Organizational Advice for the Commercial Litigator

Vol. 1, No. 12

Cristen Sikes started as an associate in the commercial litigation group of DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary US LLP’s Washington, DC, office, in 1999, where she remains today. Ms. Rose’s areas of practice include securities, corporate, commercial, and environmental litigation, and she has tried cases in state and federal courts and in private arbitrations.



From The Commercial Litigator’s Job, Section 2


  • Learn how to set up an efficient daily routine.
  • Find out how never to miss a deadline.



Suggested Daily Routine

One of the most important things to manage as a young lawyer is deadlines. Clients and senior attorneys schedule their own work based upon the promised delivery of supporting work from junior lawyers. Consider the following:

1. Do not arrive at your desk later than those to whom you report arrive at theirs.
2. Check phone and e-mail messages; add them to “to do” lists.

  • Keep “to do” lists for both general responsibilities and specific projects.
  • Do not allow “to do” items, phone messages, or e-mails to accumulate.

3. Review your calendar daily for upcoming deadlines and appointments.
4. Review mail in your “In” box.
5. Review open items on “to do” list. Decide which items need attention before noon, which need attention by the end of the day, and which can wait until the following day.
6. Check advance sheets and/or legal newspapers to see if there is new law affecting any of the cases on which you are working.
7. Begin billable work within thirty minutes of arriving. This sounds easy but is not. Doing so will help you focus on billable work early in the day, which, in turn, will keep you from staying late unnecessarily and will enhance your reputation for productivity.
8. At the end of the day, make certain that all billable time has been recorded.
9. Do not leave the office until phone messages and e-mails have been reviewed and handled appropriately.

Clients and senior lawyers (some of whom you have not met and will not meet) will monitor and scrutinize your billable hours very closely. You should monitor and scrutinize them at least as closely.

1. Read and comply with your firm’s policies regarding billing, recording time, and time entry.
2. Record your billable hours throughout each day. This may sound easy, but it is not. When you are working on multiple small matters, record them whenever you finish working for one client and start working for another.
3. Always submit your timesheets on time and under your firm’s guidelines.
4. Use detailed time entries in the active voice. Write “Analyzed minutes of the board of directors and stockholder correspondence.” Do not say “Attention to discovery.”

  • A good general rule is that more detail is always better. Say “Analyzed lease for 1600 First Avenue property; analyzed correspondence between lessor and landlord.” Do not say “Attention to real estate matters.”
  • Remember that your time entries are transcribed onto the client’s bill and that some lawyers view timesheets as the best form of advertising. Ideally, the client would read their bill and think “Wow! You did all of that?” If your time entry reads “7.5 hours—attention to discovery,” you are unlikely to get this reaction.
  • Always bill accurately. Do not “pad” your time or record less time than you actually worked on a matter. You may feel that it took you too long to write a letter, but it is the billing attorney’s responsibility to adjust your time, not yours.
  • Avoid round numbers. Most people do not really work “8.0 hours.” A timesheet showing lots of round numbers looks padded; 7.8 hours looks more realistic.

5. When accepting an assignment, always ask if there are any special billing procedures or sensitivities. For example, some clients require attorneys to bill in tenths of an hour, while others require billing in different increments. In addition, some clients will require that you use special billing codes that they provide.
6. Ask the assigning lawyer how many hours he estimates the project should take. If the expected time is more than ten hours or so, check with a supervising lawyer after four or five hours to determine if you are on the right track.
7. Periodically assess how many total hours you have put into each project. Senior lawyers appreciate that you consider not just your own hours, but also the client’s bill.


Managing a Litigation Calendar

Never miss a deadline. You or your firm may be the greatest advocates of the modern era, but if you are sloppy about deadlines, you will lose cases. Also, do not rely on a calendaring department, a paralegal, or a secretary to track your deadlines.


General Calendar Issues

  • Your calendar is your most important professional tool. It can tell you when assignments are due, whether you can go on vacation, when you are due in court, whether tonight is a good night to go home early, and what you have been doing for the last few months. Pay attention to it.
  • Train yourself to consult your calendar before making any time-consuming or time-sensitive commitment, whether personal or professional.
  • You will have court-imposed deadlines as well as deadlines for delivery of material to supervisors and clients. Use your calendar for both. Do not forget to add deadlines for firm or client work to your calendar.
  • Take care counting days. Always consult the applicable rules about how days are counted: Do you count all days or only business days? The answer may vary depending on how many days you are counting (e.g., if you are counting seven days or less, you may count business days only, but you will include calendar days if you are counting more than seven days). Are days added if particular methods of service are used (e.g., serving a document by mail may add three days)?
  • Note what constitutes the end of the deadline day. Midnight? The close of the clerk’s office at the courthouse (sometimes at 4:30 p.m.)? The close of business?


Electronic vs. Paper Calendars

You can track appointments and deadlines electronically or with a paper organizer.


The Electronic Method

1. The electronic method requires calendar software that has a “reminder” capability (such as Outlook) and an electronic organizer or PDA (a personal digital assistant, such as a Palm Pilot or Blackberry) that you can synchronize with your computer. The electronic method works as follows:

  • Anytime you receive a pleading or discovery to which you must respond, check the court rules for the deadline and enter it on your computer.
  • For major deadlines, such as the deadline for filing a motion for summary judgment or the cut-off for discovery, set the reminder for thirty to forty-five days in advance. For tasks that take less time, such as responses to simple interrogatories, one to two weeks may be sufficient.
  • When your “reminders” appear, notify those who assigned you the work of the impending deadlines. They will appreciate the notice.

2. WARNING: Some courthouses do not permit electronic devices, including PDAs, in courtrooms. Accordingly, always take along a printout of your calendar for the next six to nine months when you go to court. That way, you will have your calendar if the judge wants to set a schedule. If the senior attorney on a case is not going to accompany you on a court date, you also may request that he provide you a printout of his schedule so that you will not create conflicts for him.


The Paper Method

1. The paper method requires a paper desk calendar and a tickler system. The advantages of a paper calendar are that you can always have it with you, and you can easily see your deadlines.
2. Calendars that permit you to view a month at a time and include space for notes on upcoming events are best. Enter deadlines on your calendar as they are set. Use the notes space to remind yourself of upcoming tasks and deadlines. Use the paper method as follows:

  • Get an expandable file with slots numbered one through thirty-one (the days of the month).
  • Copy deadline-related documents and put them in the numbered slot for the day of the month on which you want a reminder. Each morning, review the documents in that day’s slot.
The Commercial Litigator's Job: A Survival Guide



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Did you find this article helpful? Do you think more information like this would help you? More information is available. This material is excerpted from The Commercial Litigator's Job: A Survival Guide, 2005, by Cristen Sikes Rose, published by the American Bar Association General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division. Copyright © 2005 by the American Bar Association. Reprinted with permission of the author. All rights reserved. This information or any or portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. GP/Solo members can purchase this book at a discount. Click here to purchase the book.


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