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The “W” Words of Direct Examination

By Benjamin E. Zuckerman

As any trial lawyer knows, direct exams are often more difficult than cross.  During cross-examination you are in charge.  You make the witness tell your story by asking her leading questions that let you control the testimony.  You can change from subject to subject whenever you want. Cross can really be fun.

Direct exams are a different story.  Your role as questioner is more limited.  The witness is the star, not you. It’s her story that the jury needs to hear.  If you don’t handle the direct exam properly the story won’t get told in a clear and convincing way.

Lawyers often run into direct exam problems because they forget–or don’t know how–to ask questions that are simple, organized, direct and concise.  That task can almost always be accomplished by starting each questions with the “W” words. Simply begin most questions with “where”, “when”, “who”, “why”, or “what”.  Your witness will easily understand what you are asking her and the jury will easily understand her answer.  Your client’s story will flow naturally and effortlessly.  A simple example is:


Where were you on the night of January 2?

Why did you go there?

Who else attended that meeting?

What time did you arrive?

What subjects were on the agenda?

When did you leave?


You and your witness will have painted a clear picture for the jurors.  Through this brief exchange they’ll know what was happening, where it took place, who was present, why they were there, etc.  Following up with questions such as “What happened next?”, “Who suggested that?”, or  “When did that happen?” will complete the picture.  Additional “W” word questions can also be thrown into the mix, such as “Was anyone else supposed to attend the meeting?”  You get the idea.

Of course, you can also start questions with other words, such as “Did you stay for the whole meeting?”, but keeping the “W” word formula in mind is a sure-fire way to make your direct exams easy and effective.


Benjamin E. Zuckerman is of counsel in Cozen O’Connor’s General Litigation Department. He concentrates his practice in the areas of commercial and general litigation, including a broad range of civil matters.

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