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Court dockets, on the surface, are merely official records of cases but, below the surface, the information they contain is far deeper. For an attorney, the docket may be the single most overlooked research, case management, and even business development resource available. The docket is a constant source of litigation management anxiety. An attorney responsible for overseeing a large number of active cases, handled by dozens of partners and associates, must be confident that not a single filing deadline inadvertently passes. For the managing attorney, his or her best weapon and defense may well be access to court dockets. Technology advances have made it possible now to track docket activity in federal, state and local courts and to automatically deliver to an attorney’s desktop each day new activity on the dockets of the firm’s cases; new cases involving the firm’s clients and prospective clients; and new cases involving attorneys, firms, judges or subjects the attorney wants to track. The fastest way for law firms to find docket information is on the Internet. Electronic access can increase attorneys’ chances of winning at trial by giving them previously unavailable access to details of prior court cases involving their judge, opposing parties, opposing counsel and opposing witnesses. Attorneys can find these details on www.courtlink.comas part of the eAccess service that locates, tracks and sends e-mail alerts about cases. Similar information can also be found on both www.westgroup.comand www.lexis.com, which provide access to legal documents and court records. Among other things, such information can help a firm avoid inadvertent dismissals, default judgments, sanctions and loss of appellate rights. Attorneys can also find motions and briefs that have succeeded previously before a judge and keep abreast of new cases involving specific issues or legal practice areas. Some litigators operate under the misconception that, unless they are served with papers, they are not required to act. This is not accurate. “No service,” is really “no excuse.” Attorneys have an ethical and ongoing legal commitment to check the status of their cases. Courts have little tolerance for attorney negligence in missing deadlines. In addition to default judgments and dismissals, other serious consequences can occur if an attorney does not stay on top of a case docket, including waiving jury trial, having expert witnesses struck for untimely designation, waiving class certification and becoming bound by a settlement agreement. Even an experienced legal professional cannot control every factor involving a case. Attorneys who do not follow the status of a case docket place themselves at the mercy of others. There are events that cannot be foreseen, such as human frailty and fallibility, e.g., an associate is overwhelmed with work and abandons his or her cases. A managing attorney does not want to receive a phone call from the court informing him that his case has been dismissed, only to check an associate’s office and find a stack of unopened mail and unanswered legal documents relating to ongoing cases. If the attorney had been receiving automatic docket updates, he or she would have known that the pleading had not been filed while there was still time to act. Tracking a court docket electronically can also raise client service to new levels. An attorney can learn when a client or prospective client has been sued, often even before the client is served. For a law firm, the business development and “rainmaking” advantages of knowing about a case before a client or a prospective client learns about it can be very powerful. Today’s court docket technology has the potential to revolutionize legal research. Complaints are traditionally tested by researching the elements of a claim. Motions are typically filed and opposed by researching legal points. The starting point can now be a similar complaint that withstood a motion to dismiss, or a motion and brief that previously won before the judge assigned to the case. For example, an attorney opposes a motion for class certification in a securities case pending before a particular judge in a named district of a named state. He or she can identify that judge’s prior securities cases, obtain docket sheets of those cases, search the sheets for class certification motions and orders, find a winning brief and order a hard copy of that brief — all without leaving his or her desk. Further, counsel can identify an adversary’s other securities cases and review the dockets of those cases to learn if the opponent has previously taken positions inconsistent with those advanced in the case at hand. Access to this information was previously unavailable using traditional research methods, particularly if the case was settled or dismissed. Docket information can also help attorneys keep current with developments in specific areas of the law. An attorney can automatically receive newly filed cases involving particular subjects in selected districts, e.g., an antitrust attorney can be alerted whenever a new antitrust case is filed in his jurisdiction. Law firm management can track various practice areas to identify new growth opportunities, i.e., a firm could track a marked increase in the number of Employee Retirement Insurance Security Act cases being filed in its region and grow that part of its practice accordingly. Docket technology available today enables law firms to keep current with case activity and more, enabling the firm to provide clients with the best service possible. Such capabilities have obvious business-development benefits, but they can also reduce the risk of a default judgment being entered before counsel is even aware of a case or, of having to start a case by asking plaintiff’s counsel to extend the time to respond. This new technology automatically delivers docket information to an attorney’s desktop from federal, state and local courts, configured to precise specifications. Today, many attorneys and law firms are already using such tools to win more cases through more effective management, to build a practice by having more grounded market intelligence, to improve client service, to craft winning arguments and to stay on the leading edge of developments in specified practice areas. Jehanne McIntyre Edwards is a Maryland attorney and the court manager for CourtLink’s eFile projects in Washington, D.C., Superior Court and the Baltimore City Circuit Court.

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