Making a record: Your time line

…everybody must have copies, over and over again, of everything that has accumulated about it in the way of cartloads of papers (or must pay for them without having them, which is the usual course, for nobody wants them)… – Charles Dickens, Bleak House

How important is your time line? It’s crucial. As a plaintiff, you get to gather initial facts into an accurate, persuasive story line.

Who are you trying to persuade? The lawyer you haven’t yet hired.

And as your case progresses, your time line becomes the basis for the gathering factual story of your case. Your time line will morph into the chronology of your whole case.

To illustrate the power of a time line, I’m jumping ahead to March, 2010, when my lawyer and I finally, finally received discovery in my lawsuit (filed September 2007) against the Skush-O’Briens. Discovery arrived in the form of three CDs. I printed out everything on them and made my own floor MOP [Mess of Papers].

Yes, it was “Cartloads of paper.” But Dickens, who patently disliked the Law, was wrong: I did want them. There’s nothing like reading through cartloads, boxes, CDs of undifferentiated documents to make my heart race along with my brain.

Legal etiquette calls for each lawyer to compile a neat discovery log when he or she turns over documents to the other side. We had done that; the Skush-O’Briens had not. But I  was more titillated than discouraged. What nuggets were they trying to hide under that MOP?

As I divided the papers into yearly and then monthly piles–reading here and there as I piled–I got so hyped up, I kept leaping up from the floor to e-mail my excitement to my lawyer.

Once again, as I did so many times when I worked for lawyers, I thrilled to the ultimate result of a chronology bulked up with a log of discovery documents: the Time Line. When I was done inserting the discovery into my ongoing time line and putting everything into binders, my lawsuit read like a detective procedural.

I’ve been adding to the time line ever since. It now numbers over 30 pages and is the bible of my lawsuit.

When I was a paralegal, I worked on a number of time lines. Most of “my” lawyers thought that I overwrote time lines like crazy–and they were right–but I’m a storyteller, not a lawyer. I certainly was not faulted for overlooking anything.

Lawyer’s POV. This is one area of law in which lawyers and their clients, the plaintiffs, can occupy different territories and speak in different dialects. What my lawyers wanted out of discovery is legally admissible evidence that the Skush-O’Briens broke specific laws governing co-op corporations. They want documentary proof of the accusations they laid down in the complaint, proof of what happened.

Plaintiff’s POV. Yeah, fine, I understood that, but what I as plaintiff wanted was more sumptuous. I wanted to know how the Skush-O’Briens operated, I wanted to plumb their psyches. I wanted their big and wormy secrets, I wanted depth, complexity, the sociopathology of this lawsuit.

I wanted the detailed story, the strong narrative pull of my kind of time line.

A carefully documented time line was hugely valuable in one case I worked on, in which a crime occurred, calls to 911 had been recorded, the police had arrived, done interviews, filled out police reports. That same night our client had been arrested.  He said he had an alibi. (He had; he’d been stopped for a traffic violation in another part of town.) But at the trial, the prosecutor had beaten the guy’s alibi with eyewitness identification (too often wrong) and our client had been convicted, sent to prison.

This time line had to include not only the date; the police reports also carefully noted hours and minutes. When all the documents had been logged in, the time line put into perfect order the entire episode, minute by minute.

Our client’s alibi was solid. And you could see where someone had finagled the paperwork to make it look as if our client had time to commit the crime.

The client was exonerated. Released from prison, he sued for wrongful arrest and imprisonment.

Reading that time line made my spine tingle.

Time lines expose holes in the enemy’s story and knit facts you thought you grasped into something larger: mighty revealed truth.

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