Excel is a virtual Swiss Army Knife for litigators. There really aren't any limits on what you can do with it, and I'm sure that I've only scratched the surface in my own practices. Excel is also a lot easier to use than many people think it is. Indeed, the foundation of all my later adventures with Excel was a 15-minute online tutorial that I had to take as a prerequisite for a temp job that I had (for 2 days!) in my early 20s.
If you need a refresher, I've rounded up a few video tutorials that you might find helpful: absolute and relative cell references, data formatting, and basic formulas and functions. (There are many good free Excel tutorials on YouTube!)
In this post, we'll show how Excel can help with two common tasks in litigation: (1) calendaring and calculating deadlines and (2) determining case valuation.
Excel as Deadline Calculator & Calendar
Excel is incredibly powerful when you're dealing with dates, particularly when you need to count them accurately. Obviously, this comes up all the time in litigation, and the rules for calculating dates can be rather complex which makes visual timelines and case management software important to use.
For example, in federal court, the answer to a complaint is due 21 days after the complaint is served. The parties may elect to extend this deadline, but the court must enter an order for the extension to be permitted.
Many of us pull out a calendar and literally count 21 days after the service date to find out when the answer is due. But what if you mis-count, or start on the wrong day? What if you need to count 60 days (as in the case where one party waives service of process)? Do you trust yourself to count 60 days accurately when an error could mean the answer gets struck?
Excel gives us a much better way of computing these deadlines.
- put the word "Date" in cell A1 (this will serve as a header);
- put the name of the case in cell B (another header);
- enter a date that's about 10 days before the first procedural event in the case in cell A2;
- format column A to show dates in the form "Sunday, May 22, 2016";
- Hover over the bottom-right corner of A2 so that the cursor changes to a "+" sign, and then pattern drag downwards until you've added a year or two of consecutive days;
- Release the mouse button to fill the dates;
- Find the date that triggers your deadline;
- Enter the name of the triggering event in column B next to the date;
- Enter a 1 immediately below the name of the event;
- Pattern drag downwards to create consecutive numbers from 1 on to the number of days allowed;
- Roll over from any weekends or holidays to find the due date.
The following video shows exactly how you'd do this. (I'm working on a Mac, so some of the shortcuts and menus might be located in different places than you'd see in Windows.)
Determining Case Valuations with Excel
Excel also shines for tabulating damages for different kinds of legal claims. For example, Excel is perfect in a multi-plaintiff case or a class cases where there are numerous line items that go into the final calculations, or where the amount of damages is likely to change based on factors such as the accrual of attorney's fees, the passage of time, or interest rates.
Further, by adding a probability column to each row in a damages calculation, you can build a powerful calculator for the effective value of a case. I would build a spreadsheet like this in every case, whether I was representing the plaintiff or the defendant. For the plaintiff, the expected value - taking into account odds of success and monetary damages - shows the potential upside of a case. For the defendant, this data reveals potential liability exposure. With factoring in realistic probabilities, a damages calculation can be misleading. With probabilities included, you can provide much more insight and guidance to your client during settlement negotiations.
Other Uses of Excel
The only limit with using Excel in litigation is your imagination. I've used it to create demonstrative exhibits for use in depositions, to make data "speak" with the help of conditional formatting and charts, and much more.
How are you using Excel in litigation? Please share your ideas and suggestions in the comments!