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.
Disorganized case files mean last-minute scrambles to meet deadlines, twinges of mild panic when clients request information that we can’t find quickly, and - most importantly - a lack of mental clarity regarding case strategy and status.
Initially, I was right there too. 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 “right way” to do this. But it is important to have one way you do it for every case, which keeps you efficient and helps you (and your team) quickly find information when you need it.
Here are three of my biggest tips:
Tip 1: Have a “case bible.” 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 be referencing 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.
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 above),
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.
Tip 3: Embrace time-blocking. Don’t just calendar your brief deadline and call it a day. Figure out internal deadlines for how you’ll get that brief filed on time — e.g., research, drafting, editing, editing by the partner/client, polishing, 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.
If not, and you like the sound of this time-blocking stuff, explore around to my other posts. I help busy people like you reclaim their time and energy from their to-do list. If you want some time improvement and work-life balance improvement tips, explore and stick around!
What’s your favorite organizational trick when it comes to your case files? Comment below.
And please share this article with anyone you think would find it useful!