As regular readers of this blog already know, documentation of the progress of a legal matter can be very helpful in the event of a claim. It’s easy to forget, however, that the recommendation with respect to documentation extends to dockets.

There was once a time when “to docket” meant the same thing to lawyers in almost any kind or size of firm: a docket was a handwritten log of a lawyer’s expenditure of time on an individual file. Those days are gone; in most firms electronic docketing systems have replaced paper. Lawyers in some practice areas (wills and real estate come to mind) who bill on a transaction or project basis may not docket in traditional time increments at all, though, if they are wise, they will still track time spent and tasks completed on every file.

Regardless of the time-keeping system you use, one principle remains the same: a good docket entry provides a clear description of legal service activity undertaken. In doing so, it creates a source of evidence which will normally be used to bill your clients, to create a costs record in the context of litigation, and to monitor the profitability of your practice.

However, good docketing also means keeping in mind, at all times, that dockets are sometimes helpful for other purposes. These purposes include defending an assessment of your account, and defending a claim against you, whether by your client or by a third party. In these unusual circumstances the clarity of your dockets may count the most. Docketing is in some ways an art form and you will improve at it over the course of your career, but these tips can help serve as a starting point:

  • A good docket entry is timely. If you don’t docket promptly, you will forget details of the work completed, and you may fail to capture all of your time, or conversely, leave yourself open to overestimating time. (Remember: by docketing all of your time, you can decide later which hours to bill to the client, while retaining a full record of your activities for business analysis purposes.)
  • A good docket entry is objectively understandable by clients and others – for example, it’s not highly dependent on obscure abbreviations or codes of your own making, and if handwritten, it’s legible.
  • A good docket record is specific. If you routinely capture only “phone call re settlement”, and the litigation for that client goes on for five years, imagine how many identical – and completely unhelpful—entries you will generate. Using a call log can help you capture whom you called, when, and for how long… but you still need to elaborate on the specific purpose of the call: “phone conversation with client to review future economic loss component of defendant’s May 11 settlement offer.”
  • A good docket entry keeps privilege and privacy in mind. Be aware that your dockets may need to be disclosed to others – for example, in the context of determining costs of a motion. While docket entries should be specific, they should be drafted in such a way as to prevent the disclosure of privileged or private information. Dockets are intended to document the delivery of legal services, not the substance of advice given or the strategy adopted. Don’t lose sight of the function of the documentation that you create. You’ll save yourself hours that would otherwise be spent redacting your documents for disclosure.

For more advice about creating good dockets, see practicePRO’s “Managing the Finances of Your Practice” booklet, and also the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Time Management Practice Management Guidelines

Do you have additional tips for creating documents that will be an asset in the event of a claim? Comment on this post to let us know!