Store it with software: even veteran litigators can get lost in the thicket of facts and issues during case preparation. Here's how one case-management package helps a plaintiff lawyer clear a path to trial or settlement.
From your first conversation with a prospective client, you are amassing knowledge about the dispute that brought the person to your office. You gather information--documents, statements, facts, reports of events, medical records, photographs, and other evidence--believing that you may need these materials to win your client's case.
How to organize all these data has baffled many a trial lawyer. More important, the need to find the information later has sent many in search of organizational assistance. It was on such a search several years ago that I came across a product that solved both problems, an easy-to-use tool called CaseMap.
During case preparation, you need to store information in some consistent manner for later use and retrieval. You must also separate information that is relevant and useful from what is at best peripheral or not relevant at all. CaseMap and other case-management programs allow you to do that.
As an example of how to use the software in litigation, let's explore the hypothetical case of a 66-year-old woman named Mary Jones who was a patient of Dr. Smithfield, a surgeon at The Community Hospital. Mrs. Jones was admitted to the hospital for a routine operation and left three days later, paralyzed from the waist down.
The first step in using CaseMap is for you or a paralegal to create a case file in the program when you begin work on a new legal matter. The users who are permitted access to the file are authorized by a team leader. The leader will have full access to all the data and will decide who has limited access. In my office, the attorney in charge of the case is the team leader, but you could designate others. At this point, the information storage process begins.
The program has an interface that looks very much like an Excel spreadsheet. There are four default tabs: Fact, Object, Issue, and Question. After you talk with a prospective client, you or your authorized staff select the Object field and input the cast of characters, locations, and documents discussed during the intake interview. (See Figure 1.)
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Begin by entering the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the plaintiffs, Mary Jones and her husband, John, and the potential defendants, Smithfield and The Community Hospital. This information can later be printed out to compile a witness list or a list for the process server. You might also want to enter the location of the event, details about medical treatment, and information about evidentiary documents, such as ambulance call reports, witness statements, medical records, and letters. You can list any physical item related to the case under the Objects tab.
The program is useful for managing information not only during litigation, but in the screening process as well. The legal team can review a set of facts and objects at a glance to determine whether a case is worth pursuing. The software allows the team to recognize instantly when information is lacking.
If you have electronic copies of documents (in Word, WordPerfect, Excel, TIFE PDE or GIF format, for example), you might want to create links to them in the program. Using a tabletop scanner, you can scan the document onto your hard drive or network, and then tell CaseMap where it is stored. This operates much like an Internet hyperlink, allowing you to click on the link and have the document appear on the screen. If the documents are not in electronic format, you can identify their physical location, where you can find them for later use.
When you enter the full name of an "object," a "short name" is created automatically--for example, a person's last name or an acronym for an organization--but you can change it to a different name. You can use this field to link and search for objects and characters in the information storehouse.
This early organization of information will guide your discovery, assist in the document production plan, and identify questions that need to be asked at deposition. As you prepare for depositions or other aspects of discovery, your team can search the database and organize reports on outstanding discovery and factual questions by using the data refinery and database search tools in CaseMap.
Entering raw data
Once the objects are listed, you can enter individual facts as they become available. This accommodates the way you usually accumulate information--in bits and pieces at different times.
Many data fields are available under the Fact tab. They include date and time, fact text, information source with electronic links, and issues linked to the fact. (See Figure 2.)
[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]
In Mary Jones's case, you might first enter a summary of her medical care and treatment. Later, you might add a witness's description of her care or information gleaned from depositions of the defendants.
Documents and depositions need to be analyzed, and the knowledge extracted from them must be organized. CaseMap links to its own deposition-digesting software or to other similar packages such as E-Transcript Binder by Real Legal. As you read a deposition or document, you can link excerpts to the entries under the Fact tab so that all relevant and useful facts from it will appear on the fact spreadsheet and can be linked to issues in the knowledge base.
Once the preliminary facts have been entered, switch views to the Issue tab. (See Figure 3.) There, you summarize your initial analysis of the issues and revise the list as the case matures. You can outline issues related to liability, proximate cause, and damages, as well as identify subissues. You can also link each issue to the facts that will support its proof when you mediate or try the case. There are about 20 fields that can be used on this tab, so you can tailor the view to meet your needs.
[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]
In Figure 3, the column heading "Eval by CA" means that the person CA evaluated or created the issue. "LS: Facts" specifies the number of facts linked to this issue, and "LS: Questions" designates the number of related questions. In the jury instruction field, you can list the instruction relating to the particular issue.
On the far right side of the Fact tab (Figure 2), there is space to display a truncated version of the Issue tab. Viewing both tabs together provides an overview of the case's development and makes it easy to run specific issue reports, with supporting facts and sources, in preparation for trial or mediation.
Creating to-do lists
The final tab in CaseMap, labeled Question, allows you to craft questions that need answers to complete your knowledge of the case. Essentially, this tab creates a to-do list for trial preparation, with task assignments for those working on the case. (See Figure 4.)
[FIGURE 4 OMITTED]
Once you've entered all these data into the program, you can sort and analyze the information in a variety of ways. For example, you can group facts that come from a particular source, such as a specific witness, or generate lists of disputed and undisputed facts. You can also single out a particular issue and identify the facts related to it, the source of the information, and its status in the case.
Of course, the information stored in CaseMap is not static. You update it as your discovery continues and your understanding of the case increases. As the litigation progresses, the software allows you to run reports on various objects, facts, and issues and how they relate to the physical evidence, the applicable law, and any questions you may be trying to answer.
You can use the information stored in the case file to develop trial themes and opening statements, to keep clients informed, to prepare for depositions and hearings on motions for summary judgment, and to prepare for settlement conferences, mediation, and ultimately trial. This software can also help train your support staff to work up cases in a consistent manner.
Whether you are a sole practitioner or an attorney in a small or large firm, case-management software can help you review the evidence and prepare for trial more efficiently. Knowledge management--whether through CaseMap or a similar product--is extremely helpful in the fact-gathering process.
But such products do not replace attorneys or their thought processes and work product. Like any other software, they are tools, not a substitute for what we do.
Some case-management software choices
One of the following case-management programs might be the tool you need to organize your law office. Many have common features such as a calendar, address book, document tracking, document duplication, to-do lists, e-mail and Internet applications, conflict checking, and phone/mail logs. Prices and customizing options vary. Check out these software programs on their Web sites while considering your office's needs and budget:
Amicus Attorney www.amicusattorney.com
ASA Legal Systems www.asalegal.com
De Novo Systems www.denovosys.com
Inmagic DB/TextWorks www.inmagic.com
Perfect Practice www.perfectpractice.com
Summation iBlaze Gold www.summation.com
Time and Chaos www.isbister.com
Howard S. Richman practices law in New York City. The views expressed in this article are the authors and do not constitute an endorsement of any product by TRIAL or ATLA.