DocketFish: Addressing the Pain Points of PACER

When most people hear “legal research,” they think of Thomson Reuters and LexisNexis. The newer crop of lawyers will also think of Fastcase. You’ll be hard pressed to find a lawyer who disagrees that legal research is overdue for an overhaul. The same can be said for the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, commonly referred to as PACER.

Looking at the PACER website reminds you of late-1990s websites, with its boxy top navigation menu and list of links. This is understandable, given that the online version launched in 2001. Prior to that, it was only accessible by terminals (yes, terminals), either at the law office or in the library. Considering PACER gives you access to case and docket information from federal appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts, legal professionals—from law librarians to lawyers—must use it.

The list of things that must be used in any given day is long, and the practice of law is no exception. As I’ve pointed out, though, there are hybrids in the legal industry addressing some of these pain points.

DocketFish is addressing pain points of PACER.

It is the brainchild of Ben Osborn, his brother, and their cousin. Osborn is an associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP. PACER is part of his every day routine, and that of his cousin, who is a lawyer in Washington, D.C. They found much to complain about when it came to PACER. Things we’ve become accustomed to, like quick and easy search capability and favoriting or bookmarking for future reference do not exist with PACER. Indeed, functions we’ve become accustomed to through social media, mobile apps, and better web browsers, are missing from systems used every day in business. We are often shocked at this, but continue on, grumbling along the way. The Osborns and their cousin decided to take action, starting by enhancing the look and feel of PACER and improving its functionality.

DocketFish acts as an overlay, letting you log-in with your existing PACER credentials. You can use your PACER credentials to auto-login, removing the need to remember them. You search PACER through the DocketFish interface, giving you a much nicer, more user-friendly experience. For example, when you login, you see cases you have favorited, a list of previous case searches, and alerts. This eliminates the need to search, again, for what you were searching for a couple hours ago or a couple weeks ago, and the need to open Notepad or wherever you copy/paste information for future use. With DocketFish, that is a mouse-click away.

docketfish-User Home Page

The kicker, though, is that you also have access to documents anyone else at the firm has accessed. Osborn, who has an undergraduate degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan, did his research and found that 40% of firm PACER downloads are duplicates. Take a second and reread that. So, at any given firm, more than one person at a firm has searched for and downloaded the same documents, 40% of the time. At $0.10 a page, that gets expensive. DocketFish removes that expense: it caches documents previously accessed, and makes them freely available to the rest of the firm.

DocketFish has other functions we’re used to, like favoriting, and you can also search by keyword or document type, like a motion or a brief.

docketfish-Case Search Result Page

Remember Osborn is an associate at Cravath. That is important for two reasons:

  1. He has not quit his position.
  2. Cravath has not dissuaded his pursuit of building and cultivating DocketFish.

I asked him about being an associate at Cravath, and all that entails, while also working on DocketFish. He said he enjoys being a lawyer, he enjoys his work at Cravath, and he enjoys working on DocketFish. It has meant a lot of work, and a lot of late nights, but DocketFish is not time sensitive, so most of the work on it can be done late at night. I don’t know what I was expecting as an answer, but it gave me pause. There is much talk of the hard life of a Big Law associate, and the lack of innovation at Big Law firms. Lately, I’ve considered this refrain to be a holdout from the recession; that law firms of all sizes are making changes, it’s just that few people are listening or paying attention. Sheppard Mullin was an instance of a large law firm embracing web-based collaboration, with fantastic results. DocketFish runs in that same vein, but from the bottom-up instead of top-down. An associate is instigating change, for the better.

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