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Using Your Notes During Trial: You're Doing It Wrong

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on August 30, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

You should use notes during a trial. After all, you don't want to forget an important issue or lose track of your train of thought.

But don't let notes become your crutch. If you're looking down at your notes every few seconds, you're doing it wrong.

Your Notes Should Be a Reminder, Not a Script

Your notes should help you out, but they can't do your job for you. If you're reading full questions off note cards or if you can't keep track of key facts and concepts without referencing your notes, your courtroom performance is going to suffer. If you're looking at your notes while speaking to the jury, as Elliot Wilcox of Trial Theater notes, you could miss important reactions:

You'll need to pick up on the small non-verbal clues that they're sending you, and you can't do that if your head is buried in your notes. Are they telling you to speed up? To slow down? Are they confused? Bored? Do they need part of the testimony repeated? If you don't look at them and read those clues, you'll never know.

The same goes for dealing with a witness. When you're staring at your notes during a witness's testimony, Wilcox writes, "it's not only rude, it sends a message that you don't care what he has to say and that his answers don't matter." The jury could follow your lead, disregarding important testimony because you were too busy glancing at your legal pad.

Notes Done Right

You don't need to forsake notes altogether, though. You just have to use them correctly. And that means using them as little and as discretely as possible.

Approach your trial notes as you would a speech or a toast at a wedding. You wouldn't read straight off the page if giving a speech, nor would you script out an entire anecdote about how Joe and Lauren first met. If you've prepared, simple bullet points and key facts should be enough to guide you.

The same goes for trial. Instead of having all the information you could possibly need in your notes, have simple reminders. Make sure that you can glance down at your notes and, in just the flash of an eye, remind yourself of where you should be and where you're going. Big print and color coordination can help, but feel free to experiment with different systems until you find one that fits your style. Just remember to keep your notes as simple and minimal as you can.

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