12 August 2008

Telling stories

Many lawyers consider direct examination boring; I used to, when I was starting out. Part of the reason was all those lawyer movies where the most exciting stuff happens during cross examination. When I started to really handle cases, I realized just how exciting--and important--direct examination is.

Direct examination is that part of trial where a story is told, particularly your client's. What spells the difference is how effective you are on direct examination.

A good story is one that holds the interest of the listener; and the most important listener in that court room is the Judge. The challenge is how to hold the judge's interest. Effective direct examination ensures that your client's story will be told and will be told well.

Here are 10 tips for effective--and, yes, exciting--direct examination.

1. Come up with a theory of your case. A theory is not necessarily the cause of action but it must incorporate your cause of action. Your theory is the most plausible explanation of what really happened and why the court should rule in your client's favor. (T. Mauet, Fundamentals of Trial Technique [1988]) A good theory takes into account all the facts--good and bad--and weaves these facts together into an explanation that the judge will find logical and plausible.

2. Present the judge with an image. A noted trial lawyer during his time, former Senator Jose W. Diokno, clearly well-ahead of his time, very wisely commented that
"it is not enough as the law book tells you to have a theory of your case. You must also have an image of your case–something that appeals to the reason and sense of justice of the judge, something that would make him say, 'Indeed, this person is right and if the law isn’t that way, maybe I can interpret it so that it will be that way.'” (Jose Manuel I. Diokno, Jose W. Diokno on Trial: Techniques and Ideals of the Filipino Lawyer [2007])

Both your theory and image should be simple, logical, consistent with human experience, provable by the evidence you have and strong enough to withstand your opponent's own theory and image. Remember O.J. Simpson and the gloves and Johnnie Cochran's by-now classic rhyme, "if it don't fit, you must acquit"? That was theory and image coming together, powerfully. Of course, we all know what happened to that trial and to O.J.

3. Determine which witnesses will establish your theory and in what order you will present them. Knowing who to present during trial is almost as important as which questions to ask the witness during trial. Of course, if you are fortunate enough to have eyewitnesses or a complainant who can testify, this will not require much thought. But we don't always get these witnesses, as frequently, we get witnesses who can only testify to one, but not every, part of your theory. Starting with the best witnesses will determine how effectively the theory and image can be presented. One quick and simple rule of thumb in determining who to present: start strong, end strong.

4. Ask the best questions. The most effective direct examinations involve the lawyer asking all the best questions. The best questions are the simplest, shortest and most comfortable (at least to the lawyer) questions he is capable of asking. There are two parts to this: first, ask the best questions during your interview with the client or witness and second, based on that interview, ask the best questions during the trial.

5. Know what your witness will say and how s/he will say it. A traditional cross-examiner's tactic is to rattle the witness by asking, off the bat, if the witness talked to you, his/her counsel, before testifying. What this question seeks to instill in the witness is a sense of irregularity if s/he had, indeed, spoken with counsel. In truth, there is nothing unethical or wrong with speaking with your witness before the trial; on the contrary, it would be irresponsible for counsel to not speak with the witness before presenting the witness. What is unethical would be for counsel to tell the witness what to say. During the preparations for his/her testimony, you should ask the witnesses to answer your questions based on how they understand your questions--without commenting on or reacting to their answers at first. This will allow you to see what the witness will say and how s/he will say it.

6. Use the 5Ws,1H. Who. What. Where. When. Why. How. Not necessarily in this order, though. The advantage of using the 5Ws, 1H is that you will rarely be accused of asking leading questions on direct examination.

7. Learn to loop your questions. "Looping" is the practice of using the witness' previous answer as the premise for your next question. For instance, "You said that you were at (place and time), what were you doing there? Two advantages of "looping" your questions are: (1) you will hardly ever be objected to on the ground of "no basis" and (2) your witness' testimony and story will become very familiar to the judge because specific details will be repeated.

8. Use your voice and body well. What spells the difference between boring and exciting direct examination is frequently how you sound and how you look when asking your questions. Be conscious of how loud (or soft) your voice is, how comprehensible (or incomprehensible) your words are when speaking in public. Be conscious of body language--particularly yours. Rehearse your speaking voice, inflection, tone and even posture and body movements. Know when to move around a lot and when not to. For instance, standing perfectly still while a witness tears up on the stand will focus the attention on the witness, not on you.

9. Prepare any documents you need to present before the trial. Use an Exhibit Guide and an Exhibit List. If you are marking any documents, put small tabs or post its with the proposed marking on the documents; if you have many documents, make sure they are all separately stapled or clipped. Being aware of the Best Evidence Rule, make sure you have the originals and photocopies; if you do not have the originals, make sure you have legible copies and make a note to yourself to ask questions to lay the basis for secondary evidence. Make use of clear books or clear files to separate documents you will be presenting and those that will remain in your file.

10. End confidently and well. Before saying, "that's all, your honor", take about 10 seconds to quickly go over your outline or questions to make sure that you have covered everything you wanted. Check points you have covered and make sure to ask questions on the points that are not checked. After asking the last question, allow about 2 seconds from the witness' answer before nodding confidently and declaring, "that's all, your honor."


rosa said...

i wish my OLA director or my SL taught me these things. i think i did the most boring, most pointless direct examination known to man, so boring that the fiscal kept rolling her eyes at my questions.

then again, it isn't too late for me, is it?

Atty. Theodore Te said...

Hi Rosa,

Thanks for dropping in.

No, it isn't too late : ) Now that you're in a law firm, it would be a good time to flex (or re-flex) your litigation muscles.

And, don't be too hard on your OLA director or SL, different strokes for different folks. : )

God bless,

supergirlhero said...

Sir, thanks for starting this blog. I enjoyed your lectures for the classroom component when I was in OLA. And I actually enjoyed doing direct examination -- probably not as exciting as cross, but I felt like I had more control over the situation, hence had more opportunity to feel good about it haha.


Ms. J said...

The tips are very useful, Sir!!! I'm so fortunate that I still get to learn a lot from you even after graduating from the College :) Salamat po ng marami!!! -- Joan

leo laurente said...

sir ted,

do we get mcle credits for visiting your blog? hehehe.

i enjoyed your trial techniques lecture for the "delinquents special" mcle seminar i attended at the law center. it's very rare for lawyers, especially for young ones (ehem) like us, (ehem ulit)to have the opportunity to see how other lawyers prepare for court. more often than not we just become witnesses to, if not victims of being ill prepared or worse unprepared for our day in court. your lectures, and now this blog gives us a template to validate existing good practices, correct bad ones and generally to improve the various facets of being a "litigator".

Kudos to you sir, and thank you for being so unselfish with your hard earned experience.