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.

About Alex Craigie

I am an AV-Preeminent rated trial lawyer. My practice focuses on helping companies throughout Southern California resolve employment and business disputes. The words in this blog are mine alone, and do not reflect the views of the Dykema law firm or its clients. Also, these words are not intended to constitute legal advice, and reading or commenting on this blog does not create attorney-client relationship. Reach me at acraigie@dykema.com. View all posts by Alex Craigie

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