Category Archives: Evidence

What’s In Your Trial Notebook?

siss080024a14It’s probably my mind playing tricks on me, but I have a foggy memory, from younger days, of removing my belt and shoes in order to forge through the security screening apparatus and into the United States District Courthouse for the Central District of California, for the sole purpose of witnessing a senior lawyer from my law firm trying an insurance bad faith case against Mike Piuze, who was something of a legend around Southern California courts at that time.

Once I got past the screening and the nonsense and made my way up to the courtroom, I entered just as my colleague was finishing a cross-examination of one of Piuze’s witnesses. It wasn’t this examination that captivated me–I actually have no memory of it–but rather seeing Piuze sitting at counsel table, alone, with nothing in front or around him but a single yellow legal pad.

As I say, my memory might be fooling with me, but the picture I carried away from that visit to the courthouse was of Piuze in trial against some behemoth insurance company armed only with his brain, a notepad, and his ego.

Well, whether I’m accurate in my recollection about what Michael Piuze takes with him to trial, most of the rest of us mere mortals generally bring along something called a trial notebook. I know that I’ve assembled several over the years, many for senior partners and a few for myself. It seems everyone includes a little something different in their trial notebook. For this post, however, I thought I’d consult that sage don of all things trial-related, Professor James McElhaney.

Ironically enough, the first chapter of McElhaney’s Trial Notebook is devoted entirely to the topic of assembling and using a, well . . . trial notebook. Clearly addressing us at what he presumes to be the brisk and hazy dawn of our careers, McElhaney writes:

“There are many rewards to using the trial notebook system. First, and probably most important, is that it helps you find things during trial, from particular passages in a deposition to the right response to your opponent’s objections. . . . Second, if you are a junior in a firm, the trial notebook can help you in two ways: it can let a senior review your work in advance of trial, and it will impress your senior that you know what you are doing.
Third, if you prepare a good trial notebook, it is much easier for a colleague to take over if anything should keep you from trying the case.” (Id. at 4-5.)

Fair enough. But what should you include in your trial notebook? Here’s what McElhaney suggests:

1. A Table of Contents and Index.

2. Analysis of the Case. “Here is the place for all sorts of notes, whether formal or informal, that go to make up your battle plan–from ideas about preliminary motions and jury selection to thoughts about final argument and requests for instructions.” (Id. at 6.)

3. Analysis of the Opponent’s Case.

4. Proof Checklist for the Case.

5. Jury Selection. “What you do during voir dire is a subject all to itself. But whether you get to ask the veniremen questions or it is all done by the judge, you cannot tell the players without a scorecard. For this you need a chart, a group of squares assembled like a map of the way the panel of prospective jurors is arranged, in which to write their names and make some notes.” (Id. at 7.)

6. Opening Statement.

7. Stipulations and Pretrial Order.

8. Witnesses. This should not only include the witnesses’ names, addresses, multiple telephone numbers and an indication whether they have been subpoenaed, but also “a short paragraph (just one or two sentences) explaining why this witness is being called to testify: just what it is you expect to prove with this person.” (Id. at 9.)

9. Examination Outline(s) for Witnesses.

10. Proof Checklist for Witnesses.

11. Deposition Index.

12. Documents and Exhibits. Here, McElhaney envisions both a list of documents and the documents themselves. Unless your case concerns a fender-bender or a simple breach of contract or debt owed, chances are you will want to break down the witness examination outlines, deposition index(s) and document and exhibits into their own separate notebooks. Experiment until you find what works right for you. One thing I’ve found really useful, though, is to include a page for every important exhibit on which you anticipate your opponent will make evidentiary objections; here you write an argument or two, or case or code citations to answer each objection. Much easier than thinking on your feet, though you have to do that, too.

13. Evidence and Procedure Memoranda. (See the last sentence of the last paragraph–unlike McElhaney, I don’t give this its own place in the notebook, but try to tie the anticipated objections and responses to particular exhibits or even witnesses. Again, find what works for you.)

14. Final Argument.

15. Motions and Requests for Instructions.

Again, you will want to experiment with what kind of trial notebook fits your style. Big cases, tried by teams of big firm litigators, spawn multitudes of notebooks, each individually devoted to a particular motion, or witness. But even in these circumstances, I think it is helpful to have a single, core trial notebook–a space where you bring it all together, and develop (and modify) themes and strategies. If you don’t want to call it a trial notebook, call it a playbook. But, unless you’re Michael Piuze, you’ll probably do better at counsel table armed with something more than a legal pad.


Three Ways To Control An Evasive Witness On Cross-Examination

Least Weasel

Least Weasel

One of the biggest challenges of cross-examination can be maintaining control of an intentionally difficult or evasive witness. Professor McElhaney warns that, “once you lose control of a witness, it is hard to get it back.” (Litigation, at 124.)

What are we talking about? Let’s say you ask a witness something he doesn’t want to admit, such as a doctor who doesn’t want to admit he elected not to perform a useful diagnostic procedure (and he probably should have). So, instead of agreeing, “No, you’re right. I did not perform a spinal tap on the patient,” the witness launches into the following:

“I’m afraid you don’t understand the distinct risk involved in an invasive diagnostic procedure such as a lumbar puncture or spinal tap, as it is called. In addition to considerable expense and pain, there is a real possibility of permanent neurological injury.” (Id.)

Blah. Blah. Blah.

McElhaney offers these suggestions to deftly maintain control when you come up against a witness who evades, changes the subject or answers a different question.

Simply Re-Ask The Question Verbatim

This is especially powerful if the members of the jury have listened closely and it is a simple question, devoid of ambiguity. They, too, are thinking “Speaking zie English?” and losing respect for the witness minute-by-minute.

Re-Ask The Question In A Way That Demonstrates Your Witness Is Behaving Weasel-Like

Going back to the above example. If the original question, which drew the evasive response was: “Doctor, did do a spinal tap on the patient?” it can be effective, when re-asking the question, to phrase it as follows:

“Pardon me, Doctor, does that mean you didn’t do the spinal tap on Mr. Murphy?” (Id. at 125.)

This has the double benefit of establishing, not only that the doctor did not perform the test, but also that he was being evasive.

Tell The Witness You’re Re-Asking The Question

This is perhaps best used when the witness has twice tried to evade the question or answer a different one. On the third try, it should go something like this:

“Doctor, we’re talking now about what testing you performed on your patient, Mr. Murphy. I’ll ask you again, you didn’t perform a spinal tap on Mr. Murphy, did you?”

The good professor also suggests (1) you keep your questions on the short side, since longer questions, with more qualifiers, create more opportunities to subtly disagree or qualify an answer; and (2) try to adhere to the rule against asking open-ended questions, since you’re opening the door and basically asking the witness to assume control and talk about whatever he wants. (Id. at 126.)


One Way To Object Without Garnering Juror Resentment

yhuOne of our most important jobs during trial is to object, when necessary, to prevent the improper admission of evidence. But doing this job, even properly, is not without its risks. Chief among these is the risk of alienating jurors or garnering resentment because it is obvious–assuming the objection is sustained–that you have succeeded in hiding some quantum of information from the jury. After all, they’ll wonder, if your client’s case is so obviously a winner–as you said in your opening statement–why this need to hide facts from us?

As always, the wise Professor McElhaney has something to offer on this topic. In his Trial Notebook (3rd. Ed.), he suggests we learn and practice how to make objections understandable to the jury. He even suggests they can be made appealing. He writes:

“It is true that objections are supposed to be made to the bench, not to the jury or opposing counsel. In fact, addressing either your adversary or the jury is an invitation for a reprimand from the judge. On the other hand, there is no rule against making objections so that the jurors understand the basis for your objection and perhaps even sympathize with your position, rather than concluding you are pulling some lawyer’s trick to keep them from hearing the whole truth.

Essentially the idea is to state a legally sufficient objection–one that is specific and accurate–which a layman can understand and appreciate, and do it in five to ten seconds. For example, ‘Objection, leading,’ may win a ‘sustained’ from the judge, but will not really help the jury understand what you have done. ‘Objection, Your Honor, leading. Counsel is putting words in his witness’s mouth,’ lets the jury see that your adversary has been doing the testifying.

The time limitation is very important, since if you take too long, you are inviting attack for making a speech. With some work, even the most difficult concepts can be understandably compressed in a short time. Instead of saying, ‘Objection, hearsay,’ you might say, ‘Objection, Your Honor, the jury can’t tell whether some casual bystander this witness overheard was telling the truth. This is hearsay.'” (p.327)

McElhaney goes on to point out that, while it may seem like fine trial lawyers who make well-phrased objections do so extemporaneously, the truth is that such language is generally developed and practiced in advance.


A Potted Plant? Eh, Not So Much.

ghg6rtrTwo blawg posts last week caught my eye. Both discussed preparing and defending witnesses at deposition. At the Lawyerist, Chris Bradley talked about his experiences defending a client in his first judgment-debtor examination. His title for the piece, which I mistakenly took to be ironic, was: How To Defend A Deposition: Just Show up. The other post, by Philly Law Blog blogger Jordan Rushie, took the assignment more seriously, and provided better guidance, likely because he has more experience. In his post, Rushie credited Max Kennerly with the notion that “[i]f you prepare your witness properly [for deposition], you should be able to just be a potted plant.”

Let me say first that I’m not sure whether Max Kennerly ever made that statement. It sounds pretty good, provided you don’t, as Jordan Rushie fortunately did not, take it completely at face value. What concerns me is that young lawyers reading Bradley’s post at the Lawyerist and contemplating Kennerly’s remark, might mistakenly conclude that adequately preparing your client or witness for deposition is enough. Or nearly enough.

It’s not enough. Or nearly enough.

I agree that preparing your client or witness is surely the single most important part of your job in defending the deposition. Clients or witnesses who have never been though litigation are quite literally astonished when I suggest that we spend a half or full day preparing for their deposition. And that’s often not enough. I once spent three full days preparing a sexual harassment defendant for his deposition–and I was still unsatisfied with the result. So yes, Max Kennerly is right that witness preparation is the first priority.

But even if you spent a full week preparing the witness (yes, we do spend weeks preparing certain key witnesses, particularly if they do not speak English or the subject matter is particularly complex), your job is not done. There is your responsibility to “preserve the record” meaning making objections when questions are not technically correct. Jordan Rushie got that right.

But, in my humble view, adequately preparing the witness and interposing appropriate objections is still not enough.

My goal at every stage of the proceedings in a lawsuit is control. I’m not so naive that I think I can actually control very much. There are about a thousand things in every lawsuit that are simply beyond my control, the top of the list being the judge. But that doesn’t mean I don’t try to control every single nuance as best as I can. I’m a control freak. Control. Control. Control.

When I present a witness for his or her deposition, I am being forced to relinquish control over a very important aspect of the process. In civil litigation, at least in my experience, depositions and documents win or lose a case. There’s very little I can do about bad paper. If there’s a bad document out there and my opposition has properly asked for it, and it’s not privileged, then I’ve got to produce it and we’re stuck with the consequences.

Depositions are different. Unlike bad documents, depositions don’t just exist. A deposition is more of a process. Even when we’re done preparing and I object whenever necessary, my opponent still must ask the right question and get a damaging answer before the evidence comes into existence. That’s a big leap, and I want to make it as difficult as possible to cross that chasm. And I’m not talking here about inappropriate objections, improper instructions not to answer, or being a difficult jackass, or other ethically-challenged conduct. But I do want my opponent to know I’m listening closely, to every word, and I’m not going to make it any easier for him/her than I absolutely have to. Otherwise, what am I getting paid hundreds of dollars an hour to do? A well-trained monkey can object when questions are “vague and ambiguous.”† I think our role is bigger than that.

I learned pretty early that you want to create a “tight” environment from the start. By this, I mean that, even if I generally have an extremely cordial relationship with my opponent (and I usually do), I don’t want him or her to think that this particular deposition is going to be easy or fun. I want him or her to feel that our time on the record is “borrowed time,” that he/she is taking up my client/witness’s extremely valuable time, that we’re inconvenienced, that his/her goal should be to finish up as quickly as possible. It’s been my experience that, in most instances, this results in a shorter deposition. Shorter deposition = less chance of damaging testimony from my client/witness = a good thing.

Another way I create a “tight” environment is by interposing a fairly stiff objection early in the deposition. By early I mean in the first 20-30 minutes. This signals to my opponent that I’m listening, and that I don’t intend to put up with any baloney. I do try to avoid speaking objections, because they’re unprofessional. On the other hand, if I need to say additional words to fully state the objection or my nonspeaking objections aren’t getting anywhere, then I’ll say what needs to be said. Again, while it may be my opponent’s deposition, I’m going to retain as much control as I can.

I also want to dictate when we take breaks. At least every hour. I don’t want my witness getting fatigued, hungry, exhausted or even comfortable. When he/she gets comfortable, that’s exactly when the filters in his/her brain start to shut off and the damaging evidence is created.

I’m also not above verbally bitch-slapping scolding any opposing counsel who gets too high-handed with my client. Again, I’m not getting paid several hundreds of dollars an hour to sit back and watch some unprofessional lawyer abuse my client. I’ve come to believe that civility really is best 99.9% of the time. But, if an opponent is abusing my client with his/her examination, I have two choices: I can terminate the deposition or I can push back a bit. If I give some push back, perhaps we can alter the course and finish the deposition without bothering the judge. If I terminate the deposition, motion practice is sure to follow and this is costly, and the judge might not see things my way.

We sometimes walk a fine line when defending depositions. I don’t want to be obstructionist, or an asshole. But when we’re on the record, my job is to do everything ethically within my power to prevent that record from containing evidence that is damaging to my client’s case and/or helpful to my opposition. I respectfully disagree with the notion that this obligation is satisfied by “just showing up” or even by just making objections.

†I mean no disrespect to monkeys, trained or otherwise.


When Judges Play Games To Protect The Record Against Appeal

ghtrEver found yourself in that situation where you are not only losing an argument or motion, but it seems mysteriously like the judge is bent on preventing you from making a decent record of your position?

In Litigation, the wise Professor McElhaney identifies games judges commonly play with attorneys in the interest of preventing them from making a record which can be used to challenge the ruling on appeal. He writes, “If [the judge] can force lawyers to waive objections or forget to make offers of proof . . . it will improve [the judge's] batting average with the court of appeals.” (p.294) Here are a few such games:

1. Cutting off, under the guise of preventing speaking objections, any argument or objection.

2. Refusing to permit offers of proof at the time an objection is sustained; requiring counsel to wait until the next recess or next day of trial, when they’re likely to forget.

3. Insisting that exhibits be offered and admitted only at the end of the entire trial. This “forces lawyers to waive most of their evidentiary objections about exhibits. At the end of trial they are thinking about their final arguments, not about foundations or rulings.” (p.295)

4. Making “weasel” rulings on evidentiary objections: “I’ll let it in for what it’s worth.”

5. Making noncommittal rulings. “I’ve heard enough, let’s proceed.” Or, “All right, I understand your positions; let’s move along.” These aren’t rulings and, regardless what happens next (i.e., the objected-to question is answered and/or the jury hears the evidence), it will be all but impossible for an appellate court to identify an error, since the judge shirked her responsibility to make a ruling.

Recognizing your judge is playing one of these games will help you to maintain your resolve to make an effective record. Oh, and if you’re in a California state court, be sure to order and pay for that court reporter, otherwise you’re not going to be making a “record” at all.


Temper That Temper During Cross-Examination

DSCN2840-220x165“We got a kinder, gentler,
Machine gun hand” – Neil Young

There is the temptation, it’s almost primal, to be derisive, if not outright mean, when cross-examining a witness who has lied in the past or is lying on the stand. Even if it’s only theatrical, to provide an example to the jury how they should regard the witness with suspicion or contempt, it seems almost natural to treat her with disgust.

But it’s important to bear in mind that, even if the substance of the cross-examination establishes the witness is a liar or unsavory individual, the jury might not reward an examining lawyer–or his client–if he crosses the line. The real challenge, however, comes when litigating a case on the road, in a venue whose culture draws “the line” of civility differently than an attorney’s home court. I’m thinking here about an experience my colleague had some years back when he (a Los Angeles lawyer) tried a civil case in Hawaii.

I’ve visited Hawaii a few times, but never had an opportunity to conduct business of any kind beyond securing a reservation for dinner or a scuba dive. Frankly, I’ve never given a thought about how Hawaiian citizens would receive a cross-examination of a witness differently than someone from Los Angeles. But it turns out that they don’t cotton well to a lawyer who takes a harsh tone to a witness during examination. This became clear to my colleague (this is hearsay, of course, I wasn’t there) after he cross-examined an important witness using a less-than-gentle tone. Apparently it was clear to everyone in the courtroom that the jurors did not react well as the witness was being subjected to a tone of questioning we Californians might consider perfectly appropriate.

That night, in preparation for the following day of testimony, it was decided that our local counsel, a native Hawaiian, would handle the cross-examination of the next adverse witness. I am told the contrast between the his tone during cross-examination, gentle, less confrontational, like “a knife cutting through heated butter,” and my colleague’s examination the previous day, was palpable. Let me make clear that my colleague’s cross was not over the top at all,† just consistent with how we would take such a witness here in Los Angeles. The difference was simply that the Hawaiian jurors do not appreciate the kind of confrontational tone we might employ when addressing a witness in cross-examination.

This highlights a concern we should always have when litigating, or even transacting any king of business, in a venue that is culturally different from our own. When faced with a trial in a culturally unfamiliar venue, I would always recommend involving local counsel, if only to advise about these kinds of cultural differences.

†In fact, it was not a “temper” or anger issue, at all. The title of this post is probably an unfair misnomer.


A Different Take On The Issue of Perjury

vbgfA strong editorial in the Wall Street Journal today by SNR Denton lawyer Matthew Lifflander discusses the economic impacts of lying, with a particular emphasis on perjury in court. I’m sure that, like any ethical issue, we all have different views on the importance of telling the truth and what would constitute a just and deterrent punishment for perjury.

I vividly recall being on vacation in Rome with a politically conservative close friend when the Republicans were all in a lather over the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. I found it amusing that he was so indignant that our President would be caught blatantly red-handed lying about a blow job. On the other hand, what can we tell our children about the oath of perjury if our leader, our President, ignores it  with impunity?

As the title of his piece suggests, Mr. Lifflander comes at the issue of perjury from an economic, cost-benefit (what benefit? and to whom?) analysis. It’s no surprise to any litigator that the practice of committing perjury is alive and well in our system, whether the liars are alleged criminals, greedy plaintiffs or callous corporations and their executives.

What I like about the piece, however, is not the shift from a purely ethical to a hard-line economic analysis of lying. Mr. Lifflander does offer some compelling statistics about the cost of dishonesty. For example, he cites that, “[i]n 2011 NY City  paid $550 million in personal-injury and property-damage tort settlements and judgments . . . City lawyers have previously said that up to 10% of the claims . . . involve fraud or misrepresentation.” But, while compelling, these numbers don’t move me. I suspect this is because I’m still naive enough to believe one adheres to a policy of truth both (1) because any deviance from this policy threatens a reputation for honesty that I consider sacrosanct (I prefer not to do business with dishonest people), and (2) because it’s just the right thing to do.

Rather, what I like is that Mr. Lifflander offers suggestions on how to curb this rampant abuse. He endorses (1) creating a fund to pay for prosecution of perjurers (to be funded by small taxes on large personal injury judgments), (2) establishing a statutory civil tort to redress those who can prove they were victimized by perjury; and (3) a change to the law to authorize civil trial judges to punish perjurers through fines, sanctions or reductions in judgment.

I would throw out the first two suggestions. I abhor new “taxes” of any kind, and I’m not clear why successful personal injury litigants should be taxed to pay for prosecution of perjurers. If a tax is needed to raise the funds, it should be levied on everyone–not just successful litigants. Establishment of another tort is not the answer, either. Must new lawsuits be spawned off of the wrongs perpetrated during other lawsuits? Do we really need litigation-about-litigation, meta-litigation?

I do, however, endorse Mr. Lifflander’s third proposal: to make it easier for a trial judge to punish instances in which perjury has obviously occurred. There is nothing more frustrating that showing a judge clear and convincing evidence that a litigant has blatantly lied to the court, only to have it ignored. I remember my frustration during one evidentiary hearing in which I held up a real estate document in which it was obvious that the defendant had forged my client’s initials on an arbitration provision (obvious because, next to it, I had a version of the document obtained by subpoena that did not contain her initials), and the judge glossed over the issue. Are you kidding me? I thought. What kind of judge are(n’t) you?

The problem I see, though, is not that judges lack the authority to punish liars, but that many (most?) judges can’t be bothered to do it. The solution is probably not more legislation, but a change in the way judges–those in whom we place our trust to enforce the laws against perjury–view the crime. I doubt much will change on this front, however, until the public takes the crime of perjury and its consequences, ethical or economic, more seriously.


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