5 ways to handle voluminous legal files

I thought of taking a short detour from my series on Contract Drafting and write a post on how to handle voluminous legal files, especially by a litigation lawyer.

As a lawyer, you will have no choice but to befriend piles and piles of paper, whether you work on transactions or litigation. You will have to learn how to organise them, file them, have them handy and be able to find out information out of them when needed urgently.

As an intern in the Capital Markets team in L&L Partners (then known as Luthra and Luthra), I used to be enthralled by stories of the associates sitting in hotel rooms full of documents while conducting due diligence.

As an associate in the disputes team at Khaitan & Co, I worked on a very happening copyright dispute involving a Bollywood movie. The paperbooks and compilation of judgments were so voluminous that they could be used for building arm muscles. As the junior-most advocate appearing in the matter, it was my job to immediately pull out and hand over five copies of whichever judgment our senior counsel was quoting during his argument, and so my papers used to take up the most space in the front row.

When I joined ITC Limited 8.5 years ago, my first assignment was to sort out six cupboards full of files of a case which was going on since 1990 with documents dating from 1965.

So early on, I had to learn how to dive headfirst but not drown, in voluminous legal files. No one taught me how to, and I learnt through a lot of trial and error. On the way, I developed my system of dealing with voluminous legal files and I will share those tips with you in this article.

They usually pertain to litigation files, but I am sure you can get some ideas out of it and apply to due diligence or a corporate transaction.

voluminous legal files

1. Use good ol’ paper and pen

It’s natural to feel overwhelmed when faced with too many files with a lot of papers, especially if they are not in order. The best way forward is to keep a paper and pen handy, while you go through each of them. Keep jotting down the points, pleadings, dates – whatever you feel necessary and place them on top of each file beneath the cover. Keep stacking the files according to cases/parties/events that will help you in sorting the same. Feel free to rearrange them as per your convenience. Once you have handled the files, you will remember the details in them. Usually, this part of the job is very exhausting mentally, but extremely satisfying once you have accomplished the task.

2. Staple the post-its

This is a tip I learnt from a senior advocate of the Calcutta High Court. He would staple the post-its in his brief and I wondered why he would take so much trouble for such a simple act. Later, when all the post-its of a file got lost due to numerous handling and I had to redo it, I remembered this idea. Usually in case of litigation with a huge number of files consisting of lot of papers, chances are they will be required for many years to come, so save the trouble for yourself and your successor by stapling the post-its.

3. Draw it

When faced with facts with a long history, we sometimes struggle to remember the key points. Drawing them out will help you in retaining a mental picture for those times of briefing the senior counsel. In one of my cases, the facts involved heirs of two branches of a family over a period of forty years. I made a family tree in my personal note and referred to it while briefing the senior counsel. It proved so helpful that I was asked to include it in the Aide Memoire for all the advocates involved in the matter. A Venn diagram or a pie chart or a family tree or a colour-coded drawing – use any visual aid to remember your facts. The long winding, complex facts hidden in lot of papers will come alive before your eyes.

4. Innovate your List of Dates

We, as disputes lawyers, have a set format of List of Dates. It is usually two columns and made in order of progress, the latest event being the last one and contains a summary of event. Sometimes, in the middle of a particular dispute, another offshoot litigation begins and you are forced to shift your focus, making the List of Dates a bumpy read. For those times, use your own intuition to draft a List of Dates as per your personal convenience. You can add columns, make separate lists for different litigation, colour code the headings and so on. As long as you make it your own, you will never forget the dates.

5. Keep a summary sheet

After you have completed the exercise mentioned in point 1 above, sit down with all the notes and write a gist of the matter in a piece of paper. It can be as long as it needs to be, but write in bullet points and cover all grounds. This will be your secret sauce for times when you boss/senior counsel asks you a question on facts out of the blue. This will also come handy when the Business will come to you asking for a note to be presented before the Board/external auditors and you won’t have to sit down with the files again. I prefer this to be hand-written because as long as I have written something in my own hand, I find that I usually recall it better. You can type it out and keep a print inside the files, for reference by your colleagues involved in the matter.

So these are some of the ways I deal with voluminous legal files at my workplace.

As you can see, I am a physical files person and this has been one of the major issues of working from home foe me during this pandemic. I am sure most lawyers would have missed going through physical files. Over the course of the last few months, I have adapted myself to scanned copies and PDFs.

If you have some other tips or use other techniques to remember and recall facts, please do share in the comments. Your comments always motivate me further to write more articles.

Do check out my post on how to be a successful lawyer, if you haven’t till now. It’s packed with useful and practical tips, tricks and hacks.

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