The Risk Manager, Summer 1999

Many litigators think they must be served with papers before action is required. This is a dangerous attitude if you have a federal practice. In Grun v. Pneumo Abex Corp, 170 F.R.D. 441 (N.D. Ill. 1996) the court set a trial date, but neither party was served with notice of the date. The court then dismissed for lack of prosecution when both parties failed to appear. Adding insult to injury plaintiff’s counsel was not served with the dismissal order. The court conceded that there may have been clerical errors, but refused to reopen the case. The court noted that the orders setting the trial date and dismissal were placed in the court’s file and on the court’s computer docket in a timely manner. The judge ruled this to be constructive knowledge and emphasized a lawyer’s continuing duty to sua sponte track the status of a case.

Dismissals and default judgments are not the only bad things that can happen if you don't track federal court dockets. Missing docket dates may lead to jury trial waivers, loss of expert witnesses, class certification waivers, and unwanted binding settlement agreements. Conversely, tracking court dockets can do a number of good things for your practice in addition to avoiding malpractice. A good tracking system can provide new activity on current firm cases, new cases involving clients and potential clients, and specific information by individual, subject matter, or practice area. For example, by searching the court docket system you can look for similar cases or motions to yours by subject matter, judge and lawyer. From there you can find winning or losing motions or briefs, learn the judge's track record on your issue, and how your opponent may have argued similar issues in the past.

Obviously only a large firm can afford to do all this - right? Wrong! Current automated court docket technology makes all this possible for any size practice. Like it or not, legal research and the lawyer's standard of care are being revolutionized by automated information management systems. If anything, this revolution has come late to the court docketing system, but it's here now for the federal courts. Can the state courts be far behind?

Source: David I. Bookspan, "Watching the docket can be software's job"; The National Law Journal. 3/22/99, B9. Mr. Bookspan's company developed CaseStream, software for federal court civil docket information (