Trial lawyer questioning techniques

Written by cj callen
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Trial lawyer questioning techniques
Never ask a question to which you don't already know the answer. (Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Skilful deposing of a potential witness prior to court is paramount to a lawyer's ability to present a successful examination of the witness to the jury. Direct and cross-examination is an art form. Just as an artist's interpretation is uniquely presented, so too is the unique questioning technique employed by a trial lawyer. As with any artful medium, there is a basic foundation on which to build. Every successful trial lawyer -- though personalities differ -- has a solid foundation on which they have built their skills.

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Leading

"Objection! Counsel is leading the witness," is a familiar statement you've probably heard on some popular television shows. While a lawyer may not blatantly put words into a witnesses mouth, the whole intent of questioning is to lead the witness to give specific answers to specific questions. A well-prepared line of questioning should be flexible -- in that the examiner should be able to follow the line of questioning -- no matter what answer is given. Every possible angle to a question needs to be asked and answered, before entering the courtroom. Questions structured in such a way as "isn't it true that," "you stated in your deposition," and "you were ___ on the date in question, weren't you," limit the witness' answers and give the examiner control over the scope of questioning.

Yes or No

If at all possible, limit questioning to simple yes or no answers. A good trial lawyer never gives a witness room for elaboration, unless it is specifically planned for in the line of questioning. This maintains control over how the case is presented to the jury. The jury should hear most of the detailed information from the lawyer's mouth, not the witness'. The exception to this is mainly concerned with expert testimony.

Pace and Tone

The pace of any line of questioning is very important. It should take the jury on a journey; tell them a story. Like any well-told story, it needs a beginning, middle and end. How questioning is paced reflects the emotions a lawyer wishes to evoke from the jury. The tones in which questions are posed elicit emotion from the witness and determine how he is presented to the jury. A skilled examiner is able to portray a witness to a jury in any manner of his choosing. How the witness responds during questioning depends on how the questions are delivered.

Rapport

There is no one way to hold yourself in a court of law. Every trial lawyer has his own style and personality. But at the same time, he must be able to build a rapport with his witnesses. A good trial lawyer makes his witness feel at ease with the line of questioning, even under stressful circumstances. This can be true, even in cross-examination of a seemingly uncooperative witness. Taking a kinder, gentler approach, rather than combative, may extinguish the hostility of the witness and give the examiner an opportunity to elicit otherwise intangible answers.

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