Paralegal Basics – How to Organize a File


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Files seem to take on a life of their own and the problem is that most of them are not happy creatures.  Left to their own devices files can grow into these incredible monsters.  Trouble is that with so many other things creeping up on us every second of the day the time we have to dedicate to these monsters is very short.  The file monster is not very forgiving either.  It totally demands your attention, at least a few hours a week.

More often than not we can find new paralegals sitting on the floor of their office (or the paralegal area) totally bewildered looking down at a bunch of papers not knowing which end is up.  How could this file have gotten like this?  Good question.  The attorney must have gotten to it.  But he only had it for a couple of hours……. Yeah, it usually only takes them a few minutes.  Especially if they are looking for something in a hurry, on the way to court or on a call with a client….. it doesn’t take much to get a file looking like it’s been through a hurricane.

Usually what I do is sit down on the floor with them and encourage them to cry if they have to.  It’s ok….. I’ve cried too.  Heck sometimes I still do!!!!!!! All those non-billable hours spent organizing a file to find it back at my desk looking like that?  Anyway….. it wasn’t done on purpose.  Filing and organization is not one of the classes in law school.  That’s why they hired you.  You got this.

First things first:  Let’s separate the papers into piles that make sense.  A legal file is made up of a few subsections:

1.  Correspondence – you know what that looks like right?  usually has a date up at the top with the name and address of the lawyer or sender way at the top of the page.  Don’t worry about the dates for now.  That’s not important, not at this stage.

2.  Pleadings – This can be confusing for a new paralegal.  Sometimes discovery can look like a pleading so the way I explain the difference to new paralegals as well as the way I learn it  and keep it straight is by knowing that all pleadings get filed with the court.  So, if it has a court stamp at the top or if it’s something that was sent to the court clerk for filing you can bet it’s a pleading.  That goes into a second pile.  Make sure you have all the pages.  Usually the last page is the signature page and all pages are numbered.  Easy enough right?

3.  Motions – This is one is a tricky one.  Some law firms file the motions along with the pleadings.  After all, they are filed with the court.  I don’t necessarily disagree with that.  By doing it this way your pleading file will tell a story.  Making it easier to figure out why a pleading has been filed with a court.  However, I like to keep motions separate from the rest of the pleadings.  My reason for that is that usually he attorney will need to pull motions out of the file or respond to a motion and he/she doesn’t necessarily need the whole pleading file.  Also, sometimes the attorney needs to go to court to argue a motion.  There is no need to have the complaint and the answer (it’s only going to cause the same chaos you are now facing if the attorney has to pull papers out of a file for one little motion).  So for me, keeping it separate is key.  If necessary I can make copies of the motions, mark them duplicate and note where to find the originals.  Then I put a copy in with the pleadings and the original in a motion folder….. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

4.  Discovery – This is going to be all the other things that look like a pleading but don’t get filed with the court.  These are answers to interrogatories, responses to document requests.  The funny thing is that sometimes some of these may look like correspondence.  So you will have to read the first and second paragraphs of the letters to make sure it’s not a letter supplementing answers to interrogatories.

5.  Misc.  – Depending on what type of file these could be anything so you will have to label the folder accordingly.  If it’s a personal injury file this is probably going to be your medical records, your accident report, the retainer agreement (very important that you find this one) and all other papers that do not fall nicely into any of the above four categories.

Ok, you see, not so bad.  Now you have a more organized chaos on your floor and a little bit more room to move around.  So we can move to a different area to dry our tears.

Next you are going to one pile at a time.  Let’s say you picked the correspondence file.  I usually pick this one because it’s usually the largest pile and because after reading the correspondence I’ll more of less know what should be in the other piles.  I will also know the story of the file a little bit better.  So go ahead, read on.  It can be fun.  I have found some really funny letters written by the clients or the adversaries and it always makes for some good humor while doing a really boring job.  While you are reading this file make sure you put it chronological order.  At this point, if it’s a very old file, I start making piles with the correspondence.  I separate it by year.  Make sure you start with the oldest correspondence.  Work your way to the present.  Now the correspondence is done.  Have you noticed?  There aren’t that many more papers.  All the other stuff is just bulky but usually not as much as the correspondence.

By doing the largest pile you will feel more accomplished and you will feel like you can conquer any other task thrown at you.  Be ready, other tasks will be thrown at you….. Just a thought.

Now pick up the pleadings.  You also want to make sure you file these in chronological order.  Most firms file pleadings in pronged folders.  If this is the way your firm operates then go ahead.  They are less expensive than three ring binders so usually that why they do it that way.  I like the three ring binder because if I have to get a pleading out of the file I don’t have to get all the other pleadings out.  Anyway, in this case you have to go with what you’re given.  Wait… Don’t put them in yet.  At this point, punch holes in the the papers and organize them.  Next sit at your computer and let’s start the pleading board.

For those of you who don’t know what a pleading board is….. it’s not a scientific term.  Yeah, I know, lawyers like to speak in their own language.  I find it interesting.  A pleading board is a table of contents.  Begin by entering the name of the first pleading and with number tabs separate each of them.  So your pleading board will look something like this:

1.  Complaint ………………………………………… January 1, 2014

2.  Answer to Complaint ………………………….. March 15, 2014

So on and so on and so on….. continue until you’ve listed all the pleadings.  This always gives me such satisfaction.  By the time you’re all done it will look so pretty and the file starts to take shape.  It’s starting to look more like a legal file and not so much like a crazy pile of papers and you are taming the monster.

Once you are done with the pleadings move on to the motions.  For me, each motion resides in it’s special folder.  I worked at a law firm where the motions had a special color folder….. actually all documents had special color folders.  I liked that very much.  It made it easy to find the documents you were looking for.  However, if that’s not what you have then a regular manila folder is fine. Just make sure you label each folder appropriately and include the date the motion was filed with the court.  All corresponding documents go into that file.  So when you pick up the motion file you have the entire history of that motion.

Same thing goes for discovery.  The only difference is that discovery (answers to interrogatories, responses to document productions) will have to be broken apart.  Reason?  Well, answers to interrogatories and responses to production of documents come with large documents.  If this is a personal injury file you will have medical records and these are very bulky at times.  So what I do is keep the responses neatly in the folder and then right behind those I put in files for each of the records received with the responses.  So I will have hospital records, doctors’ notes and records, auto accident…. etc.

The last thing you have left on your floor will be the misc. stuff.  These can be anything.  There will be attorney’s notes, which I suggest you keep in a separate file.  Attorneys sometimes take notes on post-it notes, napkins anything they can get their hands on when they’re on the phone or speaking to a client on the way out of the court house.  make sure you put all these in the folder. I normally make a copy of the post notes so they are the same size as the other papers in the file.  It ensures that these little papers are not going to get lost and the file looks neater.

You will have deposition transcripts and these although not necessarily misc. stuff need their own folders.  Most of the time there will be a manuscript and a regular transcript.  I keep both together with my summary.

There you are.  In a few hours we have organized a file.  Don’t get discouraged if it takes you longer than a few hours.  My suggestion is that you do it when it’s a quiet in the office and you have a few straight hours to do it.  Remember most of it is going to be non billable time so make sure you can afford to do that.  It needs to get done so you will have to find the time to do it.  Maybe it can be done over the course of a few days.  This way you are not losing that much time on your billable hours.  Also remember some of it can probably be billed.

1.  Are you reviewing the medical records as you go along?  If you do, remember to bill for review and analyze medical records pertaining to …..

2.  Are you going to respond to document productions? or Interrogatories?  Then bill time for the review of documents (name the documents) to assist in the preparation of responses to…..

Most of all, have fun.  Organizing a file is a boring job but you can make it fun.  See if you can tell a story.  See if you find something no one else has found.  I would always compete with some other paralegals when working on large files to see who could come up with the best story or the better angle.

Being a paralegal can be and is fun if you take pride in what you do.  I have been doing it for 20 years and I still think it’s one of the best career choices I ever made.

Let me know how you do and if you have questions, please feel free reach to to me.  I’d love to hear from you.



Paralegal or Inspector Poirot????

Being a paralegal is almost like being a private investigator.  You know those murder mystery books we all love to read?  Agatha Christie, Scott Turow, James Patterson… etc.

Ok, so maybe I’m not going to be chasing after a murderer or a drug dealer or in a jail cell interrogating a criminal.  But I am going to be getting to the bottom of other issues.

As a personal injury paralegal, my job was to get to the bottom of why the plaintiff was so hurt and was the plaintiff really as hurt as he/she made it out to be.  Yeah, I get it, reading medical record after medical record is not very glamorous but your diligent work can make or break the case.  Most of the time it’s just going to be a boring exercise of figuring out what is actually ailing the plaintiff and sitting on the floor of your cubicle or office going through box after box or file after file of medical records.  However, there is that one time when the review of a hospital record can produce the adrenaline rush of a murder case.

A long time ago…. Gosh, it really feels like an eternity ago.  In my past life as a personal injury paralegal I received a case where a plaintiff had gotten rear-ended.  The complaint alleged that plaintiff was not able to work and could not even walk up a flight of stairs without pain and getting short of breath.  Due to the pain plaintiff claimed he was not able to exercise and therefore gained weight and all the maladies that come from being extremely obese.  Plaintiff alleged that following the accident he had developed high blood pressure, asthma as well as other accident related pains.

I began my investigation by requesting medical records from the hospital where the plaintiff had been taken immediately following the accident.  Those medical records revealed that at the time of the accident the plaintiff was already heavy and a 2 pack a day smoker.  I also found out that plaintiff had been seen at the emergency room prior to that date following a previous auto accident and all the complaints were the same at that time.

Needless to say, this became my favorite case for a while.  I could not wait to receive the next medical record or schedule plaintiff’s deposition.  I knew this case inside and out.  I became a true Erin Brockovich, or so it felt hahaha.

I guess my point is, you never know when one of your “boring” cases can turn out to be the new Agatha Christie best seller so you better review all documents as if all cases have best-selling author potential.

Hope you’re having a great weekend.

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Paralegals and Depositions

Many experienced paralegals sit in on depositions not to ask questions but to take notes and assist the attorney in “reading” the witness.  By this I mean; while the attorney is asking questions, usually prepared questions, the paralegal’s job is to take notes about what the plaintiff answered as well as pay close attention to the demeanor of the plaintiff while answering the questions.  Is the plaintiff fidgeting?  Did the plaintiff say something “new” something that was not mentioned during is responses to discovery?

The attorney’s job is to ask questions, follow up on original questions in order to get additional information out of the witness when the plaintiff’s answer is vague, and pay close attention to what is being said so that he or she can object or follow up with another question.  The paralegal’s job is to scan the room constantly and keep a close eye on the witness and the adversary attorney(s).

As a paralegal, one of many suggestions to you, is to learn to take very good notes and learn to interpret non-verbal communication.  Those two skills will make you an invaluable member of your legal team.

As an example: A few years ago I was sitting in a deposition with my managing attorney.  We were deposing a plaintiff in a personal injury matter.  During the initial discovery process of the case we had been getting medical information from the plaintiff by using the social security number he had provided us with his answers to interrogatories.

During the deposition the attorney asked the plaintiff for his social security number.  When I heard the number, it didn’t make sense to me.  I made a note of it and while the attorney continued to follow his line of questioning I took a look at plaintiff’s answers to interrogatories. I noticed that the social security number we had been provided was different from the one plaintiff was giving us at this time.  During one of the deposition breaks I informed the attorney. When we got back to the deposition the attorney was able to question plaintiff regarding that other social security number and we found out that the plaintiff had come to the country illegally and received an illegal social security number.  When he obtained his legal status he received the legal social security number.

After the deposition I went back to my desk and, after speaking with the attorney, I sent out requests medical records.  However, I used the new social security number. A few weeks later I received the new medical records informing us of a completely different accident.

We were able to show that the injuries of which plaintiff was complaining were pre-existing conditions and the plaintiff had been involved in an earlier personal injury action which he settled a few years before ours.

I’m not saying that the attorney would not have been able to pick this up at some point.  However, because I had all the documents with me and was taking notes, the attorney was able to concentrate on his line of questioning and put the witness at ease by making eye contact.

The witness had no reason to believe that we had just caught him in a lie because the attorney’s demeanor did not change and the attorney did not have to take  time out to write anything down which would have caused the witness to be able to “recover” from the lie or think about an excuse.

Make sure you work on your note taking skills.  It sounds like a boring task but it can be invaluable to your attorney.


What is Discovery?  “A formal procedure established by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and corresponding state procedural rules in which parties to a lawsuit exchange information and documents in an effort to “discover” facts relevant to the lawsuit and identify potential witnesses and evidence.” [1]

The majority of litigation paralegals spend most of their time in the pre-trial stage of litigation.  There are two distinct stages of pre-trial discovery, the informal discovery stage and the formal discovery stage.  The formal discovery stage is also divided in two separate stages, the written and the “verbal.”  For purposes of this particular blog post I will concentrate on the written and will go on to the “verbal” portion of the discovery period in another post.

Informal Stage

Prior to the case being filed and in order for the attorney to decide if and how to bring the case to court, i.e. file the complaint.  You will be tasked with coming up with the preliminary information on the facts of the case.  In order to do that you will need to focus on the following:[2]

1) Locating and taking statement from potential witnesses;

2) Photographing and/or documenting the accident scene;

3) Locating, collecting, and preserving physical evidence; 

4) Photographing plaintiff’s injuries.

5) Newspaper articles;

6) Legal research on other similar incidents or claims;

7) Internet research to locate information on other similar incidents or claims;

6) Corporate searches and look-ups.[3]

Depending on what you come up with during the informal stage of discovery, and after meeting with the client and the attorney to figure out a strategy, the case can be filed in court.  The paralegal can, and some more experienced paralegals do, draft the complaint for attorney review.

Once the complaint is filed and the defendant files and serves his/her answers to the complaint the formal discovery period starts.

Formal Stage

A good paralegal must be very organized and able to stick to a very tight time frame.   At first glance, it looks like you will have all the time in the world to get the discovery done and the files organized prior to settlement or trial.  I know it’s easy to fall into that trap.  But believe you me, “time flies when you’re having fun

The defendants will serve you with Interrogatories, Document Demands and requests for admissions.  All of these have a time within which they must be answered.  Make sure you look up the Rules in your particular state for the response time. Additionally, you will be serving discovery (interrogatories and document demands).

During your review of defendant’s answers to discovery, you must pay close attention to make sure the defendant completely answered your discovery demands.  If you find that their responses don’t fully give you the information you need you need to discuss with your attorney if you need to file a motion for more specific answers or if a letter to your adversary will suffice.

You should get into the habit of keeping track of all dates and deadlines in each particular case so that a deadline is not missed and also to make sure that your adversary answers your requests on time.

When working on very large cases, I got into the habit of keeping discovery binders for each party.  I found that by being organized from the beginning of the case made it easier at the time of trial. It may also be a good idea to keep a different color binder for each of the expert sides.  In my case, I kept a red binder for the plaintiff’s expert witnesses and a blue binder for the defense expert witnesses. When it came to trial time these colors were very easy to spot in the box of documents that I normally carried to court.



[2] The example being used is a plaintiff personal injury case.

[3] This can be helpful in the case of a slip and fall case.  You need to find out who owns the property.