Trial Management Skills are Critical to Paralegals in Litigation… and Certification Can’t Hurt

Trial management is the ancient art of keeping court cases on the rails and conforming to court-mandated deadlines for filings, appearances, and other procedural matters. It’s often an under-recognized factor in the success of those cases, and it’s an area where paralegals are expected to shine.

With their training emphasizing attention to detail and organization skills bordering on OCD, paralegals are often the ones that carry the burden of managing the files and paperwork that have to do with a particular case.

Although they report to the lawyers assigned to the case, paralegals may well be the people cracking whips when it gets down to crunch time and all the boxes need to be checked to avoid a mistrial.

Without someone keeping a big-picture overview on the progress of a case, procedural details can fall through the cracks. Paralegals know that one dirty little secret of the American legal system is just how often lawyers blow filing dates or flat-out forget to appear in court. In one 2017 case in Chicago, a defense attorney missed six straight court appearances, causing his client to opt for a public defender instead.

Judges, understandably, don’t look kindly on attorneys that don’t show respect for the court’s time and deadlines, and although it’s not supposed to prejudice judgment in the case, it certainly doesn’t help stack the odds in their favor.

And so it falls to paralegals in criminal and civil litigation firms to manage cases as they proceed to ensure those glitches don’t happen.

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What Exactly Goes Into Managing a Trial Successfully?

Details, details, details, are the name of the game in trial management.  From the initial client contact to the final disposition of a judgment, every part of the process has multiple steps and procedural details that may be completely invisible to an outside observer, but can make all the difference in the outcome of a case.

Document Management Lays The Foundation

It starts well before a trial even begins, perhaps before it’s even clear that a trial will occur. Paralegals are usually charged with assembling a case file. Putting together a document management system that is well-organized and makes it easy to find evidence, citations, pleadings, and briefs lays the foundation for every other part of the trial process.

Paralegals also become experts on court procedures. Each court has its own system for managing the trial process, laid out in rules published by the court clerks. These rules govern almost every aspect of the trial process and the ways lawyers will interact with the court system, including:

  • How and when to file motions and how they will be reviewed.
  • Procedures for introducing and handling evidence.
  • Access to court records.
  • Details of electronic service and filing mechanisms.
  • Scheduling procedures and precedence.

Each of these rules are subject to change and amendment, meaning that paralegals have to keep up with current revisions to keep trials and track.

Calendar Management Is King

It’s important to follow documentary standards as a case progresses through the court system, but keeping on top of important dates—and managing the time of key lawyers and witnesses—may be the most important factor in trial management. Just about every other mistake a legal team can make can be fixed up or patched over, but a missed deadline is just missed.

Paralegals are often keepers of the calendar and organizers of schedules during trials, coordinating with opposing counsel, court clerks, outside resources, and other staff within the firm to make sure that preparation time is being used efficiently and that filings and appearances happen at the appropriate times.

Part of managing the calendar is managing witnesses. It’s one thing to get an attorney from your own firm to court on time—they have a vested interest in being there. But dealing with witnesses who may be indifferent or outright hostile to the case can require a whole new set of skills to motivate, prepare, and compel them to appear.

Cataloging and Producing Evidence to Prove the Case

With a solid document management system, paralegals have an efficient way to produce evidence as it is required in court, but the order and manner in which it is presented can make all the difference during a trial. Paralegals may have to come up with innovative ways to display certain facts or items of evidence that need to be clarified or as a way to really draw the attention of the judge and jury.

The paralegal may be responsible for working with the court clerk to enter the items as official exhibits and to keep track of the shuffle, determining who has control of what and ensuring that nothing gets lost or misplaced in the process.

Tracking Trial Progress

No trial plan survives contact with the enemy, to paraphrase Prussian Field Marshal von Moltke. Paralegals are often charged with keeping track of how the trial is proceeding, helping to devise changes in strategy or tactics to adjust to developments in the case as arguments are made and evidence is presented in court.

Paralegals often keep detailed notes during the trial and serve as the first line of reference for ensuring that the case is being presented in a way that aligns with the initial strategy laid out by the legal team. They may also record how the judge or jury respond to certain arguments, reading facial expressions and small gestures to get some idea of whether or not the points are landing and having the intended effect.

Those notes may be used to alter the strategy or to reinforce aspects of arguments that do not appear to be landing as hoped.

Tracking the opposition’s lines of questioning and cross-examination is also useful. It may become apparent that the way the case is organized is vulnerable to a particular attack from opposing counsel. As needed, it may be necessary to make a big shift in the way the case is being argued.

How to Learn More About Trial Management

Despite its importance in winning court cases, trial management is not given great emphasis in many paralegal training programs. Most paralegals learn on the job, and sometimes that means learning the hard way.

However, you can earn a specialty certificate in trial management. Currently, NALS, the Association for Legal Professionals, offers the only certificate of this kind, charging $150 for members and $200 for non-members.

The certificate is good for five years from the date of issue. A fresh application must be made after that period in order to maintain the certificate.

NALS certification works through accumulating continuing education credit hours in relevant programs. These can include:

  • Attending workshops, seminars, or webinars on trial management.
  • Teaching workshops, seminars, or webinars.
  • Authoring articles or publications on the subject.
  • Completion of post-secondary educational courses specific to trial management.

Through some combination of these activities, you have to accumulate at least 50 CLE (Continuing Legal Education) hours and submit proof to NALS in order to receive your certificate.