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A Judge’s Ten Commandments for Effective Case Management

Zachary Willis Posted in Rule One

The Hon. Jack Zouhary, federal district court judge and member of the American College of Trial Lawyers Task Force on Discovery and Civil Justice, recently penned an article for the Federal Lawyer about his case management process and the prioritization of time and resources throughout the life of a case. Judge Zouhary notes that active judicial case management isn’t necessarily the time-intensive task that many think; it simply “means ‘hands off’ in those cases where experienced lawyers are able to work together professionally, and ‘hands on’ when they or their clients are misbehaving.” In broad strokes, he outlines ten of the most important considerations he makes to keep his courtroom efficient, and, while they often include more time spent on a case at the outset, considerable time is saved down the line as a result, which also equates to money saved for clients.

  1. Judges should be available throughout the life of a case—especially early in the process. Because each case is unique, “[t]he justice system needs to be flexible and considerate of lawyers and parties so that cases can proceed efficiently and cost effectively.”
  2. “To ensure a meaningful conversation about a case schedule, I usually require Rule 26(a) disclosures prior to the initial conference.” This helps minimize “litigation expense by avoiding ritualistic or form discovery requests,” and “by reviewing the pleadings beforehand and often asking counsel to rank claims and defense,” judges too can be more prepared.
  3. Complex cases are not amenable to early full disclosure. Here, disclosures are scheduled in stages, the timeframes of which are enforced to prevent delay. Proportionate discovery is encouraged, to balance “the need for information with the burden, expense, and potential importance of that information.”
  4. Civility and cooperation among counsel is strongly encouraged to minimize litigation cost. When combative or excessive filings are detected, “a phone conference to address expectations” may be initiated.
  5. “Trial lawyers and their clients appreciate a firm trial date and a ready judge.” To meet this, dates that are set at the initial conference are agreed upon by all counsel and guided by the local rules. These dates remain as firm as possible.
  6. Summary disposition motions are not appropriate in every case, and dates for such are usually not set at the initial conference. “We address the need for a dispositive motion date at a later telephone status where I inquire if the movant, after discovery, has a good-faith belief in the success of such a motion.”
  7. “Not every motion requires a ‘law review’ opinion. Frequently, lawyers prefer a prompt decision so the case can move forward (or not). . . . This is especially true for discovery disputes, many of which can be resolved during a telephone conference.”
  8. Depending on the case, there may be one or more status conferences, during which updates are given from counsel, problems are addressed, and additional dates are set. This time is also good to “determine whether parties wish to discuss settlement,” something parties should at least consider along the way. “If the case is tried, the parties should know what their real differences are – is the gulf $1 or $1 million?”
  9. “To provide lawyers with courtroom experience, especially young lawyers, and to keep the docket moving, I utilize hearings and oral arguments on certain dispositive motions.” This allows “lawyers to reply directly and immediately to their opponent’s comments” and allows the judge to test the facts or law and resolve issues by pressing counsel at argument.
  10. “By striving for a court system that provides a favorable jury experience, we can help to educate potential jurors, while helping to combat the negative impressions that are often felt by jurors.” Minimizing downtime during trial “reflects a basic respect for the jurors’ times, as well as for the time and expense of the parties.”

Judge Zouhary equates handing cases on a docket to raising children: “you know that each child is different, and treating them fairly does not mean you treat them each the same way.” But, by having specific processes in place for managing the cases that come before the bench, more efficient resolutions can be reached for all parties involved.

IAALS’ new publication, A Roadmap for Review: Guide for Appraisal and Improvement of Caseflow Management in Civil Cases in U.S. District Courts, provides the tools for any interested federal judges to make a quick, initial assessment of the status of their civil case dockets to measure how it compares to colleagues and courts across the nation. If further analysis and appraisal are deemed appropriate or desirable, this Guide provides users with the tools to do so and recommendations for better practices.

Click here to read Judge Zouhary’s full article.