Likely because there was no “how to organize a legal case file” class in law school (much less, one on how to stay organized during the day-to-day grind), many attorneys suffer from disorganized case files.
- 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 or 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.
In this article, I’ll share three of my best tips for how to organize a legal case file. If you like my approach and want further detail, I have a guide that lays out all the details you can purchase. I’ll share more at the end of this article.
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. This 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:
Tip 1 for How to Organize Legal Case Files: The “Case Management” Binder
For each case, you need a binder that houses the most important documents in your case. These documents include the underlying patents/contracts, the complaint and answer, a 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.
Side note: I also recommend a Discovery Binder for each major case you’re on. In my guide, How to Organize Your Litigation Case Files, I go into both binders in much further detail, including the table of contents for each, what documents to include, etc.
Tip 2 for How to Organize Legal Case Files: Organize by category, not chronology
Obviously, chronology has its place in legal case files. But in my attorney days, I was constantly surprised by how many attorneys organized all their case documents by chronology and only chronology (usually breaking out correspondence and pleadings). When they needed a particular document, finding it required 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. As a result, it will allow you to find the documents you need quickly. (And I believe it weirdly helps you have a better understanding of the issues in your case.)
Tip 3 for How to Organize Legal Case Files: 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, what’re the bite-size steps you’ll need to do to get it filed? Think: reading the opening brief, researching legal issues, drafting the brief, drafting declarations, your editing, editing by the partner/client, etc.
Block the time it’ll take for you to do each of those bite-sized steps in your calendar. In addition, 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 done (reducing your stress leading up to the deadline), you’ll also see how all this work interacts with your other work.
And be flexible with this! 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 that’s my jam. I help busy professional working women reclaim their time and energy from their to-do lists so they can go from overwhelmed to confident in how they get everything done in all their roles. You can learn more about my eight-week time management program here.
Feel free to share this article with anyone you think would find it useful!
What others have said about the guide, How to Organize Your Legal Case Files
If you’re curious what others think about my How to Organize Your Legal Case Files 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.