By Michael Ehline – In any law firm, especially a high volume injury law office, one of the most common things is taking notes to determine what remains to be done and accumulated information on cases. Many of us trial lawyers will turn to our law clerks and paralegals and delegate these tasks to them, and also dictate requests. I for one require my law clerks to keep a yellow legal pad with them at all times. Most people are familiar with these legal pads, but more and more, the younger generation is turning to iPads and notebooks.
But in a law office, at least for now, our paper files require paper notes. Typically, our notes are essential. In a legal setting designed to ultimately go to trial, it is mandatory for my team to document who, what, where and when as best as possible, and at the very outset of the case. At the same time, it is important to comply with ethical standards by the attorney or other legal staff member as far as confidence and security is concerned. So you ask, “why do you keep paper notes Mike?” Well, that is a great question.
For me, and maybe I am old fashioned, I want to be able to open the file and see a pad with notes. We use our own system of shorthand, so I can readily see if discovery has been done, what is outstanding or upcoming in a case, from mediation, all the way to trial and even what liens with hospitals and experts are still outstanding. Of course, in addition to the paper notes, I make sure admin inputs the data into our internal calendaring system, so appearing attorneys will have the most important data we have on any particular client or task directly from the yellow note pads.
The True Value of Setting Up a Note Taking Method For PI Cases
Whether you have gone paperless, are transitioning with a hybrid system, or doing in caveman style, keeping copious and detailed notes of day to day things is of extreme value for a successful practice, not just for the client files themselves. It keeps you from repeating efforts digging through correspondence and in baskets, and helps streamline your cases. It helps you remember and refresh your recollection. It helps you plan ahead. The value of detailed note taking is simple, and it is even easier to understand the advantage, but that does not mean that doing this is easy without having a strategy. Anyone can take notes, but that does not mean the note takers always hit on the details that make the notes valuable to the end user, typically a litigator or trial attorney.
Having a routine that includes the strategy for good note taking can benefit the lawyer and law firm staff, which can include:
- Keep electronic notes in a file for each client, which should include basic folders, documents and all correspondence. In this electronic folder there should be a file for notes, in which handwritten notes are transcribed into the electronic format. This is an easy method to retain important note taking in a format that is accessible quickly.
- Immediately after a phone call with a client take the time to either enter the highlights of the conversation into the computer or dictate it to be entered at a later time into their file.
- In the event there are concerns with the relationship with a client having notes could be an advantage to use at a later time as a refresher of conversations by emailing this information to the client.
- Entering notes into a file that are legible over what the original note taking at the time of a conversation can be immensely helpful, rather than deciphering hand written notes at later time.
- Make the notes field on the file unlimited so each discussion can have the important information electronically recorded without having to limit the words typed in.
- The note field in the database should be set to ‘not’ print, unless it is manually ordered, since this information is not used often and is generally only used as reference material.
- Note entry can be made faster by using a voice to text program on the computer and many cell phones are already enabled with this type of program.
Keep Up on Notes
So how do we keep up on notes. Well for one, you should explore the many tech options for note taking, storing and maintenance. You may have a system superior to yellow not pads, for example already. Just make sure you can archive and retrieve them quickly. The bottom line is that notes are useful, and in some cases essential with a forgetful or difficult client. But in order for notes to be effective, they must be maintained. This means notes should be kept track of in a file that is easily accessible and each conversation highlights should be added to the file, whether it is kept in a separate yellow legal pad per client or in an organized computer note system.
If the notes are manually kept in a legal pad, then each time notes are taken the page should be torn out of the legal pad and put in a file folder and filed. It is also advisable to scan these handwritten notes and keep them in a file on the computer to have a backup copy.
Uses for Notes
- Client Disputes: In rare instances there may be a client who disputes or has questions about the advice they were given by the attorney. Having detailed notes, including the dates, what was discussed and what advice they received can be invaluable. Well organized notes are fast, easy and stress free to access to provide answers of the client.
- Contact with Non-Clients: Taking and keeping notes when discussing a potential case with a non-client is a way to know if you have spoken to the individual before and about what. It can also provide protection from ethics questions when the non-client has not hired the lawyer in the event the person comes back at a later time to accuse the attorney of misconduct or claims there was a client attorney relationship. I have seen cases like this where I was able to get the attorney for the other side disqualified, after it was revealed my client had also contacted that same attorney looking for legal advice about the same case.
- State Bar Queries: In the event there is an issue with a state bar investigation into whether the attorney has fulfilled their “duty of competence” detailed notes on clients cases can provide proof of the work that was done on the client’s case. The notes can show there was no failure to act on interviewing witnesses, filing documents in a timely manner or contact and correspondence with witnesses, experts and the client. Notes can also show during this type of investigation the research that was preformed for the case, the strategy plan, analysis and any other element of representation.
As you can see, the value of note taking is immeasurable. Taking a wait and see approach is not advisable. Pay it forward and take accurate notes. Input those notes into a redundant system. Consider the pros and cons of hard notes and computerized files. Above all, be consistent so you can survive into the future with a flourishing law practice, instead of trying to remember recreate notes from faded or failed memories at a later date.