Or why you should always bring a stack of boxes to court
Published in 2020 Texas Rising Stars magazine on March 31, 2020
In 2017, T.J. Jones represented Dallas photographer Andrea Polito in a defamation trial after a newly married couple attacked Polito on social media over a disputed $125 fee for their wedding album. The posts went viral, destroying Polito’s business. The jury ordered the bride—a lifestyle blogger—and groom to pay Polito just over $1 million. En route to the successful verdict, Jones learned that Murphy’s Law applies to trial apps, too.
This was actually my first jury trial ever.
We needed to go through the sequence of events and the emails associated with those events and show the jury the exact timeline.
We didn’t want to have just a PowerPoint slide that we flashed up on the screen. We wanted to be a little bit more dynamic. A lot of times, that’s accomplished through using trial software like TrialDirector. But we didn’t have the budget for something like that.
So I was tasked with finding a creative solution that would allow us to walk through all of the exhibits digitally, do it in a persuasive way, but do it on a budget and in a way that we didn’t need anyone else’s help—so that I could run the exhibits on an iPad.
I ultimately selected TrialPad, which, compared to other trial preparation software on the market, was incredibly inexpensive.
I put all of our exhibits into TrialPad and used it for weeks in preparation for the testimony. I used it for all the witnesses we had. I think we had 300-plus trial exhibits that I had loaded into this software.
Keep in mind, we had mock-trialed this case. We had used this software before, in presentation. We had also used it in witness prep, to walk through the exhibits with our witnesses so that they would be comfortable with how it looked on the screen. We had used this app extensively.
But the first exhibit that I pulled up—right after I asked [the witness] to state her name, basically—crashed the app. It froze. I could not get it to work. I’m fiddling with it as I’m trying to ask questions. I’m unplugging the cord from the iPad and plugging the cord back in. That’s making a weird noise with the speakers. And the jury is kind of looking at me like, “Does this kid know what he’s doing?”
It was the worst-case scenario. So I’m a little bit panicked, right? I’ve got 12 people looking at me, trying to not laugh because I can’t get my iPad to work.
It was mortifying. As a millennial, I was like, “All right, we can do better than paper documents. We’ve found a better way. I found an app that can do that.” And for it to crash—I just saw my whole career going up in smoke.
It was so funny that this didn’t work the way that we anticipated, because when I first pitched the idea of using this app to [firm partner and lead counsel] Dave Wishnew, his words were, “Well, as long as it works, I’m OK with it.”
Fortunately, Baylor [University] trained us to think on our feet.
We had several boxes behind us with hard copies of the exhibits. I got up, got the box—we had the tabs numbered—and I gave the box to Dave. I would call out a number, Dave would dig in the box and find the exhibit, and he would hand it to me.
We ended up walking through the direct just fine.
It’s funny how something like this can actually endear you to the jury. Later in the trial, when the judge couldn’t get the projector to work after a break, I stood up and I said, “Judge, I promise this one’s not my fault.”
The jury cracked up.
I think that the big takeaway I had was that trial preparation means thinking about what could happen and thinking about all of the contingencies that are possible and to be prepared for those contingencies and have an answer. In this circumstance, the answer was simply to have a bunch of boxes stacked underneath our desk just in case. I’m very glad that we did.
As a millennial lawyer who relies a lot on technology, there’s a tendency to become dependent on it and to lose the advocacy part of what we do as lawyers. We put so much emphasis on being persuasive in the way we present things digitally now that we forget how to be persuasive just as a person in front of 12. And if you cannot be persuasive without the technology, you’re not being an effective lawyer.
Relying on an app might have given T.J. Jones a good scare, but he knows it’s impossible to run a modern practice without technology. Here are his go-to apps, programs and cloud services:
TrialPad: Yes, he still uses the one that crashed in court. Glitches happen. TrialPad offers an affordable ($129.99, as of this writing) full-featured courtroom presentation tool.
Box: Some may think this is only a cloud-storage service, but Jones says it’s also a document management platform and collaboration tool for teams/firms to share, comment, edit and coordinate on case files.
OneNote: As a Microsoft Surface user, Jones depends on OneNote for jotting down, organizing and sharing those fast-flying thoughts and notes—whether they’re handwritten, drawn, typed or imported from other apps.