What is a Trial Notebook?

Dee S.
Dee S.

The trial notebook is one of the most frequently used methods to organize trial documents. Material used during the course of a courtroom trial should be organized for efficient and quick reference. Consequently, it is best if each section of a trial – jury selection or voir dire, opening statements, direct examinations, cross examinations, and closing statements – is organized separately.

Trial notebooks are used to organize trial documents.
Trial notebooks are used to organize trial documents.

Under the trial notebook method of organization, all the important materials for each section of the trial are placed in a three-ring binder. Each trial section has a tabbed divider so that the trial lawyer can quickly flip to the section and the document he needs. There are many advantages to this method of organization: all the key documents are in one main place, key documents cannot be misplaced, and the primary documents can be located quickly by turning to the right section of the trial. Besides the sections of trial, other common sections in a trial notebook include facts, pleadings, motions, discovery, research and instructions.

Trial notebooks usually include all witness statements.
Trial notebooks usually include all witness statements.

The facts section of a trial notebook should include all witness statements, reports, diagrams, and other factual materials. It also typically contains a summary page that restates the names of those persons in the opposite party, and the names of the opposite side’s attorneys with the firm's phone number and address. It is extremely common to include in the facts section, a list of the counts pursuant to the complaint or the indictment, the key facts, and a timeline of events, as well.

The pleadings section should contain the indictment or the complaint, the answer, and the reply for each side of the legal proceeding. They should be arranged in chronological order. Sometimes, if the lawsuit is based on a specific code or statute, a copy of it should be kept in this section, too. Likewise, the motions section will contain all pretrial motions, responses, and judge’s orders on said motions. They should also be kept in chronological order.

Discovery documents, such as interrogatories and answers to interrogatories are commonly located under the discovery section in a trial notebook. Also, deposition abstracts can be kept with discovery documents. The abstracts are most useful if they cross-index specific sections of tabbed or marked copies of depositions themselves. Any other discovery documents, such as notices to produce and responses to such notices, can also be placed chronologically among the discovery documents.

Jury selection is an important and interesting part of most trials. There should be a section devoted to the selection of the jury. A jury chart that records that basic background information on each potential juror, such as age, occupation, and education, is extremely helpful. A question checklist for potential jurors can also be located in this section. Lastly, as jurors are dismissed, the attorney can mark on the chart whether they were dismissed for cause or simply as one of the peremptory strikes.

The attorney should also have documents that can be used during direct and cross-examinations in the trial notebook. A list of every witness that will be called should be outlined on a sheet of paper. It is also handy to include a list of exhibits that each witness will qualify. If there are only a few exhibits, it may be useful to include a copy of the exhibits in this section as well. Cross-examination notes can be kept in the binder too – written on blank sheets of three-holed paper.

The opening statement and closing statement sections in the notebook can be left to the option of the attorney. For the opening statement, it can either be read from a paper that can be kept in the trial notebook or memorized. The closing statement is a conglomeration of thoughts that are used to tie the trial together. The notes for the closing statement can be kept in the binder.

Research and jury instructions can also be kept in the trial notebook. Any case law, statutes, or other research on the legal issues can be kept in one place and referred to when needed. It is also a great place to keep the jury instructions that the attorney wants to offer at the end of the trial.

The main element associated with this type of notebook is organization and preparedness. It allows important documents to be kept at the attorney’s fingertips. It goes without saying that preparedness can determine whether a given case will have a successful outcome.

Jury selection is an important and interesting part of most trials.
Jury selection is an important and interesting part of most trials.
Dee S.
Dee S.

Dee is a freelance writer based in Colorado. She has a B.A. in English Literature, as well as a law degree. Dee is especially interested in topics relating to medicine, legal issues, and home improvement, which are her specialty when contributing to wiseGEEK.

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Discussion Comments


@Logicfest -- ah, but there is something to be said for using technology in conjunction with a trial notebook. For example, there will be times when you will need a document or a case that you didn't include in a notebook and having online access to those items can be critical.

The simple fact is that some things can come up in a trial that you didn't consider when putting together a trial notebook. Such is the nature of trial work. Technology can put those items in your hands fast and there are times when that is exactly what you need.


What's intriguing is that technology hasn't progressed to the point where the good, old trial notebook has been replaced. There are some apps out there that have bee developed as effective replacements, but they simply aren't as convenient to use as a well-organized, trial notebook.

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