You don’t have to be Microsoft to have a lot of lawsuits filed against you. If your company has deep pockets, it’s probably going to get sued. Or worse, you could find yourself suing that negligible vendor who sold your company that vaporware application.

As the leader of IT strategy for your company, departments who have a vested interest in the outcome of such cases are going to turn to you when trying to locate technological resources to help them keep tabs on what’s happening in the courts.

Don’t be taken by surprise when the CEO casually asks, “Can’t we find that on the Internet?” Be ready with the answer. Tell them, “Yes, we can.”

Lawyers do tech, too
There are few aids for dealing with the pain of litigation, but, to some extent, the uncertainty can be contained without a lengthy conference with counsel. This is due to the adoption of modern IT technologies by the courts themselves that give you a window to your own case and the actions in it.

The judicial system, and legal practice in general, is an information-intensive business. Much of the work of both involves taking bits of information from point A and transmitting them to point B, for analysis, modification, or storage. Yet the courts have been careful and conservative in adopting information technologies. Beyond the traditional conservatism of the institution, court data is often mission-critical. A small misspelling might mean someone wrongly goes to jail (or gets out of jail!). So the courts have been careful about what they do with computers and the access that people have to those computers.

The federal courts began to move court docket operations into an electronic format some time ago. Those court dockets consist of notations of every action before the court and the date on which it occurred. Every pleading or document filed, every ruling or case scheduling order by the court, and every judgment is noted on the court docket. By reviewing the docket, anyone can follow the action in that case. It gives you the opportunity to easily keep track of nasty but unavoidable cases.

Hickory, dickory, docket
Viewing court dockets is best done on one of the online sites that let you review case dockets from the privacy of your own office. The initial push for online access to federal court dockets came from the PACER program. PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records, has 187 federal trial, bankruptcy, and appellate courts online for docket review. In addition to a chronology of the events in a case, background information on the case, parties, judge, and counsel is available. Court opinions on issues are also available.

Most of these courts currently require direct dial-in to individual court computers via modem and a telecomm package like ProComm Plus, pcAnywhere, or Hyperterminal. An account must first be set up with the PACER service center in San Antonio for billing and access purposes. You register for each court to which you’d like access.

The long-range plan for PACER is to move access to the Internet via PACER-Net sites, currently a collection of 20 courts whose dockets can be reviewed over the Web.

Free sites
In addition to PACER-Net sites, several courts have set up Web access to their PACER dockets directly from the court Web site. A fine example of such a site is the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky Web site. Currently, access to court dockets, calendars, and opinions is available for no charge and without an access account, making this a good site to test how useful such case access might be to you.

Other sites include:

Although each court must be individually accessed, PACER currently offers the U.S. Party/Case Index as a Web-based search engine of case information. It is the national index for the federal courts and serves as a locator for cases nationwide. The Index contains selected information from cases across the country. You can search by party name or, for bankruptcy cases, by social security number. A hit provides the party name, the court where the case is filed, the case number, and the filing date; this information lets you go directly to the individual court of filing and access the docket online.

These basic services free you to keep track of your case or any litigation in which you might have an interest. This quick checkup only requires a minimal cost and avoids any telephone tag with counsel. It’s another way to handle some of the anxiety of a lawsuit and, to an extent, get back some control over an unfamiliar situation.

Michael Losavio’s interest in technology and the law began with WordStar and the 8086 chip. (His children find this all too believable.) He has come a long way since then, however. Settling in KY, he does legal and consulting work around the United States.

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