Professional Practice : Making a Good Record
By Vicki Hartmetz
- Use the judge as a resource. In a courtroom setting, the reporter needs to inform the judge what he or she can do to help make the record. Lawyers do pay attention to what the judge has to say about policies and procedures prior to trial. During the preliminary phase, when the Court advises the attorneys what is expected of them, is an excellent time to pass along record-making tips. Also, when the Court sends the bailiff to obtain the prospective jury panel, the reporter should take the opportunity to reinforce policies regarding exhibits, use of an amplifier during bench conferences, and general procedures. If a rapport is established prior to trial, approaching the attorneys later is easier.
- Interrupt – politely, of course. If an attorney does not know how to question a witness appropriately and doesn’t let the witness finish the answer before launching into the next question, don’t be shy. Interrupt the attorney by simply saying, “Counsel, one at a time, please.” This will be sufficient for the time being and, most likely, the attorney will try not to incur the wrath of the judge.
- Use the quietly-taking-aside approach. If interrupting the attorney doesn’t work, wait until the next recess and take the attorney aside. The best way to approach this depends on the personality of the reporter, but simply indicating that while you don’t want to break up the flow of his examination by interrupting, you are interested in making a good record and will do what is necessary to accomplish this end. Most attorneys respond well to this, but you still may have to interrupt until you make it clear that you are not going to quietly fade into the woodwork.
- Clarify, clarify, clarify. Should a witness have a heavy accent that makes it very difficult to understand what the testimony is, have the witness repeat the answer until you understand it. The lawyers have lived with their case for months and even years before they even came to trial and most likely know what the witness is saying. If the attorney is conscious of the record, he will either repeat the answer in his next question or clarify what it is the witness is saying. If the attorney doesn’t catch on to the fact that he needs to help you in such a situation, then pull him aside again.
- Use the jury. If the attorney bristles at any suggestion you might give to improve his methods (or lack thereof), use the jury to your advantage. Politely point out that if you don’t understand the witness (being a trained professional), then the jury is probably having the same difficulty. This is also a good approach to the fast talker. “If you’re speaking too fast for me, then it must really be going over the heads of the jury.” Another example: “I can’t even hear that fast and I’m a trained listener. What do you think the jury is getting out of this?”
- Don’t give up! Somewhere along the line, if the attorney continues to ignore his duty to assist in making a good record, you must be assertive. A firm and high volume “Excuse me” is guaranteed to at least get a passing glance. The judge should be constantly reminding counsel about speaking one at a time, letting the witness finish the answer, not speaking too fast, etc. If that is not happening, then it is your job to do your best to see that it does.