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Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Five Phases of Trial Prep

Playing in the background: The sonorous howl of a train whistle
Meters swum today: 1500

One of my Big Cases is going to trial. This hardly ever happens. I don't have the stats at my fingertips here, but only some tiny percentage of lawsuits ever go to trial - I think it's less than 1%. The rest settle or are dropped. I've been a paralegal for about 10 years now and I've been involved in probably about 20 trials. In fact I've only ever attended one, and I wasn't doing a whole lot of actual work besides checking to see which jurors were falling asleep (almost all of them). And, yes, that case did go all the way to the state Supreme Court, but my part was well over by then.

Now, mind you, lots of lawsuits settle the day before trial, or even the day of or a few days in. Far as I'm concerned, you get to that point, you might as well go for the gold with the jury because, honestly, all the work's been done. The rest is posturing. I don't have to do that - that's my boss's job. Anyway, for the uninitiated, here are the five phases of trial prep. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

Phase I: Euphoria. Oh wow! One of your cases is going to trial! This hardly ever happens! (see above) There's so much work to do. Exhibits to list. Depositions to highlight. Witnesses to call. The adrenaline high kicks in and you're running on caffeine and sugar. Get as much done as you can; this phase won't last.

Phase II: Panic. Holy cow, there's so much work to do. It's impossible to get it all done. What's worse, all the people in the other cases you're working on seem not to know you're going to trial and they keep wanting things done, like, I dunno, returning calls and setting mediation dates and stuff. Add to that, people keep interrupting you every five minutes and pretty soon you want to hang a polite sign that says something like "F*ck Off" on your office door.

Phase III: Rage and despair. Your case stinks. You're going to lose. Your witnesses are all changing their minds about what they saw and at least three can't remember anything they said in their depositions. We should have settled months ago. The insurance adjuster won't return your boss's phone calls. He's throwing tantrums in your office door because the Chinese place sent kung pao squid instead of kung pao scallops. The other lawyers are Nazi drunkards, the judge is 16 years old and fresh out of law school and everything's starting to look like a bad episode of Boston Legal. Oh, and your client is now saying he's not sure the wheel flange was installed by Bob's Pretty Good Technicians, it might have been a guy from Bob's Topless Emporium down the road. Time to throw your boss, all the trial boxes, and yourself out the nearest window. Double points if you land on him or her and survive the fall.

Phase IV: Numb. You no longer know nor care what the case is about. Your boss has a seven word vocabulary and all of them are words you can't say in front of a jury. Oh, that's right, there's going to be a jury. God, you feel sorry for them. Two weeks of testimony on wheel flanges. Somebody please explain why we don't just duel to the death over these little disputes anymore. Wouldn't that be easier? Your boss makes you call the adjuster to explain that, really, there's not that much difference between a $6 million settlement and a $9 million settlement. It's only money, right? And hey, the trial costs alone will run - hello? Hello? Oh great. We'll have to go through with it, then.

Phase V: Euphoria. You've hauled the 58 trial boxes to the hotel room you'll be living in for the next month, set up the temporary shelving, hung the take-out menus in alphabetical order around the room and packed extra Gas-X in the tackle box you'll be taking to trial. You've sent your boss back to change three times and he/she finally looks almost presentable. You've got three extra sets of the opening statement notes on index cards and your laptop ran the presentation software more or less okay, with only minor glitches, roundabouts two a.m. this morning. Somehow it'll all hold together. You take a deep breath, swallow the rest of your double-shot sugar-free cinnamon dolce latte in a single gulp, toss the cup over your shoulder into the trash can and it's time to follow your boss into the courtroom. Four weeks from now this will all be a distant memory. The gavel bangs and it's showtime...

Well, at least I hope that's what Stage V will be like. I'm mired in Stage III right now. Two weeks to go. I'll keep you posted.

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