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Preparing for Your First Civil Trial, Part Four: The Task List and the Trial Outline

By Jennifer L. Saulino, Maureen R. Knight, and LaQuita S. Wornor

You’ve taken all of your depositions and you’ve obtained all written discovery, but you still have a mountain of tasks to complete before your case is prepared for trial. To make sure that everything gets done on time, it is critical to maintain a task list of projects. This list will include everything trial-related, from the vital (e.g., preparing the pretrial order, filing the jury instructions, drafting the opening and closing statements) to the more administrative and mundane (e.g., arranging for copies of exhibit binders; for out-of-town trials, determining where you will work and sleep leading up to and during the trial) and everything in between (e.g., preparing fact witnesses, preparing expert witnesses, creating graphics and other demonstrative evidence, designating deposition transcripts, preparing outlines for cross-examination of your adversary’s witnesses, drafting motions in limine).

Task Lists
Task lists are critical regardless of the complexity of the case or the size of your firm. In the smaller-case/smaller-firm scenario, the task list can serve as your “paper paralegal” when you may not have an army of bodies ensuring that things do not slip through the cracks. In the large-case/large-firm scenario, junior associates who are responsible for preparing and maintaining the task list can gain a greater role in the case by becoming the “go-to” lawyer for the status of the each of the numerous trial tasks.

The task list should include, at a minimum, the task, the date it is “due,” and the name of the person responsible for making sure it is completed by that date. Keep in mind all of the trial-related variables when you are setting the deadlines for these tasks. Always set first those deadlines and obligations that are court-imposed and inflexible. All other task deadlines should work around those, and any tasks that need to be completed as a result of those deadlines should be prioritized. After that, look at the remaining tasks and consider whether certain tasks must precede others. For example, it might make sense to hold off on making copies of the exhibit binders until after you have met with all of your witnesses, in case you have some last-minute additions to the binders. Also, take special care with regard to tasks involving individuals outside your firm because they may be more difficult to coordinate as the trial approaches. For instance, graphics and trial technology consultants may be creating your demonstrative exhibits. Be sure to set their deadlines far enough in advance so that you will have time to review their work and ask for edits because they may not respond overnight like your in-house paralegal will. Consult with them to learn their availability before you find yourself in a bind.

As for the content of the task list, ask around your firm for samples. Share the task list with partners and more experienced trial lawyers on your team whenever possible. Their experience will enable them to spot tasks that you failed to include. It is helpful to separate tasks by category and to order them by due date so that you will always know the most urgent projects. It also can be quite satisfying to use the strike-through function on your word-processing program when you finish a task.

Trial Outlines
Of similar importance to the task list is the trial outline. The trial outline serves two functions. First, it is a roadmap that covers each element of a claim or defense. Second, the trial outline forces you to organize your trial plan. Like any well-told story, the timing and flow of presenting your case are crucial. When and howyou present all pieces to the jury are a close second in importance to if you present all the pieces to the jury. The trial outline helps you to organize the order in which each piece is revealed and by whom.

The basic frame of your trial outline will include the following fundamental elements of the trial: the opening statement; the plaintiff’s case in chief; the defendant’s case in chief; and the closing statement. The outline of your case in chief (regardless of which side you are on) should include all elements of the claims or defenses you are asserting. For each of those elements, list every exhibit required to prove the point and a description of how to get that exhibit admitted; list every witness, including a summary of his or her testimony and the exhibits needed to assist with the testimony. Include cross-examination points your opponent may try to elicit from the witness or ways your opponent may utilize the document and plan any response or pre-emptive action you may want to take. Also, include information about which lawyer will handle each witness (once you know), as well as references to graphics if applicable or anticipated evidentiary issues. The outline of your opponent’s case in chief should include all of these elements as well. Make sure to think through the best case your opponent could put on and plan how you will combat each witness or document.

While the trial outline cannot and should not be a script of the trial, the more information it contains, the smoother your case will go and the more easily you can react to the inevitable unexpected events that unfold in the courtroom.

Both the task list and the trial outline are fluid documents that you will consult, study, and modify often. Most importantly, both documents will help you stay organized, which is important to every trial lawyer—experienced or inexperienced—but is particularly important to first-time trial lawyers who will not be able to fall back on past experiences and routine.

Previously: "Where and How to Begin," "Depositions," and "Preparing for Your First Civil Trial, Part Three: Meeting the Judge,"

Jennifer L. Saulino is with Covington & Burling LLP, Maureen R. Knight is with Constangy Brooks & Smitth LLP, and LaQuita S. Wornor is with Frost Brown Todd LLC.


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