Likely because there was no “how to stay organized during the day-to-day grind” class in law school, many attorneys suffer from disorganized case files.
This means lots of last-minute scrambles to meet deadlines, twinges of mild panic when a client calls to request information that we can’t find quickly, and – most importantly – a lack of mental clarity regarding litigation strategy and status.
That used to describe me. As a new attorney straight out of law school at a big law firm in Boston, I had no idea how to keep my case files organized and important information accessible (in any one case, much less the numerous ones I had on my plate).
Over time, through experimentation, observation of some impressively organized attorneys, and research, I figured out systems to help me keep important documents handy, discovery and electronic files under control, and deadlines met without undue stress or scramble.
Given the lack of information on this front for new attorneys (and experienced attorneys, for that matter), I wanted to pass along my system in case it’s helpful to you.
A note: There’s no “one right way” to do this. But it is important to have one way you do it for every case, which will keep you efficient and helps you (and your team) quickly find information when you need it.
Here are three of my biggest tips for organizing your case files:
Litigation Organization Tip 1: Have a “case management notebook”
For each case, you need a binder that houses the most important documents in your case (e.g., underlying patents/contracts, complaint and answer, simple chart with case deadlines, your judge’s chamber rules, and other critical documents). You could call this your “case bible” or your “case management notebook.”
Whatever you call it, this puppy should hold the foundational documents of your case that you’ll reference all the time.
Having all critical documents in one binder lets you grab it quickly while dashing off to a partner’s office or jumping onto a client call, confident you have all important information with you.
Plus, no more looking for that copy of the complaint you marked up with all of your important ideas. It’s in the same place it always is – in that handy binder.
Litigation Organization Tip 2: Organize by category, not chronology
Obviously, chronology has its place in legal case files. But I’m always surprised how many attorneys organize all case documents by chronology and only chronology (usually breaking out correspondence and pleadings). When they need a particular document, finding it requires remembering the date it was received – and that’s just inefficient.
Plus, you can’t cart around alllll those documents when you only need certain critical ones most of the time.
Instead, organize by category. Broadly speaking, keep documents divided and stored in these categories:
Foundational documents that you’ll refer to frequently (see tip #1),
Discovery documents (requests, responses, and related correspondence),
Documents relating to a particular motion (briefs, cited case law, exhibits and related correspondence), and
A redweld of miscellaneous other documents that you don’t need to refer to frequently but don’t want to shred.
This structure mirrors how your brain works and will allow you to find the documents you need quickly – and have a better understanding of the issues in your case.
Litigation Organization Tip 3: Embrace flexible time-blocking
Don’t just calendar your case deadlines and call it a day.
Figure out internal deadlines for how you’ll meet each deadline. For example, if you have a brief due soon, what’re all the bite-size steps you’ll need to do to get it filed on time? Think: reading the opening brief, researching legal issues, drafting the brief, drafting declarations, your editing, editing by the partner/client, polishing, and filing.
Schedule those internal deadlines, block the time it’ll take for you to meet each deadline in your calendar, and make sure the internal and final deadlines work with anyone else who’s involved (e.g., colleagues, client, the assistant who will file).
Not only will this give you a game plan to get it down (reducing your stress leading up to the deadline), you’ll also see how all this work fits together with your other cases’ work.
You can move your blocks of time around to accommodate other work and personal events, which helps you avoid conflicts and makes your life run smoother. Win-win-win.
Want more detailed step-by-step instructions on how to get and stay organized?
If my system sounds appealing to you and you want detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to set up your case management and discovery binders (down to the cover pages and tables of contents), how to structure your case deadlines chart, how to organize your electronic file storage depending on your document management system, and get some guidance on managing your calendar, then check out my guide, How to Organize Your Legal Case Files.
And if you like the sound of this time-blocking stuff, know that I help busy professional working women like you reclaim their time and energy from their to-do lists they can go from overwhelmed to peacefully confident in how they get everything done in all their roles. You can learn more about my six-week time management program here.
Feel free to share this article with anyone you think would find it useful!
And if you’re curious what others think about my litigation guide, here’s what some have said:
“After implementing Kelly’s guide, I have felt more prepared and less stressed because I have a quantifiable system for getting everything set up.”
– Hannah Garrett, Attorney, Root Legal, Nashville, Tennessee
“It’s definitely a time saver and easy to follow and implement. It has reduced the time it takes to find documents in our shared drive, especially discovery documents.”
– Nexcy De La Rosa-Monroe, De La Rosa-Monroe Law Firm, Family Law, Miami Lakes, Florida
“The guide and spreadsheets are amazing!”
– Heather Murrell, Paralegal
“With an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth and a law degree from Boston College as well as big law firm experience, Kelly is smart as a whip – and she understands how law firms and complex organizations work. She has a PhD in decluttering and organizing. … Kelly is worth her weight in gold. Five stars across the board.”
– Rick Waite, Partner, Keeney Waite & Stevens
You can learn more about the guide here.