The Paralegal’s Role in Creating the Trial Notebook
Even before you know whether the client’s case is going to trial, your law office should begin to develop a trial notebook (which contains all the information and documents pertinent to a client’s case). Make no mistake about it: The best law firms get the jump on early trial preparation, and the paralegal plays a fundamental role in that process.
It’s all about preparation and organization. A good trial notebook provides the tool any attorney needs to be a winning professional.
The first thing you do when getting ready to put together a trial notebook is read the client’s file from cover to cover to get a firm grasp on all the facts of the client’s case. As you go through the file, record notes about anything that doesn’t make sense or requires future follow-up. Pay attention to what isn’t in the file, such as medical or other expert witness reports, lab reports, and so on. Keep a sharp eye out for anything that will help you locate witnesses, and make notes of their names, addresses, and other identifying information.
When you have a handle on the facts of your client’s case, you organize the information in a logical fashion so your supervising attorney isn’t fumbling through a mass of information to find case details while working on the case in the office or the courtroom.
Trial notebooks may be paper based, electronic, or a combination of both. We outline the process for compiling a paper notebook here, but many law offices use trial notebook software programs and apps so that they can access information on a laptop or tablet. Electronic notebooks may integrate online legal research programs and may allow for evidence to appear on courtroom monitors. Even if you rely entirely on electronic data organization, print out a copy of the notebook for trial or mediation just in case you encounter Wi-Fi or Internet connection issues.
Arranging the trial notebook is sort of like putting together a binder for the first day of high school when you had to make divisions for all your classes. Here’s how you build it:
- Get a three-ring binder wide enough to hold the amount of documents you expect to accumulate and organize over the life of the case.
Usually, the bigger the case, the bigger the binder.
- Get dividers with large tabs and label them for the various sections of the trial notebook.
These sections roughly follow the order of events in the case as it plays out in court and usually include the following:
- Civil Pleadings/Criminal Charging Documents
- Pre-Trial Motions
- Jury Selection/Voir dire Examination
- Opening Statement
- Witnesses (Direct Examination, Cross Examination, Rebuttal)
- List of Exhibits
- Jury Instructions
- Closing Argument
- Legal Authority
- Trial Notes
- Post-Trial Motions
- Include a trial preparation checklist in the front of the notebook.
The figure shows a sample trial preparation checklist for a criminal case that you can use to guide the way that you gather evidence and store it in your files. The person responsible for collecting each document initials the sheet when it makes its way into the trial notebook.
- Insert case documents into the appropriate sections of the notebook.
As reports, witness statements, and the like filter into the office, use a highlighter or marker to note the following information for each document:
- Who: Names, addresses, and phone numbers
- When: Dates and times
- What: Discoverable material and physical evidence
- Where: Locations (for maps, photos, and the like)
In anticipation of trial motions and other court procedures, prepare blank documents before the trial starts. If the attorney needs to make a motion or suggest jury instructions in court, the attorney can do so very quickly both verbally and in written form. Having these documents ready at the attorney’s beck and call makes you appear very professional.
Trial notebook preparation also includes organizing evidence. As a paralegal, you need to make sure that each and every item is ready for production at trial, accompanied with the necessary supporting documentation. Usually, you complete the evidence organization along with the trial notebook. You can store your side’s evidence electronically or in folders and boxes and gather it in one place for safekeeping. Each item of evidence consists of the original, any necessary copies, and notes on its history, including how and when it was found, how it was handled from its finding to the day of trial, and the names of the individuals involved in each step. You should then index the evidence collection so that at trial the attorney can instantly access any required piece of evidence.