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Key to Conducting an Effective Trial: Organization

Being effective at trial requires the highest level of organization and preparation. Any disorganization or unpreparedness will show, and it can undermine a case. The best time to start organizing trial materials is when setting up the files at the inception of the case.

When setting up the file as part of trial preparation, you may find that the files need to be reorganized, to make the trial both easier to prepare for and to conduct.

You’ll need to choose an organizational method that’s appropriate for the case. For a complex case (such as a class action or large antitrust case), a method that can handle large volumes and many different types of material is essential. Smaller and simpler cases will need a less elaborate organizational plan.

The lead trial attorney should be intimately involved in preparing and organizing the trial materials, even in complicated cases, and shouldn’t count on paralegals, assistants, or even less experienced attorneys to make crucial judgment calls. No attorney is too senior or experienced not to review all the documents in a small case and the key documents early in a large case. There is no substitute for being familiar with and being able to quickly find items during trial.

As relevant materials are identified, they can be sorted by issue, e.g., material relevant to formation of contract in one file, material relevant to breach of contract in another. If material is relevant to more than one issue, you can create a document index to indicate all issues to which the material relates.

Consider these three steps to getting your files organized:

  1. Include a basic client and case information sheet. Make sure the file contains a sheet showing basic information such as the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of the client, opposing counsel, and co-counsel (if any), the court and case number, and any internal billing numbers or references. Having this information in one place will save time, and the sheet will serve as a handy portable reference at trial.
  2. Keep a file index. It is vital to prepare and keep current a file index for quick reference to the location of specific materials in the files. An accurate, detailed index is essential in complex cases that may have voluminous files. Examples of file categories include correspondence, nondiscovery pleadings, nondiscovery motions and demurrers, discovery, depositions, legal research.
  3. Use technology. For large and complex litigation matters, put an index of documents, pleadings, correspondence, and other materials into a computer database, which can be easily updated and helps in locating specific information quickly. Use computer calendaring programs to keep track of key dates and issue reminders. In complex cases with a large number of documents, it may also be advantageous to create a database containing information on each document or group of documents.

Once trial begins, the files need to be reorganized by eliminating material that won’t be used at the trial itself. Either nonrelevant materials may be removed from each file, or all relevant materials may be transferred into the trial notebook and the files that will actually be used in the courtroom.

Need more help with organizing trial material? CEB has an entire chapter on it! Check out CEB’s California Trial Practice: Civil Procedure During Trial, chap 3.

© The Regents of the University of California, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

8 replies on “Key to Conducting an Effective Trial: Organization”

Thanks for another helpful post, Julie. I’d like to emphasize the benefits of going digital. A lot of software and apps can help immensely to organize and present a case. I’ve written about these apps and e-briefs, and how to get started using them, if your audience is interested in finding out more; check my archives at or
I’d also recommend thinking of ways to use informational graphics as an organizational tool. Several types of graphics, such as org charts and timelines, can provide a very useful framework for organization in litigation.
– Morgan

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