In this episode of the IMS Insights Podcast, we speak with trial presentation advisor Jeff Dahm about his perspective as a hot seat operator and his role during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Teresa Barber: So, Jeff, tell me, we’re in a really interesting time and you mentioned this just a couple of moments ago that so many people are in very new environments. We’re having very high stakes meetings and events but in a totally virtual environment. You were talking about other folks in the industry who have those hot seat trial presentation skills for attorneys, for clients, what should they be … I mean are there things that a traditional trial presentation consultant could do right now that can help attorneys feel a little more confident, a little more prepared when they’re going into those virtual meetings, virtual events?
Jeff Dahm: Sure. Trial presentation consultants are quite familiar with the way the video conferencing software works. Call them up, have them assist you in the video conferencing platform. Have them help you make sure that everything works. Schedule a Zoom meeting with your trial presentation consultant to run through a program. Make sure it looks good on the other end. Hire them, send them the PowerPoint, run the PowerPoint and you watch it click through, so you can see what the client … what the judge is going to see, what the other opposing counsel is going to see. Just like in a war room, you do run-throughs, run-throughs and run-throughs. The good attorneys that know what it’s about, practice. They look effortless in court because they practice and you should do the same thing with your consultant if you have an online hearing. Practice.
Dahm: I mean you would need to practice in person, you’re going to want to practice with an online hearing. It’s very important. So, they can help you with that. Make sure that if you want to show something in OnCue or Trial Director, make sure that the documents come up right, make sure the video looks good. If you have to show video clips in your hearing, the trial presentation consultant can help you edit those clips, get them together, organize them. I mean there’s a lot of stuff that happens in trial that’s technical that doesn’t actually happen in the trial. It happens before the trial. You still have those things that are going to have to happen and the trial presentation consultant can help you with those.
Barber: Nice. Yes, interesting. And I would imagine, let’s say we’re in a virtual environment or a virtual hearing, that stuff is very visible, right? If there’s a glitch in something.
Dahm: Yes, you’ve got to be smooth. There’s little things like when you press … When you start the PowerPoint, that you don’t have the speaker view on the screen, you have to switch. There is a seamless operation that a good trial tech does in court and the same seamless operation can happen in the online hearing, and it’s the same sort of method to keep things running smooth just like you do in a courtroom.
Barber: Very interesting. Without disclosing anything confidential, you’ve had a very lengthy career, Jeff, a lot of interesting trials, a lot of interesting moments. Without disclosing anything confidential, could you share maybe a moment where you would be especially proud of what you were able to contribute and the outcomes that you were able to bring?
Dahm: Sure. I think about all of these years I’ve been doing this and the moments that stand out, and for me, in a court … I have some pretty dramatic, crazy things that have happened, but the most effective and the most jaw-dropping moments are when you impeach a witness on the stand and when you play a video clip that shows that they contradicted themself on the video. That is truly one of the most effective moments in a trial to win. You have an expert witness up there, who’s very cocky, who thinks they know everything, and thinks they read their deposition and has everything right, and they put their story wrong together. And as a trial presentation consultant, I have these video clips, impeachment clips, lined up, ready to go. For me, it’s the most important part of my job, and I instill this in all of my trial techs, that you need to make sure you bring up that impeachment clip fast in order for the effectiveness of it, and it’s crucial.
Dahm: If a witness is on the stand and they say X and I have a video clip that says Y and my client asks for it, boom, it’s got to come up in seconds to get the effect. And if you do that, you really do have the best chance of discrediting a witness you really want to. It’s not pleasant always, it’s a little uncomfortable at times but it’s the most effective moment in a trial, I believe.
Dahm: I also have a couple of random little stories of things that have happened to me.
Barber: Yes, I was going to ask you, 23 years sitting in court, in trials, you’ve spent more time in courtrooms than most attorneys would have, and you’ve got to have some stories. Are there any moments that standout to you?
Dahm: There are a couple of them here. So, I was involved in this case in 2001, 2002, early on in my career. It was a dog mauling in San Francisco, and there was a woman who was mauled. It was a terrible, terrible story and we worked with the district attorney’s office to help prosecute these people that have these dogs. So, I was in the courtroom. The trial was on Court TV. It was a big case. Then the defense counsel gets up and she stands up and she gets on the floor and starts barking like a dog, in the middle of the courtroom. The whole place is going crazy, barking like a dog. Okay, so I do my presentation and my mother was watching at home. I talked to her afterwards and she said, “Now, I finally understand what you do for a living.” She couldn’t get it before.
Dahm: “Yes, I go into court, help display evidence,” but she saw me on TV. She saw the attorney barking like a dog. And she said, “Now, I kind of get what you do.”
Barber: Oh, my goodness.
Dahm: Another big moment for me was when I did a trial for a Pueblo in New Mexico to try and get land back from the government under aboriginal Indian title. It was a truly amazing case. It was incredible. One of the witnesses was one of the medicine men from the Pueblo, and he got up on the stand and he led the whole entire congregation in the courtroom in a prayer, and they were all in a chanting prayer. It was so overwhelmingly amazing and beautiful, and I couldn’t believe that I got to be a part of this, sitting in a federal courtroom. It was pretty amazing. And at the end of that trial, they gave me a piece of pottery that they make. The Pueblo makes this pottery, and it’s truly one of my most prized possessions. It was just a fantastic trial. I really enjoyed it.
Barber: Sounds like some moments definitely stay with you.
Dahm: Yes, you get the big moments…you get to go to some event. I sat courtside at a game as a thank you, flying on a plane. You end up in these crazy moments in this job that you don’t even expect, and you’re like, oh my gosh, is this really happening? I’m just the trial tech, but the trial tech is a very important part of the whole process. It’s been a great 25 years for me. It’s been really good.
Barber: Yes. It sounds really interesting, and I have to say, too, you’re working with really impressive attorneys quite a bit and clients certainly have to have shaped your mindset, your approach to everything. What role have clients played in how your career’s developed?
Dahm: Yes. I started early on in my career working with a firm, Keker, Van Nest & Peters, and I got in on some cases early on and I started working with the whole firm and just their … seeing their work ethic and their passion for their job. They were all just dynamic people who were so effective in a courtroom, and fun people, fun people to be around, and so great at their jobs. I saw this early on in my career and I was like, I want to be like this.
Dahm: I sort of modeled my work ethic and my career path based on the way that this firm has done their work, and it’s been a really, really great experience for me working with them and also just learning so much about just the law and being in court and working on a team and working effectively on a team. These are some values that I learned from them that I really, really take that from every part of my life. It’s been really, really great for me. So, I thank them immensely for what they’ve done for me.
Barber: That kind of mindset, too, makes it a little more … It makes it fun, right? You kind of get that back when you put it into your work.
Dahm: Yes. It’s been fantastic, yeah.
Barber: We were talking a moment ago about nearly 25 years in the industry working in trials, working as a trial presentation consultant. You’ve seen a lot of trials, and certainly, that truth makes it over to clients, to attorneys. Do you ever have clients who stop you during trial or kind of pull you to the side and want your opinion? How does that work?
Dahm: I find that the clients that ask my opinion and the clients that want to know what the trial tech thinks are the clients that tend to win. I mean you have this invaluable resource sitting right there in the courtroom that has sat through a lot of trials. Let’s say I’ve sat through hundreds of them because I’ve been doing this for 25 years but even somebody who’s only done it 10 years, five years, they still have more experience than most attorneys in a courtroom. I wrote an article a few years ago about the view from the hot seat, showing what the hot seat operator, the five most important things that a hot seat operator can tell a client to win and I tell you, I stand by those.
Dahm: You get so much just from sitting in a courtroom, and I pay attention. I follow the cases. You have to if you’re going to be helping bring up evidence because when they turn around and say, “can you bring up the statute,” they don’t always say Exhibit 55. You have to know what the statute is. They do ask my opinion and I give my opinion quite candidly whenever I am asked because it doesn’t help anybody to not tell the truth in these situations. So I just tell it like it is, say you’re not going to win that argument, you need to try this different, and they really do appreciate it. Then with a few clients, it turns into a half an hour session at the end of every single day of court. “Okay, Jeff, what about this client? What about this witness? What happened here? What do you think with this judge? What about this ruling?” And I give my opinion, and trust me, I have one.
Barber: Like a debrief?
Dahm: Yes, exactly. You sit in court 25 years, you have an opinion on everything that happens in that courtroom and it tends to run … Cases tend to run similar, even though the details are different. But the cases generally run at the same flow, a civil case, so I could help with that. I help with the flow. I help with the cadence. I help with the message and making sure they’re getting a clean, simple, effective message to the jury and that’s how you win.
Barber: Right, a great way to boil it down to the fundamentals too. That’s an interesting segue here because there are attorneys who feel that they’ve kind of got the bases covered, that they have a paralegal who’s really talented who may be able to be the hot seat operator at their trial. Is that an effective strategy most of the time from what you’ve seen?
Dahm: No. Well, I shouldn’t say no overall because if you have a case that has 50 exhibits, small case, not much going on in the case, two or three-day case and you don’t have any depo, I don’t see any reason why a good paralegal that you trust couldn’t run the show. Those are not the cases for trial presentation consultants as much. You have a big case, you have a heavy load, you have a lot of video depositions, you have multiple things to handle, then you’re going to want to have a trial presentation consultant in there because your paralegal’s going to have a lot to do too in a heavy evidence case. They’re going to have a lot of copying, a lot of binders, a lot of things to submit to the court, filings. There is just so much for the paralegal to do and you can also …
Dahm: The trial presentation consultant becomes a part of your team, so there’s another person that goes in the whole collective group. And if the case can afford it, you should always do it because you will find at the end of it that you were like wow, that was amazing because you have this sort of … this nirvana that happens in court when you call out exhibits and they come on the screen. I’ve heard clients talk about this nirvana and they say, “It’s like you’re reading my mind.” But that’s just a good trial tech doing a good job in the courtroom. And the paralegal is focused on being a paralegal. All we’re focused on is bringing the stuff up in court and bringing it up fast and effectively and that is hard to do. It may seem easy, but it’s not.
Barber: I was going to say, it sounds like there’s a level of perspective and expertise that comes too. You cannot put that kind of responsibility on a paralegal to bring all of that depth of experience of being in … Like you said, you’ve had hundreds of trials. That perspective adds a level of what should really build confidence in the client to be able to trust, to be able to say, “Okay, I’m going to focus on the strategy. I’m going to focus on telling that story and then lean on the expertise and the perspective of Jeff or my trial presentation consultant who’s here with me.”
Dahm: It is a luxury. I mean it can be a luxury if you don’t have the means, but if you do have the means, it’s a necessity because it makes your case run smoother and you … Everything that gets on that screen, I mean just think about this, every single thing you put on the screen is so important. It is so important to the end result of the case, what goes on that screen. And someone who has the experience to put it on the screen in an effective manner is going to make you win your case. I mean it’s just that simple. I mean not always but it definitely helps. If jurors can see the way it looks and it looks pretty and it looks good and it’s easy to adopt, they’re going to adopt it.
Barber: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Dahm: So, it’s interesting.
Barber: I want to ask you too, we’re starting to see some courts reopening, but even … and businesses reopening and some restrictions kind of easing related to the pandemic, but even with a lot of restrictions lifting and some courts starting to move forward with physical schedules, we’re going to have people who aren’t able to travel. So, when we think about witnesses, we’re going to see witnesses unable to travel. How do you think courts are going to handle that and what advice would you have for attorneys right now?
Dahm: Sure. So, I’ve dealt with this issue for years. I’ve dealt with it at least a few times a year for years, and so what happens is you have a witness that can’t travel and they want to remotely testify, and so they call me and they say how can we have a witness testify remote? So, I go through the whole thing, explaining how we can put … have a camera where they’re at, have a camera in the courtroom … You put the signal into a projector in the courtroom. You can display the person live and you can put documents next to it. So, I have figured out logistics to get this done and then almost every single time, when they propose it to the judge, the judge says no, they have to testify, they have to come or you play a deposition. That’s going to change.
Dahm: So, now, all this preparation that I have done over the years to figure out how to get a live feed in the courtroom and how to show exhibits while it’s going on the screen, all that work is done. I have it ready to go. So, if a client calls me and they need to have a witness testify remote, we are ready to go.
Barber: Yes, definitely interesting. It certainly makes you wonder how much of the historical cultural hesitance we’ve had about virtual versus in-person that I think COVID, if nothing else, may be wearing some of that down.
Dahm: With all the testing I’ve done, with all the software, I’ve tested OnCue, I’ve tested TrialDirector, I’ve tested PowerPoint. I’ve tested anything you would want to just use to display in a courtroom, and it all works online. It all works in the virtual hearing and you should be using it because the case is just as important, even though you’re not there. We could have a witness testifying remote. I mean there’s really no limits, I don’t think, at this point. With all of our years of using video conferencing software in my industry and then now we have to apply it to trial tech and trial presentation, bring it on because we are ready to go.
Barber: Very interesting, Jeff.
Dahm: It’s exciting too. It’s really exciting for me too because I have such a passion for trial presentation, and then to be able to do it in a new method, in a new platform, in a new way, is just so exciting because I feel very comfortable online and I know my techs do too, feel very comfortable in the Zoom meeting or a Skype call. I can share screens, switch back and forth, it’s not hard for me because that’s what I’ve done in the courtroom for 25 years. So, I’m really excited to be able to do all of this stuff. I’m sitting at home now. It’s great for me. So, we just got to have people realize that it is as important as it was.
Barber: Yes, and reach out for help, right? Because I think not everyone shares your sense of comfort with it and I think that it’s just kind of interesting to make those connections. I think there are attorneys who could use some help right now just to get that confidence in this weird new normal of the remote world.
Barber: So, Jeff, it’s been really interesting having you on today. Wonderful to hear your really interesting perspective about the current situation and also just learn as little bit more about what you’re bringing to the table and your background.
Dahm: Great. Thanks for having me, Teresa. This has been really fascinating. I just love explaining how trial presentation works and what we can do. As I said, it’s my passion and I just enjoy talking about it, so I could talk about it with you for another couple of hours.
Barber: Well, we may take you up on that, Jeff. So, we’ll have you back sometime soon. So thank you. I really appreciate it. Thanks, Jeff.
Dahm: Thanks, Teresa.
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