By James I. Wiedemer, Attorney at Law and Center for Advanced Legal Studies’ Real Estate Law Professor
I really don't want to go to trial without a litigation paralegal. It's just too hard to stay organized and fight hard without one. One of the key things a litigation paralegal does is "man" the trial notebook. It's sort of like manning the main gun on a tank. It's a key weapon at trial. I’d like to share a couple of thoughts on good trial paralegals and good trial notebooks— the two, in my book, are virtually synonymous.
Winston Churchill once said of one of his key staffers: "He knew everything. He could lay his hand on anything. He said nothing. He had the confidence of all." Paralegals need to be a lot like Winston Churchill's staffer. Although they don't get to testify or present at trial in a verbal sense, nevertheless they are key fighters in the case. They know everything, and they can lay their hand on any paper. Here are 6 tips every paralegal needs to know about the trial notebook.
1. Paralegals need to be able to "lay their hand on anything."
Here is one “war story,” if you will: I was at one J.P. Court trial. My paralegal was so well-organized that when the judge mentioned he wanted to see a particular item, I just reached back, without looking and without even taking my eyes off the judge, and my paralegal plopped exactly the right exhibit I needed into my hand. I hardly even needed to glance. I knew she had the right item. She knew what was needed, when it was needed, and where it was needed - and had it at the ready.
2. Paralegals need to "know everything."
At lunch, my paralegal could comment intelligently on what seemed to go right, what worked well, and she worked very well with the clients. I just can't imagine a paralegal who doesn't know what's going on with the case. I love it when my paralegal takes an interest in the case and wants to win too.
3. Paralegals need to "have the confidence of all."
One time, my paralegal went out into the hall for a moment, and I was by myself in the court room, getting ready to present. I kept thinking of a particular exhibit I thought I would need, and I grabbed the trial notebook. It was only about 4 inches thick and I thought in such a small notebook I should have no trouble finding the item. I grew more and more frustrated as I pawed at the notebook, searching. My paralegal came back and said, "Calm down, what is it you need?" Like a magician pulling something from her sleeve, she yanked it right out of the notebook and put it in my hand. Time for the attorney to be a little red-faced—but very grateful. I love it when my paralegal can stay calm and focused, even if I'm on edge or slightly frazzled.
4. Winning through intimidation.
I know sometimes paralegal students complain about having to generate "pretty paper" notebooks with everything not only organized, but looking that way. Another “war story” for you: One time, I was sent to mediation just prior to trial. I was extremely annoyed when they would not let my paralegal into the mediation. She plunked the very neat, well-organized trial notebook into my hands as I went into the side room at court for some last minute mediation. The other party in the mediation kept looking at my trial notebook. Pretty quickly I realized it needed to be very prominently displayed. I started "pawing" through it knowingly, with a little smile. It was thick. It had all kinds of typed labels and tabs—even a proper cover page and side information. It just looked good. I riffled the pages while looking confident. They didn't have that. I did. They knew I was organized and ready to go—really organized. Sure enough, the settlement numbers came around to a number that finally worked for my client. I know what happened—even without having to show all of the trial notebook's contents, it was, literally, "winning through intimidation." My paralegal was disappointed that she didn't get into the mediation (me too, but we were both, of course, glad for the client). But she was there in the form of her trial notebook, and she played a key role in winning a good settlement.
5. The rapid-fire paper blizzard
It is vital to have multiple copies of exhibits. Although paper may at some point disappear in trials, it's still around. The future is electronic, but in the meantime, it’s important to have multiple copies of documents. I was in a JP court proceeding once where we were up against a litigant who was not represented by an attorney (big mistake). She did not have a trial paralegal—my client and I did. It was almost funny: she would ignore us, then cozy up to the judge on the bench, and hand the judge an "exhibit" (un-numbered, un-marked, and un-named) and try to tell the judge about it and its relation to the case. Before I could cut in with an objection, I noticed the judge was already pretty agitated. No wonder! When we had presented our exhibits, my trial paralegal had multiple marked copies available. As we introduced an exhibit, one copy went to the judge, one to my client, one for me, and one (always last) for the other side. (That way the judge has the most time to see it - the other side the least - less time to think up an objection. And in a regular court, don't forget one for the court reporter!) The judge finally started reprimanding the other side for not showing the opposing side (us) her exhibits. We were organized, professional, and moving right along, and judges love that.
6. Storm-ravaged trial notebooks and reconstructibility
Good paralegals and good trial notebooks stay together through thick and thin, shot and shell. I don't know quite how it happens, but the best-organized trial notebook can become somewhat disheveled in the course of a slam bang trial. Somehow, the paralegal must keep it organized. Those extra copies can really pay off. At the end of one trial recently, the judge called for all exhibits—including those that were not admitted—to be presented to the court reporter. I was so proud of my paralegal, she got all of it together very quickly and presented it in an organized fashion. One more parting tip for paralegals and trial notebooks: Another handy item to have at trial is a checksheet for exhibits: Offered, Admitted, Denied, and No decision. That way, the paralegal actually keeps the tally as the trial moves.
A good trial paralegal with a good trial notebook? I don't leave the office and head for court without one!
James I. Wiedemer is a licensed attorney in the state of Texas and is Board Certified in Commercial and Residential Real Estate by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He has written several real estate books— Texas Real Estate Contracts, The Homeowner's Guide to Foreclosure, The Smart Money Guide to Bargain Homes, and Texas Agency—and has been a Center for Advanced Legal Studies’ Real Estate Law professor for over 25 years.