As a car accident lawsuit approaches trial, the lawyers have many, many things to do. Here is just some of the legal work that a personal injury lawyer will be doing to prepare for trial (we'll expand on some of these in the sections that follow):
Most personal injury lawsuits, and the vast majority of car accident cases, get settled. Some are settled long before trial, some are settled in the days before trial, some are settled the morning of trial, and some get even settled during the trial. A lawsuit can always be settled, even while the jury is walking in the courtroom door with its verdict.
A good plaintiff's lawyer never gives up hope of reaching a settlement and never announces to the defense attorney, "There will be no settlement in this case. I'm going to trial." What if the plaintiff's key witness falls apart during cross-examination? Now the plaintiff wants to settle, and the lawyer will have to go groveling to the defense attorney to talk about settlement. (Learn more about car accident settlements.)
Lawyers have to do a lot of paperwork before a trial. All courts require both sides to prepare what is called the Pretrial Statement, which is a final and binding statement of the party's claims and defenses, witnesses, and exhibits, among other things.
In most cases, the lawyers will also file pretrial motions (often called motions in limine), which are motions to limit the type of evidence that the opponent can produce at trial. The plaintiff's lawyer has one set of motions to file, and then has to file objections to the defendant's motions.
Another very important pretrial document is the jury instructions. These are the instructions that each party asks that the judge give to the jury at the end of the case. The jury instructions are the law that the jury will apply in deciding the case. These are usually rather lengthy documents that take a significant amount of time to prepare.
A good lawyer will usually meet with the plaintiff a number of times during the week or two before trial to prepare the plaintiff's testimony. The lawyer will also meet with the other witnesses if at all possible to prepare them as well. Basically, an unprepared witness is like a time bomb waiting to go off. If a witness is unprepared for trial, you simply don't know what that witness is going to say at trial.
The lawyer will usually practice the plaintiff's testimony with the plaintiff, asking the exact questions that he/she will ask at trial. This is called the direct examination. In direct examination, there should be no surprises as to the questions that the plaintiff's lawyer will ask the plaintiff and as to the plaintiff's answers to these questions. It should be almost like a script, except that the lawyer wants the jury to think that it is a casual, spontaneous conversation.
The lawyers will have written outlines of the questions that they intend to ask the witnesses, both on direct and cross examination.
Lawyers generally don't just hand out 4x6 photographs to the jury. They will blow them up and show them on a screen or make enlargements with backing so that they can be put on an easel and marked up during the trial. All of that takes time beforehand. Documents are similarly prepared. Some judges require that documents be compiled in a looseleaf notebook and that one copy of the notebook be handed out to each juror.
Some witnesses, like the medical providers, generally do not appear live. Doctors are busy and charge a tremendous amount of money to appear live. For this reason, their testimony is usually presented at trial by videotaped deposition, which is played to the jury. However, with these videotaped depositions, the lawyers and the judge have to resolve all of the objections to the doctor's testimony beforehand, so that the jury just sees a clean video. This usually entails more hours of work by both lawyers to hash out their differences.
As you can see, preparing for trial is a tremendous amount of work and time. If indeed lawyers ever just "winged it" in the old days and showed up for trial with no preparation other than their wits, they don't do that anymore. The above tasks are just some of the things that a good plaintiff's personal injury lawyer does to prepare him/her and the client for trial.