September 12, 2023

Podcast - Understanding the Importance of Chronology

The Trial Lawyer's Handbook: A Courtroom Preparation Podcast Series

In this episode of his "The Trial Lawyer's Handbook" podcast series, litigation attorney Dan Small discusses chronology and why this tool is so important when working on a case. Mr. Small provides key steps for building an effective case chronology.

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Mr. Small is also the author of the new American Bar Association (ABA) book Lessons Learned from a Life on Trial: Landmark Cases from a Veteran Litigator and what They Can Teach Trial Lawyers.

One of the greatest challenges of being a trial lawyer is digesting a large amount of factual detail and condensing it so that you can tell that story effectively. One important tool that can assist in the case is a case chronology.

A good chronology can keep facts organized, keep the focus on the importance of sequence and be an ongoing reminder of key events and dates.

Chronologies can also help you to see what's not there. Why are there gaps in the sequence? What do they mean? Is there a hole that you need to fill, or to explain, or to try to exploit?

I create a chronology in nearly all of my cases. I believe that developing a good chronology is an ongoing, iterative process. To pull it together, I seek input from my client and anyone else working on the case. Not just once, but again and again to see what's missing, and what's connected.

Each time I revise the chronology, I look it over to make sure 1) the chronology makes sense and 2) my case (or the other side's case) makes sense in light of the chronology. The chronology should cover all significant events in the case, with the date, description and citation, or source, included. Let's go through it piece by piece:

1. Events

Be inclusive at first. You can always eliminate entries later if the document gets too long. In complex cases, you may want to do separate shorter chronologies organized by key events, key players or key themes.

2. Dates

The level of precision depends on the circumstances. Sometimes just the month or even the year is enough. In other cases, you may want to include times down to the minute.

3. Description

Forget full sentences or grammar, this is your chronology. A short, staccato description of the key facts is enough. Include enough information to be understood, without making the description so long as is not useable.

4. Citations

Set forth the best source for each item, with alternative cites if appropriate. It's surprisingly difficult to remember where you read something months, weeks or sometimes even hours later, if you don't write it down.

5. Waypoints

A "waypoint" is a reference point used for purposes of navigation. Think about including waypoints in your chronology that help provide context to events. Waypoints can be personal events unrelated to the case that are memorable to the parties, or they might be broader events or developments (such as the terrorist attacks of September 11).

I like to keep a "chrono update" file so that anyone reviewing documents, transcripts or other materials can make notes of new events or citations and put them in the file for later updating. I also use the chronology when preparing witnesses and make sure to note anything that's missing or that raises an issue.

Finally, don't forget to make one for the trial. In one criminal trial, the main complaint of the jurors afterward was that neither side provided them with a chronological timeline. The jury wound up creating a timeline of its own back in the deliberation room. Is that really what you want your case to hinge on? I don't think so.

In sum, narratives are best presented, and best remembered, by lawyers and witnesses when the story is laid out in chronological order. Preparing a chronology will help you to organize — and, ultimately, present — your case effectively.

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