DTCI: Second chair is not second fiddle

October 7, 2015

Michelle Adams DTCIBy Michelle R. Adams

I had the privilege of being the second chair at my first jury trial in March of this year. As I begin preparations for my next trial as second chair, I have been reflecting on what I learned the first go-round. I share my thoughts here with the hope that they will help other young attorneys – or even a seasoned attorney when he or she mentors young attorneys.

Understand that your role as second chair is crucial. You are not there to admire the grandeur of the courtroom. You are an active, vital participant in the trial as both an assistant and a legal mind.

Before trial preparation begins, talk to your first chair about her expectations of you in your role as second chair. While there are typical second chair responsibilities, it is important that you know exactly what your first chair wants and expects from you. You do not want to find out during trial that the first chair was expecting you to do something that you never did because you were unaware of her expectations. Make sure you also meet with her after trial and ask for constructive feedback.

Make sure you take care of any needs in your personal life. Once the trial begins, forget about doing anything unrelated to the trial. Be prepared to arrive early and stay late each day of trial. This may mean making sure any bills due during trial are paid. It may mean hiring a dog or cat sitter or making child care arrangements. You do not want to be in the midst of trial getting frantic phone calls or texts because no one is there to pick your child up from school.

Be prepared. Know the who, what, when, where and why of every aspect of your case. Know all important dates and deadlines before trial. Make sure you have contact information, including cell phone numbers, for all witnesses. Know the details of each document, publication, deposition testimony, exhibit, etc. and organize them so that they are quickly and easily accessible to both you and your first chair. You will lose the attention and trust of the jury if you or your first chair is seen fumbling through and searching for documents. Instead, be the second chair who always knows where everything is located, anticipates when your first chair needs something, and has extra copies for the judge and opposing counsel.

Make sure all of your exhibits are correct before trial. If possible, order them well before you need them. That way, if they are wrong, you have time to make corrections. You should also know how to operate all equipment before trial, including both the dolly used to transport your boxes of files into the courtroom and, especially, any technological equipment necessary to the presentation of your case. Ideally, you should speak with the court staff before trial about what equipment is available in the courtroom. Arrange a date and time to test the technological equipment and know how to use it.

One of your primary roles as second chair is to listen. This will help you anticipate where your first chair is headed. You will then be able to pull a specific document, caselaw, or exhibit for your first chair before she even asks for it. Listen to witness testimony. Pay attention to what you hear and to what you do not hear. If your witness leaves out an important part of his testimony, let your first chair know. During opposing counsel’s opening statement, take detailed notes on the evidence he claims will be presented during trial. If the opposing counsel fails to fulfill these promises, it will be important to point this out to the jury later. As you listen, continue to evaluate the substance of all evidence.

Take detailed, organized and legible notes each day of trial. Take several pens, in case one stops working, and several legal pads. These notes should include not only a summary of the testimony presented that day but also any arguments or objections from opposing counsel, the court’s ruling on said arguments and objections, and any observations you make of the jurors, witnesses, parties and opposing counsel. Keep watch, and include in your notes, anyone – especially any juror – who sighs, sleeps, rolls his eyes or nods along with your first chair’s line of questioning.

Finally, remember you are being closely observed by the jury. Remain calm and do not be a distraction. Eye rolling, loud sighing, making rude faces and tapping your feet are especially irritating to everyone present. Be respectful of everyone in the courtroom. Your words and actions affect what the jury thinks of you, your first chair and your client.•

Michelle Adams is an associate in the Bloomington firm of Clendening Johnson & Bohrer P.C. and is a member of the Health Law Litigation Section of DTCI. The opinions in this article are those of the author.


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