There is a famous saying: “Today’s preparation determines tomorrow’s achievement.” In the whirlwind of trial preparation, it is easy for paralegals to become absorbed in the assignments of indexing depositions, preparing exhibits and conducting research. However, paralegals also need to be aware of the practical aspects of preparing a case for trial. Therefore, here are a few trial issues and practical solutions (TIPS) for paralegals to bear in mind:
- Formulate a plan. I cannot stress enough the importance of communication between staff and members of the legal team in trial preparation. Paralegals should include secretaries, assistants, clerks, outside vendors and others in relevant trial preparations. These individuals play a vital role in trial preparation and serve as the backbone of your trial team. Paralegals should confirm adequate staff coverage in the office during trial. Also, paralegals should delegate tasks (as permit-ted) to other members of the trial team to ensure timely completion of assignments.
- Check your supplies. Prior to trial, visit your mailroom or supply area. Take inventory of what you have and what you will need for trial preparation. For example, do you have the correct exhibit labels (color) for your documents? Do you have enough binders and alphabetical or numerical tabs? Also, well before the eve of trial, contact office personnel to reserve all necessary equipment, including trial bags, luggage carriers, easels, electrical tape and extension cords.
- Confirm your witnesses. Paralegals should confirm that lay witnesses have been properly served with a valid subpoena. Confirm receipt of any necessary witness fees. Then, follow up with your witnesses (both lay and expert) by telephone and e-mail to confirm their attendance on the correct date, time and location. Make sure that your witnesses have directions. Additionally, provide your contact information to witnesses ahead of time so that they may contact you with any questions or issues.
- Contact the court. The role of the paralegal includes serving as a liaison between the attorney and the court. It is important for a paralegal to contact the court to confirm compliance with local rules and preferences of the trial judge. The paralegal should also provide his or her contact information to the clerk or bailiff in case of any issues. Additionally, confirm whether the court has an “Elmo” for use during trial (and no, I don’t mean the television character). Believe it or not, after 20 years in the paralegal profession, I actually heard this term for the very first time prior to a recent trial. An Elmo is a brand name for an electronic visual presentation device located in the courtroom and utilized by attorneys during trial to display evidence. If the court does not have an Elmo available, contact your IT department or an outside vendor to reserve the necessary computer equipment.
- Assemble a trial box. Make sure your attorney and trial team leave the office with all necessary supplies. You will need to include extra legal pads, adhesive notes, exhibit tabs and labels, pens and other items. Do not assume that courtroom personnel will supply your attorney with these items. Also, a wise paralegal once told me: Be careful not to include scissors or other items of that nature in your trial box. Remember that your attorney will be required to go through courthouse security and there is no need to make an ex-ample out of him or her.
- Keep your own copies. If at all possible, don’t — and by that I mean never — let original documents leave your office. Keep a trial notebook at the office or at home during the trial. The trial notebook should contain all critical information concerning the trial including court location, logs, and witness and exhibit lists, as well as relevant addresses and telephone numbers. Also, store a clean, unstapled copy of all trial exhibits at the office.
- Where am I going? Paralegals hear this question about 10 times a week from attorneys. Provide your attorney (in writing) with the name of the trial judge, courthouse loca-tion and courtroom number for the trial. Also, include directions as well as the necessary paperwork for entrance into the courthouse. Consider additional issues such as whether your attorney requires overnight accommodations or meeting rooms for witness preparation. Do not wait until the day of the trial to book a hotel room or secure authorization to allow boxes of exhibits into the courthouse. Be sure to call and make those arrangements well in advance of your attorney’s arrival at the courthouse.
- Can I attend trial? This is usually the personal preference of the attorney. Some attorneys prefer their paralegals in court to take notes, meet with witnesses or manage exhibits. Other attorneys prefer that paralegals remain in the office to handle any issues, continue trial preparation or monitor ongoing cases. Check with your attorney prior to the trial regarding your attendance. However, I would strongly recommend that you not pass up the opportunity to attend trial when per-mitted. I cannot stress enough the importance of the “real life” experience.
- Client communication. Whether you are representing an individual or a company, it is important to keep your client advised of the daily events at trial. Most paralegals know that trial days are long and taxing. However, do not let that overshadow the duty to keep your corporate client — or individual client if for some reason he or she is not at the trial — informed of trial proceedings. Discuss with your attorney the need to schedule a conference call or prepare correspondence to update your client of the status of the trial events.
- Think ahead. Prior to heading home for the night, make sure the file is returned to an organized state. Place all documents back in the proper folders in the file. Review your trial notebook for the events of the next trial day. Compile all necessary exhibits for direct or cross examination. Additionally, conference the case with your attorney to inquire as to any changes in scheduling or trial strategy. Again, it is crucial that the members of your trial team be ready to “hit the ground running” on the next morning of trial.
While it is important for paralegals to remain involved in the major aspects of trial preparation, so too is it equally important for them to pay attention to the practical aspects of trial preparation. Following the above out-lined TIPS will not only ease trial management, but will also serve to earn paralegals the respect of the trial team.
Christine M. Flynn is a defense litigation paralegal at Swartz Campbell with more than 20 years of experience in the field. Flynn is the president of the Philadelphia Association of Paralegals as well as chair of the litigation committee. Maryanne Ebner contributed to this article.