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Should You Read Documents Out Loud at Trial?

by Ken Lopez Founder/CEO A2L Consulting I’ve seen a great many lawyers read documents aloud at trials, and, not coincidentally, I’ve seen lawyers lose cases in part because they did so. Both experience and the science of persuasion tell us that reading documents to a jury is a persuasion killer. But of course there are times when you absolutely need to read a document out loud. This article will help you find the best ways to do so when it is necessary. There are at least five good reasons why reading documents out loud is harmful. I will go through them, then offer three guidelines for reading passages of text to a jury or judge when it is necessary. After all, it’s hard to imagine trying a contract case without reading the key provisions of the contract. The split-attention effect/redundancy effect is easy to recognize, and we've all experienced it. In summary, if you are presented with a written document and it is read to you at the same time, your brain will have a hard time sorting out whether to read or to listen. What you might not know is that you actually end up far worse off reading written materials while seeing an image of those materials than you would have if you had just done one or the other -- read the materials or listened to the words. See The Redundancy Effect, PowerPoint and Legal Graphics.

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by Lorraine Kestle Graphic Designer A2L Consulting The age-old adage that there are two sides (at least) to every story is clearly evident in litigation. Both parties believe that the applicable law, when applied to the facts, supports their position, or they likely would not be going to court. The parties and the lawyers are familiar with the facts and the law. Everyone fully understands the nuances of their position. Everyone, that is, but the judge and jury who are hearing the case for the first time. It is these “novices to the case” who will ultimately decide which version of the facts or story is most persuasive. For one day, I was a “novice to the case” in the courtroom as I helped our trial technician set up for a PowerPoint presentation in court. I observed both sides’ opening statements as well as the direct and cross-examinations. Although I have been in the courtroom on numerous occasions, I had no prior knowledge of the substance of this matter and did not work on this presentation. Our client, the plaintiff in this case, delivered an opening statement that was enhanced with a PowerPoint presentation, while opposing counsel relied on typed or handwritten notes and an easel with a large paper tablet. After observing both approaches, I came away with what I think are interesting conclusions about the effect that the PowerPoint presentation had on my understanding of the case, the attorney’s arguments, and my initial impression of liability. 1. An Increased Perception Of Preparation, Competence And Persuasion As a former paralegal, I know that preparation is one of the keys to success in litigation. And while I believe both sides were equally prepared, this was not the impression created in the courtroom by defendant’s counsel. What set the opening statements apart was the PowerPoint presentation used by our client. It served as a baseline of comparison for what followed.

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3 Styles of Document Call-outs Used at Trial

Whenever a litigation team presents a document in a graphic way to the jury or other fact-finder at trial, there is an occasion for a document call-out. A “document call-out” is a term of art that means taking a document that is in evidence at trial and highlighting some key portion of it for easy reading and to draw the viewer's attention to the key language.

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TrialDirector, a trial presentation software package produced by InData, is an indispensable aid to the presentation of electronic and other evidence at trial. There is a reason why this product has claimed the majority of the market share for trial presentation software for more than 10 years: It can actually make it interesting for a jury or other fact-finder to listen to a witness testify about corporate balance sheets, long-ago emails, and other documents that can be fatally boring and lose the attention of the fact-finder.  

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Timelines can be extremely helpful in many types of trials. Whenever the order in which events occurred is a significant issue, or a jury or judge needs to understand how a story began and ended, a timeline is appropriate. As Texas attorney and legal technology expert Jeffrey S. Lisson has written [pdf], “Timelines are the most effective way to give a judge or jury a sense of who did what, when, and to whom. Just as bar charts and graphs help the uninitiated make sense out of a sea of facts and figures, timelines show the relationship between events. Timelines generally show events laid out on a horizontal, constant chronological scale. Events – the writing of a memo, the reading of an x-ray, or the shooting of a gun – are listed in the order they occurred. While tables of dates and facts require effort to understand, timelines are instantly clear.”

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Whether a $5 million trial or litigation involving hundreds of billions of dollars, Animators at Law almost always uses document call-out trial exhibits as part of its trial presentation.  They are a time-tested and effective tool for highlight key portions of a document in evidence.  Sometimes these call-outs are done on-the-fly in Trial Director by our on-site trial technicians and sometimes these are created using PowerPoint. Regardless of the tool used, care should be taken to consider the most persuasive design for the point a litigator is trying to make.  All too often, stock designs that simply highlight black text in electronic yellow highlighter or faux torn paper tear-outs are used to emphasize key text.  Sometimes these approaches are adequate.  Other times, you are missing out on a key opportunity to persuade. Animators at Law was hired by The U.S. Department of Justice to produce a group of trial exhibits to defend against injury claims in a rescue helicopter landing.  One key case theme required us to emphasize that it was the duty of the hospital to stop traffic rather than anyone on the helicopter or at air traffic control.  To make this point, we arranged the key call-out language inside a stop sign shape.  When combined with emphasis by the litigator, I believe the message of "STOP" was unforgettable.

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