How to organize papers for civil litigation
September 25, 2011 6:53 PM   Subscribe

Lawyers, how do you organize your papers? I'm a pro se litigant in federal civil case looking not for legal advice but for organizational tips...

I just filed a civil case in federal court, and I'm trying to figure out how best to keep track of all the volumes of paperwork, rules, and deadlines that the case entails. I'm doing it pro se for a number of reasons (I know -- fool for a client) and though it's reasonably straightforward, I can already see how the volumes of paper can be overwhelming unless you stay on top of it. So I want to stay on top of it from the start.

Does anyone have any killer organizational strategies or tips that they wish to share? Personal methods for categorizing and organizing papers, good ways to make sure you have a handle on all the papers that are supposed to be filed with the court, papers that are supposed to be served, drafts of motions, various procedural rules, deadlines and the like? Even something as simple as what labels you put on your folders could be useful.

Conversely, are there any traps or pitfalls in this area that I should avoid?

(I'm not anonymous, and there's nothing sensitive here, but I'd appreciate not posting my case number, real name, opponents' names, or other easily-googlable information that might draw my opponents to this thread.)
posted by cgs06 to Law & Government (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
IANAL but I work for one and do the organizing. We organize stuff by type (emails, letters, notes, etc) All pleadings are separate and organized by date with number tabs and a cover index page. We also make trial notebooks that are organized similarly to pleadings.

Other than the actual organizing, read all the pleadings and please research any terms you don't understand. I don't know the particulars of your case but fight, don't let yourself be walked all over because you are pro se.
posted by boobjob at 7:04 PM on September 25, 2011

For filings, I would keep them in chronological order. Drafts can go in a separate folder; not at all sure what you mean by "various procedural rules, deadlines and the like." Obviously you will want to ensure that filings you have to serve actually get sent out before you file them.

Consider scanning if things get out of hand.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 7:22 PM on September 25, 2011

Easiest way for my practice is separate files for separate types of documents. Here are the types I have in every case:

Pleading file
Discovery file (although I keep documents produced and received in a separate file
Correspondence file

All kept in chronological order

Keep all return receipts (green cards) stapled to the corresponding correspondence, discovery and pleadings to prove service
posted by murrey at 7:41 PM on September 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

First, get a very large binder. This keeps everything in one place. Second get tabs, not paper tabs, but heavy duty plastic tabs, and binder dividers, this way you can separate out parts of your case.

If you are trying to keep track of filing dates and what not, just take all of your orders, they usually say the date something is due.

I find chronological to be the best.
posted by kevinhartmn at 7:59 PM on September 25, 2011

You're in federal court, so docket management may be slightly easier.

If you don't have PACER access yet, the absolute most important thing you can and should do, organizationally, is to get PACER access and to set yourself up as an ECF filer. I am quite certain that pro se litigants can be set up as ECF filers. It may require attending some ECF training at the courthouse. I believe the exact logistics vary from district to district.

One caveat, I think that for a pro se litigant, ECF can be both a blessing and a curse. Presenting a paper filing to the clerk of courts often acts as a last-ditch "hey, are you sure?" safeguard. Sure, they might reject the filing, but it also may prevent a pro se filer from going totally off the reservation. I'm not sure if those same types of safeguards are present via ECF. (And again, practices may vary from district to district.)

Back before everyone in my office got used to ECF (electronic case filing), the biggest organizational pitfall was when the numbering of our internal pleadings binder didn't match up with the PACER docket numbering. Moreover, certain PACER events can result in a "pleading" being generated (for PACER purposes) which doesn't actually correspond to a physical document. (i.e., PACER docket #48 might just be a notation about an upcoming hearing being postponed, which didn't actually cause a notice to be generated).

I often keep a "shadow" copy of the (key) PACER filings on my laptop. I generally name the downloaded files starting with the PACER docket number followed by a shorthand notation, things like "053 - motion to compel", "054 - mem in supp mtn to compel", etc. Where there are exhibits to the motions, I will just use things like "054a" and "054b" for the file name -- this is important so the files sort decently and line up with what's in PACER. (This also saves a little bit of money since you avoid the fees for re-downloading the same pleadings.)

My old firm had a "standard" litigation file that had separate file folders for "Pleadings", "Correspondence", "Attorney Notes", "Memoranda", "Drafts" and "Discovery". That works pretty well for small cases you can carry around in a trial bag, but it doesn't really scale up very well. If you are dealing with a federal court case that involves multiple parties, potentially thousands of filings and millions of documents exchanged in discovery, then you have many more problems going in pro se than just keeping your files organized.

Another useful organizational tick that may not have occurred to you -- most of our correspondence files and memoranda were kept in reverse-chron order (with the most recent on top).

As a federal court litigant, your deadline management is relatively straightforward. As the case progresses the court (clerk) should set a case calendar with deadlines like the close of fact discovery, close of expert discovery, deadline for summary judgment filings, etc. Those dates are relatively straightforward to understand and are displayed pretty clearly in PACER. Likewise, with many PACER filings, the notice you get with the filing makes it pretty clear when the response/reply is due. As a pro se litigant, I think you should take advantage of the clerks -- they are often very helpful in sorting out deadlines and such and the system, while hard to understand at first, really does make sense once you get the hang of it.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 8:07 PM on September 25, 2011

Some excellent answers here... just what I'm looking for.

I do have access to PACER and know how to use it for pulling files (I'm a journalist by profession) -- and I was trying to decide whether to go ECF or not. Thanks for the advice... that last check by the pro se office and the clerks is useful and I'm trying to balance that against the obvious advantages of electronic filing.

(I'm definitely not going to let 'em walk all over me -- I've got a heck of a case, I've got strong research skills, and I've got a lot of fight in me. *grin*)

Thanks everyone who's responded so far... really good stuff. And I'm all ears for other suggestions, too!
posted by cgs06 at 8:55 PM on September 25, 2011

I like to keep an electronic copy of all incoming and outgoing pleadings, motions, correspondence, etc on a computer in clearly named, nested folders. The file names should also be long and instructive. So you have folders for:

Discovery --> subfolders for Form Rogs, RFAs, etc
Pleadings --> subfolders for Complaints
Motions --> subfolders for types of motion
Case Law --> subfolders for area of research

I know you're not a law office, but I would get an all-in-one printer with a scanner or a stand-alone scanner so you can scan all incoming correspondence and other papers. This makes searching for any document easier than going through volumes of physical folders or binders.

As for organizing physical documents, I do think binders are better than those traditional lawyerly pleading folders (with the metal prongs at the top). So you create a discovery binder, a binder for each individual motion. Then if you have a hearing, you just bring that motion binder to court.

I also create a single case notes document and draft a Procedural Chronology (where you list the date and what was filed, what hearing was held, etc). And I'd also draft a factual chronology to, for example, keep track of conversations you have with opposing counsel, witnesses, etc.

As for how lawyers keep track of "rules", this varies a lot. Since you're already in a particular federal court, you need to print out that court's Local Rules and constantly refer to them. If you're e-filing (as some district courts require), you also need to read the tutorial for that.

As for case law and statutes, I would just print those out and organize them in binders by topic. Maybe go to your local law library and ask the librarian for tips.
posted by KimikoPi at 11:55 PM on September 25, 2011

I do a binder for my bigger cases. A tab each for pleadings, orders, correspondence, and exhibits. Sometimes I add a tab for case law or statutes. Sounds like you could use a separate tab called "rules" to organize and highlight the procedural rules you have to remember.
posted by motsque at 8:19 AM on September 26, 2011

I think of myself as having two organizational systems. The first is very much like what's been described above: a series of folder for each "type" of file, ie, pleadings, discovery, correspondence, with the folders color coded with a separate color for each. Correspondence is just ordered chronologically, but all pleadings (including the discovery pleadings) are numbered sequentially. There's an index that's constantly updated as new pleadings are entered. So, the complaint would typically be "1," and then, say, defendant's first set of interrogatories to plaintiff might be "34," motion for summary judgment might be 103, Declaration of ___ in support of motion for summary judgment would be 104, etc.

But all of these files are kept in the office.

The "second" organizational system is the one I actually use for court. This is really just a subset of the first file, but it's kept in a series of three ring binders. You clearly don't want to show up to court unprepared, but you also don't want to bring your entire file with you. So if I'm arguing a motion, one binder will be my motion and all of its supporting documents--all of the declarations and their attached exhibits, and maybe copies of cases/statutes that are cited within. The binder is tabbed and indexed, so each separate thing in it--even if it's just an exhibit to a declaration, can be easily found. Also, be sure to bring multiple copies of the order you want the judge to enter! That goes in there, too. I keep a similar 3 ring binder for the opponent's pleadings, so if the plaintiff has responded to my motion for summary judgment, for example, their motion and all of its supporting declarations and attached exhibits are similarly indexed.

If you go to trial or do anything where you're questioning witnesses, you'll want a separate binder for each witness, but I'm guessing organization for trial purposes is beyond the scope of your question.

I keep aware of deadlines by having them entered into my Outlook calendar, but since you are only doing one case, it would probably be more helpful to have a printed calendar where you can just write deadlines on in different colored ink. You'll need to cozy up with both the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and (very important) the court's local rules to be sure you're always aware of the appropriate deadline.
posted by MoonOrb at 8:56 AM on September 26, 2011

We use manilla folders, old school stylee. On the cover is a pre-printed set of blanks for the summary of the case, including the case name, court, judge, contact info for the opposing party, and a set of lines where you put in the next scheduled court appearance. (This is in addition to an electronic calendar with pop-up reminders for all events a few days out.) What's nice about having a prominent place to write it down on the folder is that sometimes the case manager or judge will very quickly end a hearing and state a date and time for the next hearing or a set of deadlines and swan out of the courtroom and that's where that info goes.

Opening the folder, on the left side, we keep a listing of all the relevant dates in this case, depositions, discovery appointments, deadlines, to have that at a glance.

On the right side, we have tabbed sections for notes, pleadings, correspondence, and research. At the top of the research tab should be the statute you're suing under or whatever forms the basis for your suit. I'd also put the relevant pattern jury instruction there, so you always have your burden of proof in mind. Research will get too big for a tab in a folder eventually, so it can go in its own redrope folder, but you can keep the key research in your main manilla folder you bring to court and depositions and meetings. You can do this for all the tabs, breaking out the sections that have gotten unwieldy and keeping the most recent/relevant information in the main manilla folder that goes everywhere with you. Probably not a bad idea to scan the key docs in the case so you have an electronic copy as a backup to whatever you can't access on PACER.

To have rules, statutes, and cases at your fingertips and save a few reams of paper and your back, there is an app called Push Legal you might try. I've seen other people use it and it looks like it would help, particularly if you're comfortable doing legal research as a journalist.
posted by *s at 10:14 AM on September 26, 2011

Let me ad a "Me, too" to MoonOrb's system. Whenever I'm arguing an important motion, I create a 3-ring binder for just that motion, with the (narrowly selected) key documents tabbed and indexed. I almost never take my "original" pleadings or correspondence files to court with me, partly because lugging that crap around just isn't worthwhile, and partly because it makes a horrible impression to have to be rooting around in those files in front of the judge.

I have seen some colleagues move to using a tablet in court to replace the key pleadings binder, or even to have the entire file be searchable, which reduces the "rooting around" factor, albeit at the risk of exposing you to potential technological failure.

Regarding the once-over the Clerk might give a pro se litigant's filings, I think the filing clerk could stop you from submitting something blatantly out-of-line. I wouldn't count on the receiving official to do anything more than verify that the filing is in more-or-less the right format, though. YMMV depending on individual district and Court staff predilections.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 1:09 PM on September 26, 2011

Thank you all very much. I appreciate it!
posted by cgs06 at 9:45 AM on September 27, 2011

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