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The Secrets of Online Document Retrieval

Speech byBy Paul Bush
June 4, 2004

You're drafting a civil federal litigation document, and need help. Where to turn? Of course, there's case law, federal rules, local rules, and judges' preferences.

But reviewing similar court filings online can be very useful. For simple boilerplate litigation documents, getting a quick sample can confirm proper document wording and formatting. For more substantive documents — such as
a supporting memorandum of law — recent samples can provide ideas and help avoid reinventing the wheel.

How to find those documents? To effectively search thousands of case dockets for precedent samples, a well-developed database is needed. LexisNexis CourtLink and CourtExpress' ClearCase services both offer full-text docket searching and have other features superior to that of the government's Pacer U.S. Party/Case Index database. The private databases are updated regularly and users can search fields of a docket sheet for specific criteria. Pricing can vary, but generally costs are between $5 and $10 per search.

After you have received your search results you can either retrieve the dockets and documents from the search provider, or get them directly from the source. Many federal district courts now offer direct access to litigation case information and documents via the "Case Management/Electronic Case Files" (CM/ECF) system, proprietary technology produced by the federal government. With a Pacer account, attorneys can use all CM/ECF databases to instantly access live docket sheets, document images, and reports. (Some courts that have not yet converted to the CM/ECF system offer document images services.)

Almost every state offers federal civil litigation documents online, which can be quickly and inexpensively downloaded. The cost for accessing most databases is seven cents per page, with a pricing cap of $2.10 for 30 or more pages. Prior to January 1, 2004 this cap only applied to document images, with the exception of transcripts, but now extends to docket sheets and case specific reports as well.

Before you begin you will need a computer with a PDF reader, an account with either CourtLink or CourtExpress, and a Pacer account. To open an account for these services simply apply online at www.lexisnexis.com/courtlink,
www.courtexpress.com, and http://pacer.psc.uscourts.gov, respectively.

CourtLink and ClearCase can search these case docket fields in combination with full-text searching: dates filed, courts, nature of suits, litigants, attorneys, law firms, judges, statutes, causes, open, closed, or class action status. ClearCase also offers a "demand amount" field for searching, and CourtLink allows you to make a template for your criteria search, to speed future duplicate searches.

Now that you are ready to start your search, login to CourtLink or CourtExpress and enter data into as many search fields as possible. In the full-text search field enter the name of the document you are looking for such as "motion to dismiss."

An overly broad search will produce too many results to look through, and limiting your search too much, such as only searching a very small time frame, may not provide any results at all. It may take a few tries to get the optimum

After you have obtained a comfortable number of case listings fitting your criteria, review the dockets, because case listing results display bare summary information. To look at the dockets you will now need to either purchase them from CourtLink, CourtExpress, or Pacer. An advantage of looking at the dockets with CourtLink or CourtExpress is that your search "hits" from the fields you searched will be highlighted on the docket. However, I prefer to view case dockets in CM/ECF, Web Pacer, or Racer.

Downloading dockets and documents is significantly faster and cheaper, and using the "edit," "find", (or equivalent) browser function will allow you to quickly search the text of the docket.

Next go to an appropriate CM/ECF, Web Pacer, or Racer Web site and log in. Don't forget to enter the client/matter or other reference for the invoice. Pacer databases do not require a client/matter, and invoices are only sent out quarterly.
Select a case from your previous search results, open and peruse the entries.

Assuming you find a document you would like to download and read, how do you know it is well written? By reading through the docket entries you should be able to determine if the filing was ruled on and successful. Check to see who wrote it and when. Was is it filed by Joe Schmo five years ago, or last week by an attorney or firm who is a leader in their field?

Finally, to download documents simply click the linked docket entry number on the left of the document description.

After confirming the fees for the download, your PDF viewer will open and you will see the document. Once in your viewer, the document can be printed, saved, e-mailed, etc. To get documents from another case, open that docket, and repeat the download process. After some practice you should be able to quickly locate and download several precedent samples for your writing.

Armed with this technique of online docket searching and retrieval, attorneys essentially have unlimited access to a quickly growing, inexpensive precedent sample database.

With advanced docket searching and the federal courts' increased use of CM/ECF, finding samples for your writing is easier and more productive than ever.

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