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By: Richard A. Cook, Esq. (Guest Blogger)
Part I of Our Deposition Series
While not every paralegal actively assists with the preparation of clients for their testimony at deposition or trial, we feel the candid information shared in this article is useful for all paralegals! Whether or not you help to prepare clients, you do actually read their depositions at some point, right? At least we hope so! This information will help you understand the potential pitfalls your attorney faces.
Plus, you never know where you might find yourself 2-5 years down the road. You might be the future guru of client preparation and not even know it yet! We hope you enjoy these useful tips.
Helping your client refresh their memory regarding facts pertinent to the case is just the beginning of your job in preparing your client to testify at their deposition or trial. You also need prepare your client for problem areas of questioning. The following is a list of problem questions and how to deal with them during the course of a deposition of your client:
Compound questions are questions, which incorporate two questions in one. They are very deceptive and dangerous because a yes or no answer can be interpreted as an affirmative response to the underlying predicate. For example, “Do you drink vodka only on Tuesdays and Thursdays?” is actually two questions in one. The first question is, “Do you drink vodka?” and if yes, is it only on Tuesdays and Thursdays?
Another classic approach to the compound question is to summarize a client’s prior testimony, and then ask at the tail end a yes or no question. Clients often focus only on the yes or no question, and forget that by answering the question without objection or clarification they are affirming the entire scenario outlined in the question. While you, as an attorney, should object to such questions, it is important to educate the client on these problems as well, in case you fall asleep at the switch.
Questions in Absolute Terms
Questions cast in absolute terms can also be a problem. Whenever an attorney uses such terms as, “Do you always” or, “Have you never,” they are attempting to lock your client in absolute terms. There is nothing wrong with being absolutely sure, you just want to make sure that that is, in fact, the case. If there are exceptions, then the client needs to avoid answering such questions in the affirmative. On the other hand, defense attorneys will use such absolute terms as a means of unnerving a client and backing them off of their testimony. The point is, make sure if you answer in absolute terms, that you’re absolutely correct.
The flip side of this is to water down answers with qualifiers such as, “I think,” “I believe,” or, “In my opinion,” when you actually know the facts. Make sure your client avoids using such terminology. It is better to indicate that you don’t know or recall than to guess or speculate. Once again, the primary rule is to answer truthfully and accurately.
Do not exaggerate: Don’t take a good case, try to make it a great case, and turn it into a bad case. The first rule I learned when I began doing defense work from the senior partner at the firm I was at was to let a Plaintiff exaggerate all they want. There is nothing that more quickly undermines a claim or gives rise to the all-popular defense mantra of “secondary gain” than needless exaggeration. This is why reviewing a client’s medical records with the client in advance is imperative.
Be careful of giving opinions, as they are the doorway to guess and speculation on the part of a client. If a client starts to guess and speculate, the next thing you know, they are giving inconsistent answers or violating the rules of physics. As Sgt. Friday in Dragnet said, “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.” This should be your mantra to your client as well. Stay factual! Do not guess, and do not speculate. You do not have to have an answer to every question. Remember you are a “human being, not a computer.”
“Would It Be Fair to Say…”
Usually when an attorney begins a question with, “would it be fair,” it is absolutely unfair to your client. Anytime a client hears a question prefaced with such a line, they should make sure they in fact agree with the proposition set forth in the question.
Defense attorneys will often ask, “Tell me everything that’s still a problem.” The difficulty with this question is that a client can forget important details of their injuries or losses when asked to simply list everything under the sun without any other prompting. While you can object to the form of the question on the grounds that it calls for a narrative, your client ultimately will probably have to answer it. It is important to review in advance all areas of losses and damages with the client to ensure that that do not forget anything. Your client should be prepared to answer at the end of their list that that’s all they can recall at the moment. This allows you to clean the topic up on cross, or later through the signature process where your client is allowed to review their deposition before it is sealed.
“How Much Is Your Case Worth?”
This is a question that I have used with Plaintiffs, and oftentimes catches them totally off guard. Ultimately, I think the best response is to say that I’m not an expert in evaluating these sort of things, and am trusting my attorney’s best judgment, as well as that of the jury. To actually provide a dollar amount can make your client appear greedy, and be used to prove motive for secondary gain.
Other Trick Questions
Another classic question to unnerve a witness or a client that attorneys will often use is, “Have you talked to anybody about this case?” Sometimes, a client will think that they’ve done something wrong by discussing their testimony in advance. The client should be put at ease that there is nothing wrong with preparing for their deposition or meeting with you in advance. In fact, most jurors expect attorneys to meet with their clients, as well as witnesses, in order to properly prepare for trial. Obviously, your client has talked to you, and such information is privileged. If the question is posed by opposing counsel and you fall asleep at the switch, you want to make sure that your client seeks a clarification as to whether the attorney is, “Asking for information discussed with counsel.” If your client has discussed the case with other persons, you want to identify this well in advance of the deposition, so that you don’t have to deal with needless prior inconsistent statements.
Richard Cook graduated from Purdue University in the Economics Honor Program in 1979 and obtained his Juris Doctor degree from Valparaiso University School of Law in 1982. Following law school, he served as a federal law clerk in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division. In 1984, Richard began working as Deputy Prosecutor for the Lake County Indiana Prosecutor’s Office and from there, served as Assistant U. S. Attorney for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division. There he handled a number of complex criminal matters and jury trials. While there, Richard received the Chief Postal Inspector’s Special Award and a letter of commendation from the U.S. Attorney General for his work prosecuting a major money order fraud scheme being perpetrated out of the Indiana State Prison system. Since leaving the U.S. Attorney’s office in 1989, Richard has focused primarily on civil work and is currently a member of the firm Yosha Cook Shartzer & Tisch in Indianapolis. Richard is also a member of the ITLA and the ABA.
We’d like to say a special thanks to Rich for sharing these tips with us. We appreciate him sharing his knowledge with our readers!
TPS readers — do you have any additional tips you utilize when preparing a client for deposition or trial? Perhaps you have a funny client preparation or trial testimony story? If so, we’d certainly love to hear it! Please feel free to leave a comment.