UNDERSTANDING THE DYNAMICS OF A CIVIL TRIAL FOR THE BEST RESULTS
Though a majority of civil cases are settled between parties before trial, it is critical for anyone in a lawsuit to understand what will happen in a trial. Though lawyers take clients through the trial, the results of the trial and major decisions are always with the client and not the lawyer. Failure to understand what's happening in a trial can bring unwanted results regardless of the skill of the lawyer. As I tell my clients, they are in charge and I am always working on their behalf and to their goals.
The true start of the trial is Jury selection (assuming a party has requested a jury, which is inevitably going to happen). During this stage of the trial, critical decisions in picking the jurors who will hold the fate of the trial in their hands. The Judge will dismiss jurors with apparent conflicts, like a type of relationship with the party(s). However, each side will also have the ability to "strike" jurors from serving, and it is critical to making the best decisions. The lawyer will have people he wants to strike for different reasons, but the client should not be afraid to speak up about either striking or not striking potential jurors. It may be a gut feeling about the person or just a strategy for who is going to be more sympathetic. Understand that lawyers are not trained in law school (or bar exam) about picking jurors. It is a human dynamic, and I always want input from my clients with jury selection.
The next step is with opening arguments to the jury. I have found this critical in getting right. The lawyer tells the jury the case he will present, and what is expected from the other side. He is guiding the jury in the critical things for the jury to take note during testimony and with evidence. I would suggest a client ask the lawyer about his opening arguments to get an idea about the strategy. The client may decide, without micromanaging the lawyer, to take a different tact. Regardless, the opening arguments set the tone for the trial.
After opening arguments, the side bringing the lawsuit will present their evidence to the jury. Usually, the "Plaintiff" (who brings the suit) will take the stand to testify. It is critical for the plaintiff client (or in some cases multiple plaintiff clients) to rehearse through the direct examination by the attorney and know the questions being asked. Additionally, as the opposing attorney will be cross-examining, it is critical for the client to know what to expect. Unlike trials on TV or movies, there are few surprises during a real trial. Parties have exchanged their information (called discovery), and so both sides know what the other has for evidence.
After the Plaintiff rests his case, the defendant's side will bring their case. This becomes the same presentation of evidence and witnesses as the Plaintiff, but it's essential for the lawyer cross-examining witnesses to receive input from his client. For example, the client listening to the other side testify may pick up on a contradiction or something that client knows (from personal experience sometimes). At those times, it's important for the client to tell the lawyer what kinds of questions to ask on cross-examination. I have found that a client whispering something to ask on cross-examination has become the critical moment in the trial. That can only work if the client is paying close attention and engaged in the trial.
The last step of a trial is closing arguments. I believe this is the most critical part of the trial. It is when each lawyer is able to advocate with the jurors by making arguments about the evidence they have just seen. In some cases, lawyers are also able to criticize the other side for promising evidence during opening debates which was either not presented, or vastly underwhelming. It's the lawyers chance to remind the jurors about the evidence and speak about how it ties into the law. For the Plaintiff's lawyer, this is a chance to tell the juror how to determine damages (money) for his client. For the Plaintiff's attorney, he is able to make a rebuttal to the defendant attorney's closing arguments. It is critical the plaintiff tell his attorney about something he should bring up during rebuttal. This is the last thing the jury will hear, and critical.
After the jury delivers its verdict, it's important for the Plaintiff to know his lawyer can request the judge add more money to the verdict, and for the Defendant to know his client can request the judge lower the amount of the verdict. This is highly unusual, but sometimes juries deliver verdicts that are so unreasonable the judge can step in to add to or subtract from the verdict.
Hopefully, this article can provide you with basic information to help understand trials, and assist/guide you and your attorney to the best results.