Courthouses vary from county to county, and courtrooms vary from courthouse to courthouse. But for the most part, the tables inside those courtrooms are pretty consistent. Sometimes they have modesty panels, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they have electrical or internet access ports, sometimes they don’t, but regardless of where you try cases, you and your opponent will usually end up sitting behind identical 96″ x 30″ x 30″ tables.
The question you need to ask yourself is, “What impression does my table make on the jury?”
Before the trial begins, both tables will look exactly the same. But once trial commences, your table and your opponent’s table will start looking dramatically different. In my courtroom career, I’ve witnessed thousands of different table scenarios. Some of the tables have been clean and neat, while others have been a complete disaster. Typically, the table represented the personality of the attorneys sitting behind it, and was also a pretty fair representation of how neat and organized their cases were. For example, the table with dozens of documents, books, and loose leaf papers strewn about:
They had 4 different theories of the case and were asking the judge to believe all 4 of them. Compare that to the table with a single legal pad in the middle:
They had a streamlined view of their case, stipulated to everything that didn’t matter, and focused on their primary issue.
Keeping in mind Albert Einstein’s thoughts (“If a cluttered desk signs a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”), here are a few guidelines for you to consider when organizing your counsel table:
1. Don’t remind the jurors of something they can’t have. Coffee? Water? Soda? if your jurors aren’t allowed to have those items with them in the jury box, don’t have it at your table. When you have a nice tall, cool glass of refreshing water at your table, but your jurors don’t, every time you reach for a glass they’ll be thinking about how thirsty they are. And if they’re thinking about that, they’re not thinking about your case.
2. Don’t let them see exhibits that haven’t been admitted into evidence. It’s direct examination, and your opponent’s witness is testifying about the dimensions of the accident scene. You’ve got a photo of the accident scene which contradicts the witness’s testimony, but it hasn’t been admitted into evidence. During your opponent’s direct examination, you might be tempted to place the photo on your desk to remind you about questions you want to ask during cross-examination, but make sure you don’t get careless and leave the document on the desk within view of your jurors. You may think the jurors aren’t peeking at the items on your table, but they are. Until your exhibits have been admitted into evidence, take extra precautions to ensure those items are kept from the jury’s view.
3. Don’t let anything block your view of the jurors. Some attorneys bring printers with them to court. Laptops and LCD screens are routinely a part of the landscape. Sometimes we’re even tempted to place our briefcases or casefiles on the table for easy access during trial. But the trouble with these items it that they can block your view of the jurors (and block your jury’s view of you). Before trial begins, take a walking tour of the courtroom and sit in the jury box to ensure that you can see over the items on your desk, then take a clue from the 18 wheel truck drivers: If you can’t see them, they can’t see you! Move the items out of view to ensure an unobstructed view of the jury, so you can keep an eye on the jury and calibrate your case to their needs.