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Organizing Your Trial Notebook


Your trial notebook will serve as your workbench during your pre-trial preparations, your chalkboard to organize your exhibits, your secretary for record keeping and your field medical kit when something inevitably goes terribly awry. As one who has watched lawyers of various abilities and educational backgrounds try cases of differing complexity, I can say without hesitation that few things make an advocate look less professional and less prepared than the guy who is fumbling through a pile of papers trying to locate a deposition for a witness whose testimony just took a wrong turn. I’ve seen street-hardened criminals slouch in their seats like embarrassed school kids while their disorganized attorneys wandered through a mound paperwork looking for some needed pleading or missing point of law.


All impressions aside, the success of your case – believe it or not – depends on your ability to get the right information introduced at the right moment. The importance of a well-maintained and thorough trial notebook then, should be obvious.


Your notebook can be as complicated or as simple as your organizational skills will allow. Keep in mind that you are not going to turn in your work, probably no one else will ever see the interior contents of your trial notebook so try to work within your natural gifts and tendencies. If you are a person who thrives on organization, who can’t sleep until every scrap of paper on your desk is neatly categorized and appropriately filed, feel free to expand on these basic guidelines until your sweet tooth for orderliness is sated, and pay no attention to the raised eyebrows and muttered comments from the slackers around you. You’re no more of a control freak than they are.


If on the other hand, you’re like most other mortal men, your level of organization is perhaps less than it could be, especially in a place as unfamiliar as a courtroom. For you, these guidelines will serve as a constructive roadmap. Try to adhere to this framework as you construct your trial notebook and resist the temptation to “gloss over” or “skim through” sections. Trying to shortcut your trial notebook is a bad idea.



The cover page of your trial notebook should have the litigants’ and lawyers’ names, the date of trial and the name of the presiding judge. It might look something like this:


Nelson (pro se) vs. O’Neill (Weintraub)

September 15, 2004

Circuit Court Judge William Hays, presiding


You also might want to include the driving theme of your case in a brief summary sentence. “I (Nelson) will offer evidence showing that Mr. O’Neill – by his own negligence as a custom deck-builder – caused the injuries and damages specified in the claim which resulted when the Nelson deck, constructed by ONeill collapsed last April.”


Inside the cover page you will want to keep your index. It is a good idea to sort your notebook material chronologically and by categories. Don’t wait until your notebook is complete before you add your index. A working index will be helpful to keep the items straight and available as time goes by. Since your index and notebook will increase rapidly, try to maintain your index on a computer and update the machine at least once a week if not more often to keep track of changes. And don’t forget to back up your work regularly. Your initial index should look something like this.




One:                Case & themes, (rationale and motives for filing, contact and schedule particulars)

Two:                Pleadings, (complaint & answer)

Three:             Facts & law, (legal claim outline, order of proof outline, points of law to prove)

Four:               Motions & evidence, (motions, evidence outline, witness list, rules of evidence)

Five:                Legal research, discovery (depositions, requests for admissions, interrogatories)

Six:                 Trial presentation, (opening remarks, plaintiff’s case, defense, closing remarks)

Seven:             Defense vs. opponent, (evidence to exhibit to undercut your opponents’ claims)

Eight:              Decision, (post-trial material, transcripts and anything else relevant at appeal)


Additionally, you will want to include written stipulations agreed upon between the parties, copies of any pre-trial motions in which the judge has reserved (postponed) ruling and copies of the rules of evidence particular to the jurisdiction. Copies of the actual rules covering the evidence you intend to introduce is best, with the pertinent sections highlighted. It is also a good idea to wade through those sections covering evidence your opponent intends to introduce.


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