When should you start preparing for trial? Days before? Weeks before? The best time to start preparing for trial is at the start of the case. Start every case with the end in mind - the verdict you want - and pursue that end during every step in the litigation. You cannot assume that your case will settle. Do not prepare to settle a case. Prepare to try it. That way, if you do settle it, it will be due in part to your trial preparation. And if you do not settle it, you will be prepared to try the case and win. The following are some suggestions to keep in mind to help you achieve the results you seek at trial.
Develop a trial theme. At trial, you should have a theme around which you will present your case. The theme serves as the foundation of your case. Everything you do during the course of litigation, should build on that theme. Keep it simple and short. You should start developing your theme as early as possible. With a theme in mind, you can start thinking about what evidence you will want to introduce at trial and what evidence you will want to keep out. The theme will assist you in deciding what motions to file, what witnesses to interview, whom to depose and what to ask them to advance your theme.
During litigation, you may realize that your theme needs some tweaking or deserves to be discarded and be replaced altogether. You are better off if you realize that your theme doesn’t work early on in the case, when you have enough time to change it, than to realize it on the eve of trial, when it is too late for improvisations.
Be first. Always be a step ahead of opposing counsel. You want to be proactive and set the course of litigation. Be the first to interview witnesses, to serve written discovery, to subpoena records from third parties and take depositions. Being first often affects the outcome of litigation. The first attorney to interview witnesses can take their sworn statements and lock them into their testimony. The first to serve discovery gets a jump on obtaining records and facts to support his case. Also, by pushing your case ahead, you show the other side that you and your client are in control.
Think out of the box. What can you do differently? Look at your case from different perspectives. Be creative. Are there other causes of actions you can plead? Other defenses to raise? Are there other witnesses or other documents which may support your case? Too often, lawyers get into a rut of following the same protocol when they work on a certain type of case. Don’t fall into this trap. Whether it’s a slip and fall or breach of contract, think of new ways to approach the case.
Think your case through. When you first start a case, develop a case strategy. Figure out what you need to do to win at trial and prepare a step by step plan to achieve your goal. Developing a plan ensures that everything you do has a purpose. Without a detailed plan, you’re likely to pursue avenues and do things which do nothing to advance your case, or worse, undermine it.
Do your research. Spend some quality time in the library to research the elements of the causes of action in your case and the affirmative defenses. You need to know what each side has to prove to win his case, what discovery to pursue, what to ask witnesses in deposition and what motions to file.
Read the jury instructions. If you are plaintiff’s counsel, the jury instructions tell you what elements you have to prove to win at trial. If you are defense counsel, the instructions give you a road map to poking holes in your opponent’s case. From the beginning of the case, you need to know what the jury instructions expect you to present to a jury, so that during every step in the litigation you are gathering those facts in the interrogatories and request for production you propound, the subpoena for records you issue and in the questions you ask in depositions.
Having the facts you need to win shouldn’t be an accident. If you don’t know the jury instructions from the beginning of the case, the information you elicit which supports your case will be nothing more than coincidental. Know what you need to prove at trial and take the needed steps to elicit that information.
Have the court enter a scheduling order. Some courts enter detailed scheduling orders which spell out each phase of discovery and pre-trial deadlines. Others provide less guidance. Whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant, take steps to ensure that a detailed scheduling order is entered spelling out deadlines for expert disclosure, who discloses first, physical examinations of the plaintiff, depositions, etc.
File dispositive motions early. If you can win on summary judgment, start building your case early and file your motion as soon as it is appropriate to do so. Early analysis can help you isolate the weaknesses in your opponents case, one or more of which may be fatal.
Get your experts lined up early. Due to the expense, many clients prefer to delay the hiring of experts. However, being an ounce wise may prove to be a pound foolish. Experts can help you evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your case and that of your opponent. An expert can help you develop your case strategy and determine what discovery to propound and what questions to ask at deposition.
Let the client know what to expect. Whether it is the cost associated with trial or what the outcome may be, make sure your client knows what to expect if the case goes to trial.
Success at trial is not an accident. It takes time and preparation, and that commitment of time and effort starts at the very inception of the case and continues through the time of trial. There are no shortcuts. Think through your case, come up with a theme and game plan and commit all your energies to seeing your goals fulfilled.