I blogged last time about a seven-and-a-half year Syracuse NY wrongful death case I settled on the first day of trial this week. Today I want to blog about the “behind the scenes” preparations for trial. It sounds boring, and it sure ain’t “LA Law” stuff, but in a trial, preparation is 90% of the battle.
I knew from the get-go that the trial would involve about 25 witnesses as well as complex legal issues, so I didn’t mess around. Three months before trial, I started fashioning an electronic file, with separate folders for pleadings, orders, exhibits, witnesses, depositions, affidavits, law, summation, opening, jury selection. I organized everything logically. For example, each discovery demand was set in a separate folder with its corresponding response, and each set of demand-responses was set into a file labeled “discovery”.
About 2 weeks before trial, I finally had an electronic file so well organized that I could click to any of the hundreds of pages of documents I wanted within 5 seconds. I also had all my witness deposition summaries, and witness questions, set out in separate witness folders along with each witness’s deposition and affidavit.
But electronic files alone aren’t enough. Even though trials have become somewhat more computer-friendly, you still need to be able to reach for a “real” document. You have to mark real paper exhibits. You have to offer the paper exhibits into evidence.
So about 2 weeks before the jury trial I sent an email to one of our secretaries, Becky Kinney. The email said, “Becky, please create ‘hard copy’ trial notebooks that replicate my electronic ones”. Her heart must have sunk, but she rose to the task without batting an eye. She had the office printer churning out the documents, the hole-puncher spitting out little round discs of paper, and she surely sucked Auburn’s three-ring binder supply dry.
The Friday before trial, she produced three banker boxes full of beautifully prepared and organized trial notebooks, all clearly marked, with tables of contents and handy color-coded tabs. They were so well done that I could find any paper document I wanted in 5 seconds, just like in the electronic version.
Before I left for trial, Becky said, “Mike, you had better not settle, because if you do, all that hard work will have been for nothing”.
When I came back from court, case settled, I told Becky, “when the defendants saw your notebooks, they panicked and settled with me”.
This was, of course, not literally true. But trial lawyers can sense their opponents’ lack of preparation. They are unlikely to make a good settlement offer if they smell blood. In this case, my opponents were confronted with a confident, well prepared, well organized lawyer, who was clearly ready, even excited, about trying the case. I believe this brought their offer up, and caused the case to settle. And that is in large part because of Becky.
Never underestimate the impact good staff has on your case results.
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