The tools every paralegal needs to create a war room
In the middle of an important trial, there is nothing more essential and helpful than organization and preparedness. For experienced trial attorneys and their paralegals, that translates into setting up a “war room” — an orderly, central location to keep trial materials and files.
An organized war room makes for an efficient place to access case documents and provides a safe haven for all files associated with a case, and it’s often the paralegals job to put it together. “I can have every piece of evidence known to man and it does nothing if I don’t have them organized in a war room,” said Julie D. Hunt, litigation paralegal at Saladino Oakes & Schaaf in Paducah, Ky., who was chosen as the 2006 Paralegal of the Year by the American Association for Justice (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America).
At many law firms, the war room is the paralegal’s responsibility. “The paralegal is the go-to person for documents, pleadings, discovery status questions and the like, so it’s a logical progression that paralegals would be the case ‘librarians,’ so to speak, for their war rooms,” said Janet M. Powell, a litigation project manager at Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart in Miami, a national labor and employment law firm exclusively representing management. Savvy and prepared paralegals are the key to setting up, organizing and maintaining a successful war room.
Planning Your War Room
A well thought-out war room means thorough planning — and a lot of it. “No two groups of attorneys will do things the same way, and no two trials are alike,” explained Ann Price, litigation case manager at Patton Boggs in Washington, D.C. “You have to be flexible. I have always planned far in advance and therefore had a minimum of problems.” While some things can be corrected if a challenge pops up, issues such as insufficient space, lack of communication methods and inadequate technology are hard to address in the middle of trial. “You don’t want a lot of workmen in your war room once your trial materials are in place,” Price said. “You must anticipate any problem that can come up and work ahead of time to resolve it before it becomes an issue.”
Also, consider war room costs to your client. While some trials warrant an elaborate war room setup, other cases might require something smaller, prompting you to organize your materials on a single table or shelf.
Space planning is one of the most important considerations in preparing to set up a war room. “Most folks don’t give themselves enough room or don’t arrange things so that [they] can get to [them] easily. If the room is cramped, it will be difficult to function there even if the materials are well organized,” Powell said.
Consider whether the war room will be in a high-traffic area, causing distraction and disturbances. In addition, plan for any heating or air-conditioning concerns, lighting and the necessity of renting shelving, seating or equipment. Depending on your client’s needs, take into consideration electronic capabilities, such as phone lines, wireless Internet connections, security, speed and reliability.
Think about accessibility and security. Are all members of your trial team able to access the files in the room? Will you need to provide extra sets of keys to your colleagues?
You should account for plenty of office supplies and other necessities. Price said one of the greatest challenges in establishing a war room is “making sure you brought everything you need [or] think you will need, and that you bring sufficient supplies or have a steady supply stream available.” Hunt worked on one case where she and an assistant created a brand new office in their war room on location, complete with a label maker, office supplies and even a wireless printer — only to find they forgot to bring printer paper. Fortunately, this was quickly remedied by a friendly visit to the clerk’s office.
Finally, don’t underestimate the necessity of an enjoyable work environment. “You should find the surroundings pleasant and more than adequate or you will go crazy,” Price said. “You will know it’s a comfortable, workable space if you find the associates working on the case in the war room,” Powell said, adding that she also brings a CD player and a few CDs from home, and keeps contact information for nearby restaurants handy as well. And of course, on-site coffee availability is always a plus.
Setting up Shop
Paralegals typically set up the furniture and office machinery first in a war room. Think about conference or work tables, adequate seating and sufficient shelving — especially for those often full and heavy boxes where trial files are stored. “Try to purchase inexpensive metal shelving with [three to five] shelves so you can still stack the boxes, but only have to handle one box at a time,” Powell said. For easy access, Hunt said she sets up a conference table to hold her color-coded trial files.
Next, think technology. “If your case documents are contained in a searchable database, a decision will need to be made [as to] whether to include a station in which an individual can search for documents electronically,” said Laurie Sanguinetti, senior litigation paralegal at Dechert in Palo Alto, Calif., who mostly works on patent litigation matters. Printers, e-mail access, scanners and any pertinent software programs should be set up as part of the war room computer station. Make sure computer files are easily accessible and appropriately labeled on the desktop. Also, think about other technical and electrical equipment, such as a copier and shredder.
Consider how you will transport your technology and how you will physically secure it on-site. Check the location for sufficient outlets and figure out whether you will need to bring surge protectors. Make sure the war room has a suitable and efficient Internet connection, and check in advance whether the trial team will be able to access office files remotely. “The one thing I find curious that is often overlooked is a phone,” Sanguinetti said. A speaker phone might also come in handy. Hunt said she sets up equipment that is necessary to go over any trial exhibits and demonstratives, such as screens and projectors.
Don’t forget contact information. “I have [a] desktop icon for my case telephone book,” Powell said. “It has the contact data for everyone and everything associated with my case.” Powell splits her book into various categories — including court information, trial team members, witnesses and opposing counsel’s contacts — and lists full contact information, work schedules and any notes on availability or special commitments.
Once the war room is set up, make sure every member of your trial team is aware of its location and how files are organized. “If you have a large case, give a tour of the room when it is pulled together so everyone can see where everything is,” Powell said. “Ask for feedback from the trial team [and] keep an open mind and implement their suggestions if everyone agrees.”
“The most important thing is that the room has to work; there must [be] a sense of control and organization, and everything must be easily accessible,” Powell said. “If your war room is disorganized, it creates visual and mental chaos and confusion, which might translate in the minds of your trial team that the paralegal is confused. Clients walking into your war room should feel that they are getting their money’s worth.” A disorganized war room might mean an unnecessary waste of time and your client’s money, unhappy attorneys and even the possibility of losing important files and materials.
Though methods of organization might vary by attorney, paralegal or case, “a war room is most functional when the materials are organized by party,” Sanguinetti said. “You can go one step further and organize by source within the parties.”
Sanguinetti calls her organizational system the “library approach,” marking each document, box, binder and file with a tracking number to easily identify the document’s location. “Each item is then placed on a War Room Tracking Inventory (WTI), which functions as an index of case materials,” Sanguinetti added. “Keeping copies of the WTI handy in the war room allows attorneys a way to quickly find an item without scanning over a multitude of shelves.”
Color-coding different types of items also works. Neatly label file folders and clearly mark trial notebooks, Powell said. It makes sense to have the most frequently accessed documents in a location that is most easily accessible.
“You will always need to organize different types of cases differently, but you will still have basic groups of documents in any type of case including pleadings, discovery materials, exhibits, witness files, research files [and] trial motions,” Price said. She Bates-numbers every document and double- or even triple-checks each number before the files leave the firm for the war room. Price also said it pays to keep materials in at least two places. “I like to organize both hard copies and computer copies on CDs and [in] separate folders,” she explained. “Sometimes it’s quicker to find the document electronically, but most attorneys, particularly in trial, like the comfort of the familiar hard copy that they can easily highlight [or] mark up.”
Because it’s imperative that the paralegal in charge of the war room be familiar with the contents of each file, it might be necessary to rearrange those files’ contents, even if that means extra work. “Many trial paralegals tear down and reassemble files when they put their war rooms together so they are sure they know everything in the file,” Powell said. “Some might be reluctant to take that step, but the five secretaries and five other attorneys who have worked on that file are no longer responsible for its organization and finding things — you are. Bite the bullet and do it.”
Finally, it’s essential to organize any materials that need to be kept out of the war room or trial. “Once I take one of our original files and have removed everything I need into the trial file, I will put a rubber band around [the office file],” Hunt said. “No one is allowed to remove that rubber band without discussion and once we are headed into the courtroom, everything with a rubber band on it stays out but nearby.”
Out-of-Towners: Setting up the War Room on Location
Special planning considerations arise if you are setting up a war room on location, outside of your firm’s offices. Trials can mean traveling, sometimes across state lines, prompting the trial team to organize materials in foreign territory. Your war room might wind up being a secure room in co-counsel’s offices or in the hotel where you are staying.
When setting up the war room on location, Price said the first issue is figuring out how to get each document safely to its destination. Plan out transportation logistics. Will you ship your documents to the location ahead of time, rent a truck and drive them or carry them with you when you travel by plane? In any case, Price said scanning the documents onto CDs that you will take in your carry-on bag is essential. Organize and label all documents at your firm before you leave, Powell said. It might also make sense to leave extra copies of essential documents at a “home base” in case something is lost or damaged during transit.
As for taking trial files in to the courtroom, Hunt recommends clipping case boxes or Bindertek to make transportation a cinch. (Binderteks are two-ring notebooks in different colors with tabbed dividers; there also are cases with clips on the back that attach to a two-wheel roller for easy transport of the notebooks.)
Cost presents another challenge when choosing an off-site war room location. “Cost considerations will no doubt determine your choice of location for the war room. Just go into it knowing there will be advantages and disadvantages to any type of situation you will encounter and be ready for them,” Price said. “The best paralegal is the one who is flexible and has a plan A, plan B and plan C for every contingency.”
Also, pay attention to the war room’s proximity to the courthouse, your offices (or your opponent’s) and any other pertinent location. “It’s also important that [the war room] not be the same location as the sleeping quarters, since you [might] have some members sleeping while others are working,” Price said.
If the war room must be set up in a hotel room, you might have to take extra precautions, including arrangements for emptying the trash and shredding documents to make sure the hotel staff doesn’t have access to trial materials. On the other hand, “If you are in a local counsel’s office, you have to worry about others coming in and taking your supplies and moving your documents around in an area where they normally would have access,” Price added.
When possible, visit the war room location ahead of time and check with your trial team members to see if they have any requests or special expectations. Powell, for example, recalls one trial where the original war room setup didn’t meet the attorney’s expectations because he felt the space was too confined, which left Powell scrambling for a backup.
“When we all got to the trial city (several hours from our home office) the head attorney didn’t like the location another person had made the arrangements for and suddenly decided that he liked somewhere else better — and that was where we were going,” Powell said. As a result, she spent considerable time on the phone tracking down furniture and office machine vendors.
To avoid a repeat, Powell said she secures a layout of the space so she can get approval from the attorney ahead of time, and she spends time scoping out vendors and resources on location before leaving for trial. Some of the vendors she recommends having at your fingertips are:
a high-volume copying service;
a service for additional demonstrative exhibit preparation;
a local staffing agency;
the closest 24-hour pharmacy; and
the closest, fastest dry cleaner.
Maintenance Is the Key to Trial Sanity
You could have the most well-planned and organized war room on the block, but it will all be for naught if you don’t take special care to maintain its integrity, safety and organization.
For starters, pay continued attention to space. One of the greatest challenges that can arise with a war room is running out of space for your files. “It can be hard sometimes to gauge the volume of case materials you are going to wind up with as discovery progresses. What was once considered a small matter document-wise can change to a huge one with a single document production received by an opposing party,” Sanguinetti said. “You must then make judgment calls as to whether you should relocate your entire war room to a larger area, move certain materials into storage or split materials into multiple war rooms.”
Staying organized is another must. “Attorneys are often stressed and focused on a single issue at trial. It’s the paralegal’s duty to keep a big picture approach, and part of that is to keep the war room organized,” Price said. A disorganized war room quickly can become an unpleasant place to work, especially with trial team members taking documents out of the war room to work on them elsewhere — those documents can become lost or unavailable for the next person who needs to use them, Price added.
To keep order, paralegals in charge of the war room need to make certain that documents are filed in their proper places. “It’s imperative that the documents used are put back into place so they can be found quickly the next time they are needed,” Price said. “I recommend that the paralegal keep an eye out for clutter, papers left out … and make it a priority to refile these as soon as possible.”
Hunt has a color-coding and numbering system for the notebooks, and due to this she can quickly tell if a trial book is missing. “Normally, the trial attorney will not remove items from the trial books, but will ask for his [or her] own copies if he [or she] needs something, and those copies are clearly stamped with [the attorney’s] initials so I know [they have] not been removed from the trial book,” she said.
Sanguinetti said she discusses the war room with the team as it’s being set up to help keep it organized and intact. “I usually try to explain to the team … that the materials in the war room are for community use, and if they want to borrow something, to let myself or another paralegal on the team know. We then note on the WTI who has the materials in question.”
One thing that Powell keeps in mind is that she is there to support the attorneys. “Realistically, everyone is under intense pressure to perform, and my survival instinct on [maintenance] is to remember that I am there to support my people,” she said. Recognizing that, Powell added, “one thing that has been helpful is that we have PDFs of most of the important documentation filed in our firm’s document management system. Often, the attorneys don’t even need the physical files to print out a copy of a motion, order, report or other exhibit. It’s just easier to pull it up on the system at their desks and hit ‘print.’”
Safety also becomes an issue with war room maintenance. Experienced litigation paralegals agree that a simple lock on the door is sufficient protection, as long as keys are only provided to authorized trial team members. Alternatively, Sanguinetti said having a team member or other “war room librarian” on location to guard the documents might also work.
“I once had to set up a war room in the hospitality suite of a hotel,” Powell said. “The doors had locks, of course, but it was such a large case that various attorneys and some of the experts needed to have access during the days when the rest of us were in court. We had a secretary with us and then had another person who was hired to assist with all the logistics that we more or less just stationed in and around that area to keep an eye on everything.” Powell also keeps the security desk’s contact information taped to her phone.
With plenty of planning, organization and thorough maintenance, paralegals can make sure their war rooms provide accessibility, security and efficiency to the entire trial team. “Litigation paralegals should be familiar with setting up [a war room] because we are the ones who most often field questions from attorneys who are trying to locate a piece of information they know they saw but can’t remember where,” Sanguinetti explained. “If a war room is properly set up and maintained, a person will be able to locate whatever he or she needs quickly and efficiently.”
Ursula Furi-Perry, JD is a nationally published legal writer and adjunct paralegal professor from Massachusetts. Her first book, 50 Legal Careers for Non-Attorneys, will be published in early 2008 by American Bar Association Publishing.