee, know that this is perfectly appropriate. If asked, “Are you being paid for your testimony?” answer, “No, I received a witness fee for my time. My honesty is not for sale.”
22. If you are on the stand for an extended period and are tired or need to use the restroom, ask for a break. However, do not speak with anyone during the break. This is inappropriate and could lead to claims or arguments that you were being coached.
23. Most importantly: always testify truthfully and accurately.
Outlining Your Questions… Is There a Better Way?
Exactly how do you want to format your questions? There are several schools of thought on this matter. I know successful attorneys that literally script out every question and every answer to the question. In this way, the attorney can visualize exactly what will take place in the courtroom. Such a format also allows someone else, such as a paralegal or another attorney, to go through the outline with the witness even if you were not available to prepare them. The downside of such an outline is that usually ends up being extremely long like a deposition transcript. Also, when you work through the testimony in that fashion you can become a little too pat and maybe even a little stale, reversed and staged.
I will typically prepare an outline starting with the witness’s qualifications and background and then work through the evidence I wish to get from the witness. Instead of questions, like the game show Jeopardy I write out only the answers. Instead of 80 page outlines, my outlines typically run 5 to 12 pages. The advantage of such a system is that you can check your outline quickly. You focus on the answer you need to get instead of the questions. I form the questions on the fly as I come to each new fact I must elicit from the witness. Your questions come across more naturally and do not seem staged or scripted since they are slightly different each time. This keeps your witness alert as well.
Initially, this will take a little extra effort. However, you will be rewarded by developing this skill of being able to formulate questions on the spot. If an objection is sustained to a question you ask, instead of staring blankly at your outline, you will rapidly formulate a new question which will hopefully obviate the objection raised.
On the top of each witness outline, I like to write the elements of my claim that the witness will help support and any evidentiary foundations that might be required of the witness and legal authority supporting the same. Another way of accomplishing the same end is to place the foundational prerequisites on a Post-it and affixed to the back of the exhibit.
You want to look organized and prepared for the jury. Your mastery of your own exhibits will go a long way in impressing the jury of your command of the case and your competency and professionalism. Need a system to keep all your witnesses and exhibits organized? Sometimes the best system is the simplest one.
I use a separate folder for each witness and each exhibit. I make sure all the folder tabs line up in a single row for the witnesses and label each witness folder with their last name, first name or, if it’s a record keeper, I use the name of the organization. By using a single row of tabs you can quickly thumb through the files without having to scan side to side. I then alphabetize the folders from A to Z.
In each witness folder, I keep a copy of the witness’s outline and a copy of any exhibits needed for the witness. This way if I need to run out and meet with a witness, I just pull their folder and run. Because of my preparation, I know I have everything in hand I need to deal with that witness.
Each exhibit is also kept in a separate tabbed folder or tabbed binder and is sequentially pre-numbered or pre-marked with a letter. The folders or tabs are then sequentially ordered just as was done with the witnesses.
I also prepare two lists, one for witnesses and one for exhibits. Witnesses are listed alphabetically with the number or letter for each exhibit to be shown to that witness listed in the adjacent column.
I create a second list with exhibits sequentially listed and all witnesses crossed reference for each exhibit. On this list I also have columns to note if an exhibit was tendered into evidence and whether it was admitted or excluded. This way you or your assistant can know exactly which exhibits need to be pulled, shown to and covered with each witness. You also can track if you need to make an offer of proof for exhibits excluded.
I outline each element of proof for my claim(s) and list the witness and exhibit which supports each separate element of the claim(s). This way you can easily respond to a motion for a directed verdict by outlining the proof which was entered through the testimony of specific witnesses and the exhibits on your shorthand list of proof.
I have successfully used this system for trials involving dozens of witnesses and hundreds of exhibits. It is simple and it works. It also keeps your table organized and uncluttered which conveys to the jury you know what you are doing.
Practice… We Talking ’bout Practice…
“Practice… We talkin ’bout practice.” – Allen Iverson 2002
Just like Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia Sixers, no one likes to practice, but it is necessary if your witness and you are going to stay in sync. In order for your witness examination to be credible and persuasive, both the questioner and the witness must be on the same page. Otherwise, the testimony will come across like two ships passing in the night. The only way to get a smooth and flawless examination is for the questioner and witness to know exactly what is expected by the other. Obviously, the most important witness is usually your own client. Any run-through with your client is privileged as attorney-client communications because you are providing legal advice about how to handle their direct examination. (IRE 501 and I.C.34-1-14-5 and I.C. 34-1-60-4.) I would videotape the client’s testimony and allow them to see it so they can critique their own the delivery of their testimony.
Make sure you give the witness or your client copies of any earlier statements/depositions and, if possible, have them return to the scene of the incident to check it, note landmarks and refresh their recollection. If at all possible, you should try to meet with the witness or client at the scene of the incident so that you can discuss the scene and make sure you’re both talking about the same thing. If this is not possible, an acceptable substitute is to conduct a virtual tour of the scene utilizing Google maps or Google Earth.
Emphasize to the client or witness that accuracy is the most important thing. This requires that they clearly understand the question and avoid any exaggerations or opinions. They should stay factual in their descriptions. When a witness or client slides into opinions, they enter dangerous territory. They are prone to guess, speculate, exaggerate or just plain get it wrong.
My own favorite saying is: “Don’t take a good case, try to make it a great case, and turn it into a bad case.” The first rule I learned when as an insurance defense attorney was to let a plaintiff exaggerate all they want. There is nothing that undermines a claim or gives rise to the all-popular defense mantra of “secondary gain” than needless exaggeration.
The flip side of this is to water down answers with qualifiers such as, “I think,” “I believe,” or, “In my opinion,” when they actually know the facts. Make sure your client or witness avoids using such terminology. It is better to show that you don’t know or recall than to guess or speculate. Also, pay attention to clients who raise the pitch of their voice at the end of sentences. It makes them sound tentative or like they are checking with you on whether their answer is correct. You should only raise the pitch of your voice at the end of a sentence when you are asking a question.
Once again, the primary rule is to answer truthfully and accurately.