Ten Tips for a Clearer Record

October 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

As I have said here before, your primary job as a trial lawyer is to make a comprehensible record.

There are two obvious reasons for this: (1) if you fail to make the trial judge understand what your favorable facts are and what your theory of the case is, you lose, plain and simple; and (2) if you lose, you have got to have everything in the record — clearly stated — that you need to win on appeal.

It does you no good to try a case for three days and have the record transcribed only to find to your dismay that it is full of [Unintelligible], and interrupted, incomplete sentences, and references by the witnesses to documents that were never identified or offered into evidence.

Here are ten tips to get you thinking about making an adequate record:

1.  The court reporter can not get two (or more) people speaking at the same time. Lawyers who have come before me know this is a pet peeve of mine. The record is required to be verbatim, meaning that everything said audibly in court must appear in the record, and must identify who said what. Even the best court reporter can not make a verbatim record of more than one person speaking at the same time. After several warnings, I have told my court reporter to stop trying and just record it as [Unintelligible] if she can not accurately record what is being said and identifying the speaker. That does not produce a record that might prevail on appeal, you can rest assured.

2.  No nods or shakes or shrugs. The court reporter is not an interpreter. If your witness nods, the reporter will report it as [witness nods], not as a “yes.” It will be up to the trial judge and appellate court to do the interpreting, which may not yield the intended result. When your witness offers a physical gesture instead off a verbal response, follow up with something like, “Does that mean yes?” or “Please answer verbally.” It’s not the judge’s job to ask that, although some judges will just to resolve their own doubt.

3.  What in the world are you talking about? You hand the witness a photograph and ask what it depicts, and never offer it into evidence (counsel opposite is not going to help you). Or you hand the witness a sheaf of documents already in evidence and ask questions about them, never identifying them by exhibit number. Either is a good way to keep the trial judge and the appellate court from knowing what it is you’re trying to prove.

4. Read at your peril. Some people talk fast, but everybody reads much faster than they speak normally. When you read, consciously slow down. And then slow down some more. You read faster than you talk because you’re not having to think about what you are going to say. If your goal is an intelligible record, you will have to read a lot slower than it seems like you should, but the product will be a record that is accurate.

5.  Speak up! Projecting one’s voice seems to be a lost art, but it’s essential if you want the judge and court reporter to catch what you’re saying. That’s true even if you and your witness have a microphone. Speak up. When you have a soft-speaking witness, encourage him to speak louder. Don’t stand too close to the witness because that usually degrades into a conversational, coffee-table exchange.

6.  Distractions distort the record. Anything that distracts the court reporter will detract from the accuracy of your record. Shuffling papers, drumming a miked table, loud whispering, jangling cell phones, are a few of the most attention-grabbing. If you or your client have a hacking cough, have some lozenges at the ready or ask the judge to allow a cup of water. If all else fails, suggest that your client to go out into the lobby until the paroxysms subside, making sure you either ask the judge for a recess or announce that your client is okay with proceeding in her absence.

7.  Let the court reporter mark the exhibits. You’ve just handed the court reporter that crucial exhibit, and before she can do anything else, you launch into your next question. As a rule, most judges or court reporters will stop you, but I saw a court reporter some years ago simply take the document and lay it on the table, resuming taking her record without ever marking the exhibit. That’s on the lawyer.

8.  Nothing is stricken. Something said in court can not be unsaid, so do not even ask. It’s the court reporter’s job to make a verbatim record of everything that happens. If you don’t like what was said, cover the offending answer in redirect or cross.

9.  S-p-e-l-l. You know the witness’s name and spelling, but neither the court reporter nor the judge do. It’s a good practice to ask the witness to spell names other than the most common. And that goes for persons and places identified in testimony, as well as case citations.

10. Clarify pronouns. As handy as they can be, pronouns introduce vagueness into your witness’s testimony. “All four arrived together, but I saw him leave later with her, and I was with him until she and he came back.” If you don’t define all of those pronouns using names, you have left the court with an indecipherable lump of information.

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