This post was written by Megan Zavieh and originally published on Lawyerist.com on November 2, 2015.
A file of complete and thorough notes is gold when you have to detail your work for an ethics or malpractice claim, to work through a billing dispute, to transfer a file to another lawyer, to prepare a declaration in support of a motion for legal fees, etc. While most lawyers realize good notes are helpful, few practice creating and maintaining notes.
To get the most out of your notes, here are some practical tips on what to include and how to follow up on your notes.
The Basics of a Note
After each phone call or work day, write down what you discussed, what you did, what you promised to do, and the deadlines for those promises. Put your notes in the client’s file, not just on a random legal pad.
Your regularly-kept notes should always include these basic details:
- Date. Write down the full date of your meeting including the year. Yes, you know the year when you are there at the meeting, but write it down anyway. When you are looking back at these notes down the road, you do not need to search for contextual clues for the year.
- Time. If you are taking notes of a call or meeting, put down the time at which you are having the conversation. This little piece of information may seem irrelevant now, but you have no idea what significance it could take on later.
- Matter. This might seem obvious from the other pieces of information on the page, but list the matter the notes reference. This makes filing much easier. It can also be critical if your practice lends itself to having multiple matters with the same participants.
- Participants. If the notes are of a call or meeting, write down all of the participants in the conversation. If the list changes in the course of the call, such as someone joining or leaving, make a note of it. By having the participants written down at the top of the page, you can easily identify who said what.
- Main Topic. Give your notes a title. At the top of the page, write down the primary topic of the conversation or work you did. It should be simple, such as “Motion for Summary Judgment.”
- Take Away. The end of your notes should have an indication of how the event ended. If you promised to do something, write that down and note the date you agreed to do it. If someone else promised to do something for you, note that. If you simply need to continue working on the project, say that. Your notes could easily end with “more tomorrow.”
Actually Taking Notes
These ideas for content are all well and good, but they are useless if you’re not going to start writing. Here are some ideas on how to make yourself become a regular note taker.
Make Yourself a Template
Download a form to take your notes on. Much like a client intake form, you’ll be reminded to put the right information down every time. Print pages of your own template and keep them handy. You can also edit your template to include blank spaces for other information you want to include in every note. A form with a glaring blank for the date will remind you to put down the date.
Five Minute Routine
Get in the habit of taking notes for five minutes after each meeting, client matter, or project. Set a timer for five minutes and go over your notes to make sure you have gotten every detail you need. It will feel forced at first. Forcing yourself to spend five minutes writing down what you recall will drastically reduce the chance of missing critical information.
Keep a Notes File for Each Matter
You should have file opening procedures in place. Make sure one of the folders you create for each file is a “notes” file. Each time you take notes, put it in the right file. The notes will be where they belong when you go looking for them. Another reason to do this is an empty notes file will remind you that there is something missing from your work. And if you need to refresh yourself as to where you are on a matter, you can easily review your chronological notes and the take aways on each to see where the matter currently stands.
Pretend Everyone Else Is Doing It Too
If you ever were in a dispute with the person on the other end of the phone call, would you have the necessary contemporaneous documentation to refute any negative claims they made about you? What if the other person is taking copious notes of your interactions? It can be useful to assume that the other person is taking detailed notes as an incentive to put your ducks in a row. Keep your notes as if every client or opposing counsel is the kind of person who is likely to file a complaint against you.
Establish a system, make a template, and convince yourself that taking good notes is important enough to do every time.