Trial lawyers are like directors of live TV or theater productions. When a case is finally reached for trial there are a number of tasks to be completed to set the stage for the final presentation. Civil jury cases have a definite shelf life in Connecticut, having already gone through a number of stages. Depending on the complexity of the issues and the Judicial District in which the case is pending, from inception of suit to the first day of trial can take 1-4 years. In recent years our judges have endeavored to shorten that time span.
Once discovery is complete and all relevant depositions of fact witnesses and experts have been accomplished the lawyer’s task is to start to collate vast amounts of information, catalog those diffuse facts and begin to assemble the theme of the case. In the past cases were placed on a printed trial list. Periodically, the presiding judge would publish the list and have a jury call. Lawyers would attend this cattle call and inform the court whether a case was ready for trial or needed reassignment. The lawyer had to monitor the progress of prior “ready” cases on the list to gauge when a case was going to be called in to start.
In complex cases, requiring expert testimony, this system was a nightmare. It was difficult to project when the case would actually commence and thus lining up experts was constantly problematic. In recent years, the courts have gone to definite assignment dates. Lawyers confer with each other in a court mandated scheduling conference and agree to a schedule for completion of discovery and dates for trial. When your date arrives you have to be ready.
So what does that entail for the busy trial lawyer with a stable of cases? First, it requires an experienced support staff to keep us to the schedule. Due dates have to be calendared and care taken to make sure that the other side has received all prospective exhibits and expert opinions. Prior to the actual trial date the court sets a Trial Management Conference. Attendance is mandatory, coupled with a Trial Management Report (TMR). The Judicial Department website provides the format for the TMR (http://jud.ct.gov/external/super/Standorders/Civil/TMC_Order_Court.pdf).
Preparing the TMR is a useful organizational tool for counsel and support staff. First, the court requires all sides cooperate in the preparation of the report. It begins with a simple, non-argumentative statement of the issues in the case which the presiding judge will read at the inception of jury selection. It must include the names and proposed order of presentation of ALL trial witnesses. Failure to include a witness on the list will lead to the witness’s exclusion.
All proposed trial exhibits must be identified and pre-marked with appropriate plaintiff or defendant exhibit stickers. Counsel have to indicate whether there will be objections to particular exhibits and the basis, as well as whether there are outstanding legal issues. Typically, when lawyers anticipate a battle about the admission of an exhibit or testimony they will prepare a Motion in Limine which seeks a ruling from the court before the evidence is actually proffered. This allows the judge the chance to research the issue and thus minimize the chance for an erroneous ruling.
While forcing the trial lawyer to be organized in advance, the TMR and the resulting Trial Management Conference allow for the seamless presentation of evidence. When done correctly they minimize the intrusion that a trial is in the lives of jurors and save lawyers from developing ulcers. Cooperation among adversaries lets the court and jury focus on the real issues. To insure compliance courts will sanction offending lawyers. The more egregious the breach, the deeper into that lawyer’s checkbook a judge will go, sometimes ordering the payment of thousands of dollars to the other side. The lesson for counsel is be prepared and get it right!