Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Trial and Error

I'm in trial this week. It isn't nearly as glamorous as books and movies make it out.  There are no late night runs to follow a lead and find the witness that saves the day (because the court requires witnesses to be disclosed well in advance of trial and the trial schedule doesn't permit field trips). There isn't a smoking gun document that materializes at the ninth hour (again - the court requires exhibits to be disclosed well in advance of trial - a trial is more like a game of chess than poker). And there certainly isn't the Perry Mason moment where the witness collapses into a blob of gelatin and admits everything (I'm not saying witnesses lie, but I am saying there may be a few with a loose association with the truth). Being in a generally surly mood, this experience has me focusing on my literary pet peeves about the legal system:

1.  Counselor.  I am going to say this once and for all.  Lawyers do not call each other counselor.  Judges don't call us counselor.  I don't care what you hear Jack McCoy say on Law and Order, cut this word from your courtroom drama.  Everyone is referred to as Mr., Miss, Ms. or Mrs. So and So.  This is at the top of my list of things that will send a book flying toward the wall.  Be warned.

2.  The "Put Yourself in My Client's Shoes" Closing Argument.  I know you've seen the movie A Time To Kill.  That closing argument can be summed up in one word - Mistrial.  Or, if you are more verbose, we can can sum it up in two words - Reversible Error.  A lawyer is prohibited from asking a jury to put itself in the position of his or her client.  Can't do it.  If you write a closing argument with that in there, you will have an army of lawyers coming after you.  Considering that in most cities you can't swing a dead cat without five lawyers running up to you and threatening to sue for the dangerous condition you and your dearly departed feline are creating, avoid this error at all costs because a large portion of your audience will turn purple and start screaming.

3.  The "Rocket Docket."  Let me make this clear.  The wheels of justice move slowly.  Painfully so.  The case that has led to my trial was filed in early 2008.  It is now late 2010.  If your story deals with a civil case, this timing isn't unusual.  A lawyer with whom I am good friends has a simple employment termination case that has been in court for over fourteen years.  People don't walk into a lawyer's office with a claim and wind up in trial a few weeks or months later.  Remember, court clog exists and plagues many dockets.  Criminal cases tend to move a more quickly than civil cases due to the Constitutional promise of a fair and speedy trial, but do your research.  The more serious the crime, chances are, the time it will take to go to trial will be longer.  If you want your legal drama to be realistic, don't have a case going to trial within a month of a client walking in the door.

I will get off my soap box now and return to writing my closing argument which should have people weeping (considering my case focuses on the titillating topic of overtime payments, I am expecting stock in tissues to sky rocket).  As a self-absorbed attorney whose favorite subject is herself, I love reading stories that deal with the legal system.  It makes me feel more important.  A great character or story will excuse a few boo-boos, but if you plan on writing a courtroom drama, go watch a trial or two.  You can call your local court and find out the trial schedule.  Show up with a notepad in hand.  While the lawyers may seem like the best sources of information, you will get the best scoop from talking to the deputies, marshals, court reporters, and clerks.  They will have the best tidbits that will make your book shine.  Just today, one of the marshals told me about a juror coming back to the courthouse because he left his pants.  Now, that's a story!   


Chris Bailey said...

I promise not to show up in your courtroom. Last time I observed a trial (not as a member of the jury) I accidentally snorted myself awake. Moot court at Samford. Sorry, budding trial lawyers. I was only 17.

JoAnn said...

Great post and great info! Thanks!

Callie James said...

I love blogs like this, with tidbits of information we can all use. I'll be sure to check in with you if I ever need legal advice for my fiction (you DID see that coming, didn't you?).


M.V.Freeman said...

You had me laughing Heather!
Great points...! I love that.

Carla Swafford said...

"As a self-absorbed attorney whose favorite subject is herself..."

I've never noticed that about you. Seriously. Really. Well, okay. but I find you interesting too. So don't change. LOL!


Jeanie said...

Heather, I know what you mean. One of my husband's favorite movies is And Justice For All. I'm sorry. Al Pacino's butt would have so been in court for contempt, at the very least.

And you are right. The wheels of justice move at a snail's pace.

Cari Hislop said...

Thanks for making me laugh! Doesn't everyone like reading stories that reinforce one's belief that without one the world just wouldn't turn the same?

If you're interested in historical law dramas, if you haven't seen Garrow's Law, I highly recommend it.
It's based on actual 18th century court cases (apparently dealt with by a real man named Garrow). The costumes, acting and script are brilliant...I assume "the facts" are mostly accurate.