Timelines: Who knew what when?

Brian J. Carney
Bridgetower Media Newswires

Timing is everything. To illustrate your client’s best case, you need to get it right. This is why trial lawyers use timelines. Every case, regardless of the type of litigation or its value, can benefit from a well-designed timeline.

When you start to think about designing a persuasive timeline, consider the following:

• How much prep time do I have?

• How many events do I need to show?

• Am I tracking multiple persons and events?

• What tools are available to me?

• What types of media can I include?

Some timelines are simple

A timeline intended to give a general overview allows audience members to anchor evidence as they hear it relative to time. As a prosecutor, I once created a very basic (pen and paper) timeline to show the defendant’s age as found on six different public documents. The purpose was to prove the defendant was not as young as he claimed — and, thus, was not a juvenile.

The timeline was basic, but convincing. He was tried as an adult in Superior Court on felony drug charges.


Some are complicated

You may require more detailed explanations and additional time for your audience to study the way events interconnect. I once developed a timeline for a complicated securities case that involved more than 55,000 different securities transactions. The purpose was to allow the entire trial team (located in multiple states) to review all events, learn the case visually, and be able to parse the different types of transactions specific to each member’s unique needs.

Making a truly effective, persuasive timeline takes time, thoughtfulness and practice. Whether it is to help members of your trial team understand their role in a complex litigation, for a mediation opening statement, or for a three-week jury trial, a timeline should be properly designed.

Determining the precise message of your timeline can be the most challenging part of drafting a well-designed litigation graphic.

The process

Start by placing all the events on the timeline that you feel may be important. When they’re laid out, you will see many events are more distracting than helpful (side issues). You should remove those events in favor of ones that are more crucial to the tale.

This is an iterative process whereby the details of the timeline get whittled down until only the essential events remain. The goal is to tell a precise story.

Following this process will make your timeline much more useful. You will also notice that your knowledge of the details and confidence in understanding the case dramatically improves. A well-designed timeline is a powerful tool that practically speaks for itself.

Things to consider

• Type of audience

A timeline for a mediation may be very different from one built for a trial. The major differences are speculation, opinion and inadmissible events. These may be appropriate for a mediation timeline, but will not work for a jury. A jury timeline ought to be tightly connected to the evidence that is admissible and documented.

• Choosing a format

Will your timeline be printed or digital? Posters can be helpful, but they can’t tell the story like digital technology can. The events in a case usually span more time than a single poster can contain.
I once assisted on a case that had several years of events printed out on a 23-foot-long poster. This was somewhat helpful for the trial lawyer but clearly not very helpful for the jury.

• Technology

Many lawyers like PowerPoint for a basic timeline. But these timelines are limited to showing events in a sequential order. Often that can be too restricting.

The best way to tell a story may not be purely chronological. Using software specifically built for timelines allows a presenter to move back and forth through events in the manner he feels tells the most persuasive story.

• Customization

A trial lawyer can opt for a custom-designed solution, which provides several benefits. First, it can be built to show events revealed in a non-sequential order. That allows for more flexibility in how the story is told.

At the same time, each revealed event remains visually anchored to the overall chronology of the case. As a result, jurors can learn of events in a non-chronological way, but still have the advantage of understanding when the other events happened.

If, as usually happens at mediation or trial, witnesses forget or change their stories, an event can be revealed early on or not shown at all.


Using an interactive digital timeline can be very helpful in telling a powerful story. The best way to make a timeline persuasive is to spend the time ensuring that it is simple to understand without sacrificing underlying detail. Helping your client make the most compelling case is your ultimate goal.


Attorney Brian J. Carney is president of WIN Interactive, a multimedia firm dedicated to helping trial lawyers win their cases at mediation, arbitration or trial. He can be contacted at b.carney@wininteractive.com.