Years ago, back when I was a mid-level associate at another law firm, I woke up one day to discover that I had just inherited not one, not ten, but somewhere around 50 active class actions. (Without going into detail, it was a portfolio of TCPA class actions for an insurance firm.) This was, of course, a great opportunity to get up to speed on various jurisdictions and how they treated class action law. (And it provided a strong foundation for the Class Action Playbook.) But it also intensified a worry I think many lawyers share:

How the heck was I going to keep track of all of these cases?

After all, each of these cases was for a different insured client; each involved different facts, different documents, different plaintiffs’ counsel; many were in different jurisdictions governed by different laws; and each was moving forward rapidly, with a different set of deadlines. I went into law because I perceived my strengths to be in writing, speaking, and arguing. Making the trains run on time was decidedly not my forte.

But I needed to do something. So, motivated by necessity and no small bit of panic, I developed a method of running fifty cases at once, while still staying on top of the other various cases I had with other partners. Without realizing it, I wound up duplicating some of the principles David Allen uses in Getting Things Done. (More on this next week.) Most importantly, I decided I needed to write down everything that was happening in each case I had.

My first version of this case management technique was just a Word document, into which I dumped everything connected with a given case. The memo was reverse chronological–recent stuff went at the top. If I needed to find something, I just searched within the document, and prayed I’d written it down. It worked surprisingly well.

It worked well enough that I got a reputation on certain cases as being the person who actually knew what was going on. Which, of course, meant I fielded more phone calls. So my next version tried to accommodate the most common questions I would get. It was also very primitive: just a list of deadlines at the top of the memo (because everyone wants to know if we’ve missed a deadline), with other important facts coming underneath. More important facts gravitated towards the top of the document.  This version worked even better.

Then one day a partner with whom I worked closely on a number of matters (but not the insurance ones) called me into his office. "I notice that every time I call to talk to you about a case, I hear you tapping on your keyboard," he said. "If you’ve got a cheat sheet, I’d love to see it." I showed him what I had, and the two of us (joined by his administrative assistant) spent a week consciously designing a template that could work for any number of cases, and provide all of the information any member of our class-action litigation teams might require.

Here is the version I use now. I’m attaching it because, among other things, it’s actually in use at several law firms now, so it’s not like I’m revealing a closely-guarded trade secret. Ideally, most lawyers who run complex cases have something like this they use anyway. (That said, I know quite a few who still don’t.)

Of course, there is no one right way to manage a class action. But this method provides a number of advantages:

  • It provides one-stop shopping for case information.  Sure, deadlines will also be in the calendar, and contacts will also be in your contacts.  But sometimes you need to search for something in a given case, rather than page through weeks of Microsoft Outlook.
  • It’s a nice compromise between the high-tech solution many associates (and clients) may crave (you can host it online with instantaneous updating), and the memo-in-a-binder method many older partners actually require.
  • If you have a document management system, the memo can function as a wiki for the case, since anyone can edit it. In fact, at my first firm, we referred to the memos as "wikis."  (But do not, I repeat, do not save a new version each time.)
  • If you have a document management system, you can "link" popular documents with more information by including their document numbers.
  • It’s trivial to update on a regular basis. (Deadline shifts? Type in the new one, or mark it on a paper copy and hand it to your admin.)
  • Whenever a client asks you how a case is going, you can send them your latest version.

In the last decade, lawyers have become more focused on productivity. We’ve learned about knowledge management and project management, and we’ve handed over a fair amount of our own earnings to management consultants who can tell us ways to be more productive and more efficient in managing our complex cases. And yet, much of the stuff we pay to learn are just new ways of shuffling around the same old organizational concepts. It’s always been true that a good litigator needs to be organized enough to keep track of her cases. This is a pretty simple tool to do just that, and yet it’s surprising just how many lawyers don’t use something like it.

If you’re working a number of complex cases for a large client, can you afford not to have some method like this? And if you’re a client with a number of complex cases, can you afford a lawyer who doesn’t?