Elevating Legal Strategy: The Importance of Timelines and the Advantage of Organizing Them by Facts

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Before coming to DISCO, I created and used legal timelines many times in the 15 years I practiced litigation. Even so, while consulting with our customers to develop DISCO’s Timelines feature, I learned a lot about how legal professionals around the world create and use their chronologies or timelines.  

This article focuses on one aspect of how I believe legal timelines can be most efficiently organized: around facts, as opposed to documents. 

But first, let’s discuss the importance of timelines and how they’re often used.

What I mean by “timelines”

“Timelines,” in this article, refers to the chronological listing of relevant facts and allegations (or events). 

Some, including myself when I practiced, refer to that as a legal “chronology,” reserving “timelines” for the visual or graphical representation of events. However, we learned from our customers that the terms are often used interchangeably. 

To that end, we chose “Timelines” to refer to our feature, and – spoiler alert! – leave open the possibility for a future visual representation of that data.

Legal timelines: When to use them

It is virtually impossible to overemphasize the importance of facts and evidence in the practice of law. 

As we developed DISCO’s Timelines feature, our team analyzed the various ways a legal timeline might be used throughout the litigation process. 

We put together this chart to try to understand some (but by no means all) of the usage:

"Use of Timelines in the Litigation Lifecycle" chart

This illustrates what is likely obvious to all legal practitioners – a timeline of events alleged in a lawsuit is relevant throughout a case, for the simple reason that the facts and allegations are always relevant. 

This is true for an overarching understanding of the matter and strategy decisions, but also for specific tasks – such as understanding the context of documents during review, making objections to requests, preparing for and taking depositions, and preparing various motions.  

Related: Get Your Deposition Right the First Time Using Topic Clustering with Automatic Indexing 📚 

From the time you first speak with your client through trial, a legal timeline is the best vehicle for understanding and describing to others what happened. 

However, organizing information can often be just as important (and challenging) as the information itself. 

The big divide: Fact-centric vs. document-centric timelines

The traditional – and probably most common – approach for legal professionals is a document-centric approach to timelines. 

However, there’s a growing trend in the legal community about the potential benefits of adopting a fact-centric approach to timeline organization. 

Document-centric timelines are built around key documents such as contracts, emails, messages in various formats, or other computer files. They focus first on when these documents were created or received, and provide some information about those documents. 

A standard document-centric timeline (typically using Word or Excel) will have a column for the date, one column for sender/recipients or file information, another for “details” (these vary, but can be important selections from the document or other commentary about its importance), and a final column with Bates or other identification numbering. 

In contrast, fact-centric timelines are organized around the facts or allegations of the case, regardless of when or if they were documented

From the organizing principle of “facts” or events, one can build a timeline that cross-indexes documents (with associated commentary about each) or even anticipated evidence, and can also add information about relevant witnesses, issues, tasks, or other insights or tasks necessary related to those facts. 

Related: 4 Tips for Leveraging Legal Technology for Evidence Management 📚 

Why fact-centric timelines are the better alternative

Not every case team creates a timeline for every case. 

Sometimes the facts are simple and straightforward. Possibly, they are undisputed. Even so, having a clear understanding of the facts is helpful for at least some aspect or task in a lawsuit. 

When there’s value in understanding the facts, organizing a timeline by those facts has clear advantages over a document-based timeline. 

(That’s not to say that a list of key documents that is annotated is not useful – it is. But it’s not a true substitute for a fact-based timeline, as I’ll show below).

Here are the key advantages of a fact-based approach:

  1. Fact-based timelines grant early insight

Fact-centric timelines can incorporate information or assertions that are known or suspected before any real documentation is in hand. 

This early insight often comes from initial interviews with clients or other witnesses, or even from pleadings. By focusing on facts from the outset, legal teams can develop a more comprehensive understanding of the case from these sources, enabling them to strategize proactively rather than reactively

From this baseline, a more fulsome timeline can be built or amended as evidence is uncovered in discovery.

  1.  Fact-based timelines capture undocumented facts

Legal matters often involve aspirational, uncertain, or simply undocumented facts. 

For instance, a corporation’s clean safety record or the absence of prior investigations are facts that might not be captured in documents – but could be crucial to a case. 

A fact-centric timeline (like DISCO’s, which allows “undated” facts) allows for including these intangible yet vital aspects of a case, which can be lost when documents are the sole focus. 

Similarly, depositions and placeholders for witnesses are much easier to incorporate into a fact-based legal timeline. These can also incorporate statements (particularly the opposing party’s) in pleadings or other discovery as well. 

Related: The Costs vs. Benefits of Using Deposition Videos in Your Cases 📚 

  1. Fact-based timelines keep the focus on what you’re proving – the facts

Ultimately, the success of a legal case hinges on the facts. While documents can be critical in proving or disproving alleged facts, they aren't what you are proving

A fact-centric timeline emphasizes where the focus should be – on the facts themselves, using documents as supporting evidence rather than the primary focus.

  1.  Document dates can be misleading

Document-based dates can sometimes be misleading. The date on a document might not correspond to the date of the relevant fact it describes – such as an email recounting a past event or meeting. 

This discrepancy can lead to confusion about the sequence of events, and even mask facts that are buried in incorrect “document” dates. A fact-centric approach aligns the timeline with the actual occurrence of events, providing a more precise and accurate chronology.

  1. Fact-based timelines allow for clear visibility and intuitive organization

A fact-centric timeline makes it easier to group relevant documents and evidence under specific facts

For example, a quarterly safety report might identify several incidents, each of which could in turn have additional relevant documents describing the details. Or a complaint or other legal filing might serve as a source for multiple facts or allegations. 

A timeline based on facts makes these separate incidents easy to organize, and provides a space to include multiple pieces of supporting evidence nested under each. 

By contrast, a document-based timeline where multiple events are simply included in the “details” of the various documents can bury the separate events and lead to confusion. 

  1.  Fact-based timelines bring disputed facts into sharper focus

The fact-centric approach to a timeline also brings disputed facts into sharper focus. A document’s authenticity might not be questioned in a document-centric timeline, but the contents could be highly disputed. 

A fact-centric timeline brings these disputes to the forefront, allowing for a more direct address.

At DISCO, we understand the pivotal role that effective timeline management plays in legal success. That’s why we’ve developed a cutting-edge solution tailored to modern law firms’ needs. Here’s a peek at how our software centers on facts, then permits tagging and notes, as well as associating the facts with witnesses or (any) evidence:

DISCO's Timelines with tagging and notes along with facts/evidence tied to witnesses.

💡 Learn more: DISCO Timelines overview

The truth about document-centric timelines

Interestingly, many document-centric timelines are, in essence, fact-based timelines in disguise

For example, they often cross-reference multiple documents under single entries, which can obscure the facts. This approach can lead to confusion and inefficiency, as the real issues may be buried under layers of “notes” about the documents.

It’s important to note that fact-centric timelines enhance the ability to use documents in legal practice. Documents are critical, and their value is maximized when they are used as evidence within a fact-based framework. This approach allows legal teams to leverage documentation effectively while keeping the spotlight on the facts that drive the case.

Conclusion: The strategic shift to fact-centric timelines

Adopting a fact-centric timeline offers numerous advantages for legal teams. It promotes early and comprehensive case understanding, accommodates intangible yet crucial facts, and provides clarity and focus by aligning the timeline with the actual events. 

By shifting to this approach, law firms can enhance their strategic capabilities, leading to more effective case management and successful outcomes.

How information is organized in the dynamic and often complex legal landscape can significantly impact a case’s trajectory. A fact-centric timeline is not just a method of organization; it’s a strategic tool that empowers legal teams to navigate their cases with greater precision and insight.

Though legal professionals do understand the advantages (though perhaps have not had the time to catalog them!), one obstacle to their pervasive use is likely the lack of technological solutions that are easy to create and maintain.

Our Timelines software is designed to streamline the creation of fact-centric timelines, ensuring that your team can focus on what they do best – winning cases. We invite you to discover how our solution can transform your legal practice. Experience firsthand the power of a tool that aligns with your strategic needs and enhances your case management capabilities.

Schedule a demo today and step into a new era of legal timeline management. Let us help you turn facts into victories.

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Scott Upchurch

Scott Upchurch is the Senior Director of Product Strategy and an Associate General Counsel at DISCO. Prior to joining DISCO, Scott was a civil litigator for 15 years, representing both plaintiffs and defendants in various federal and state courts, as well as before arbitration panels. Scott earned his J.D. from the University of Chicago.