It may be one of the least heralded yet most critical jobs in many law firms – that of the docketing professional – and it is one that calls for a unique combination of technical, data-management, organizational and communication skills.

In litigation and intellectual property matters, it is the responsibility of docketing professionals to ensure that electronic court pleadings and documents are properly and timely filed, to maintain internal databases of docketed documents, and to facilitate access to documents by the firm’s legal professionals.

A decade ago, docketing professionals from across the U.S. came together to organize the first national organization devoted to the field, the National Docketing Association. The NDA’s last in-person convention, in 2019, drew more than 200 participants.

This spring marks a turning point, of sorts, for the NDA and for the docketing profession, as two pioneering leaders in the field are retiring – including one who had been NDA president for the past four years – and a new president and new officers take the helm of the organization.

Elaine Screechfield, president of the NDA from 2018 to this year, and firmwide litigation docket manager at Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco, a position she has held since 1983, has announced that she will retire in July.

Assuming her seat as NDA president is Igor Olenich, firm-wide patent docket manager at Morrison & Foerster and one of the original founders of the NDA.

Meanwhile, JoAnn Buss, director of docket and court services at Sidley Austin in Chicago, retired April 1 after 44 years managing dockets at several firms, including for 17 years at Sidley Austin and 18 years at Skadden Arps.

Buss was a founding member and former president of the Chicago Area Docket Association and active member of the NDA and was former chairperson of the eCourts Advisory Committee for the Circuit Court of Cook County.

Recently, I sat down with Screechfield, Olenich and Buss for a conversation about the history of the NDA and the role of the docketing professional. We were also joined by Gavin McGrane, founder and CEO of PacerPro.

What follows is a transcript of that conversation, which I have condensed and edited for style and continuity.


Founding of the NDA

AMBROGI: With Elaine and JoAnn about to retire and Igor recently moving into the role of president, it seemed like a good time to do a bit of a retrospective and prospective on the NDA – what it’s about, where it’s been and where it’s headed. So let’s start at the beginning: How did it get started?

OLENICH: It’s an interesting story. Back in 2011, Chris Gierymski, director of docketing at DLA Piper in Chicago, reached out to a lot of different people through various email distribution groups. At that point, there were a few small local chapters, like in Chicago, but there was nothing on the national scale. Chris basically just wanted to solicit and see if there was any interest and who would be willing to step up and provide assistance in getting this off the ground. We had a meeting at DLA Piper that about 30 people attended, with more participating by WebEx. We proceeded from there. We had subsequent meetings over the course of a few months, Chris started the articles of incorporation, we applied for the nonprofit status, and that’s how we got the ball rolling.

AMBROGI: What was the need that they saw when they started to talk about whether to start a national organization?

BUSS: For years, the group in Chicago had been talking about the need for a national organization. We started our organization in, I want to say, 1987 – sometime around then – and we were always saying that we wanted to form a national organization. For years, we’d all been talking about it. I think our “profession” really had never been considered a profession until we all started banding together like this.

It’s interesting because we’ve been around longer than paralegals, longer than legal secretaries. Our basic jobs started in England as an assistant to an attorney. We were kind of like Bob Cratchit. For a very long time, if you did our job for a certain number of years, you could take the bar. That’s how Abraham Lincoln became an attorney.

The job requires such an attention to detail, such dedication. It’s nice to have people that are in that same situation and maybe haven’t gotten the recognition that they should have, and letting each other know that we’re out there and we can help each other. Especially when you’re working for a national law firm, I might not know the San Francisco practice, but I can call up Elaine and say, ‘Hey, how do you do this in California?’

I think that’s where we were coming together – let’s make a network to make everyone’s job easier and let’s share this information with everyone.

AMBROGI: Was it the kind of situation where everybody saw that need right away? Or were there people who felt like, ‘Oh, I don’t need this’?

SCREECHFIELD: It happened all in the ‘80s. Our San Francisco organization was founded around the same time, maybe the early ‘80s, right after I got hired. They were all managers and they felt that we needed a San Francisco organization. And then we found out Chicago had one. And we all knew about MACA in New York.

As the firms got bigger, and we were working more across the country, we realized it would be so nice to have that networking capability. I agree with JoAnn that it wasn’t until we had a national organization that it actually became something I could think of as a profession. This is what we do, without having to explain it. Well, actually I still have to explain it. I had to explain it to somebody the other day. She was like, ‘What do you do? Maybe my daughter could take over your position.’ I’m like, ‘No, no.’

Duties of the Docketing Professional

AMBROGI: All right, I’m going to put you to the challenge. Explain it to me: What do you do?

SCREECHFIELD: I tell people that we’re a cross between a paralegal and a librarian. We do the research. We don’t provide legal advice, even if we’re lawyers. And, like paralegals, we work on the actual cases. We know the ins and outs of the cases, which can include calendaring, procedural reference, etc., but like a librarian, we have a wide variety of resources at our disposal and, in some of our firms, we also incorporate e-filing. So, paralegal and librarian are two things people kind of know.

Library science – you went, you got a degree. Paralegals, like JoAnn said, we were there before paralegals, because I got my certificate as a paralegal in 1982. And that was a brand new thing. All the brochures showed a male lawyer with two paralegals on his arms, like glorified secretaries, and that was the beginning of the paralegal concept, of being certified as a paralegal. Docketing goes back to the ‘70s. So, the paralegal concept was new, but people more readily identify with what a paralegal does. We support the team, but we also do generic research, but it’s all about procedure – procedure, procedure, procedure.

OLENICH: I have an easier way of how I tell people what I do. I tell them, We tell the attorneys what to do and when to do it, we just don’t tell them how to do it.

Impact of Technological Changes

AMBROGI: With this organization having been founded in 2011, it would seem to me that this past decade must have been one of a whole lot of change in the work that you do, given the way technology has changed over the past decade. Has it affected what you do?

BUSS: Tremendously. When I was hired at Sidley in 2004, the person that I was replacing had been there for 35 years. He was retiring because electronic filing was coming in. He said, ‘JoAnn, I’m not doing it. I don’t care. I’ve been doing this too long. I know all the ins and outs of the courts. I don’t want to deal with training. So I’m hiring you and good luck.’

There was a fear of it within the Chicago organization, the docketing association, when they were first going over to e-filing. Another colleague and I did a joint presentation on, basically, don’t be afraid of e-filing, you can become the expert, and this is how you become the expert.

AMBROGI: For those people who were retiring because they didn’t want to deal with it, were they fearful of having to learn the technology or were they fearful that the technology could eliminate their jobs?

BUSS: Eliminate their jobs.

SCREECHFIELD: Without a doubt, but probably both. The technology then … remember, every state was different and every court was a little different, even though the system was supposedly similar. And that was just federal. Then you had the state courts. So the technology wasn’t that sound, and there was a lot of politics, at least in our state, about who was going to run it and who was going to do it. It was kind of all over the place.

It didn’t give you a sense of, like, oh, this is a really solid, fully tested thing. And then, yeah, people were thinking, ‘What if you don’t need me anymore?’ Because that’s what the secretaries did – they did the manual filings. We filed them for them, but they prepared them all, they did everything. So then the big question was, ‘What’s going to happen, because docketing had always reviewed the filings before they went out.’

You had a lot of firms that were like that, where the secretaries continued with the e-filing function and then docketing got left out because they weren’t reviewing everything before it went out. So, it’s been a big mess for so many years. But with the rise of e-filing and paperless work environments … once we went to paperless, it was fantastic. All of that really changed how people were working. We needed to talk to each other, we needed to share ideas. How are you running your department? How are you meeting the needs of management? Of risk management? Of what the lawyers want? It was very challenging.

NDA’s Influence on the Profession

AMBROGI: As the technology has been evolving over the past decade, what’s been the NDA’s role in helping to facilitate the evolution of the docketing role and of the industry in general?

OLENICH: Over the years, especially as we’ve become more prominent and more known, especially with the global firms, they are starting to pay more attention to us, they are listening to what our standards are and they do take that into consideration. We’ve done tremendous work with the federal courts and helping them establish their electronic filings and things of that nature.

SCREECHFIELD: We have a big presence with the federal courts. We were involved with a big project with the administrative office regarding PACER. Also, to your question of how we assist, we’ve really gotten our monthly webinars to be extremely robust. We went from one every couple of months to the point where we now have one every month. We have sponsors, we have member panels. We have our yearly conferences. All of that has really solidified relationships with the courts. They’re eager to work with us and they do respect us as well.

OLENICH: Now that we’ve been around for over a decade, we’ve shown that we have enough people with the expertise to where not only partners and administrators are paying attention, but I’ve noticed other associations are also paying attention too. We’ve had people from Canada asking not only if they can join our association, but also asking if we have plans on expanding to a global level and becoming a global docketing association. We have working relationships with the European patent office and with the World International Patent Organization. So as the years have gone on and we’ve shown and proved that not only are we able to be sustainable, but ever-growing, other major players in the legal industry are really starting to take notice and trying to work with us.

Future Plans for the NDA

AMBROGI: Elaine, you were president, if I have it right, from 2018 to last year?

SCREECHFIELD: Right, 2018 through 2021. Four years.

AMBROGI: That’s a long term. Igor, are you now in it for the next four years?

OLENICH: The pandemic put a wrench into some of our plans. If everything would have gone to plan, then last year we would have had our 10th-year conference. So my hope is maybe two years, and then I can pass this role onto some newer blood. We really would love to be able to get some newer people, younger people, to step up and take our positions.

AMBROGI: And you’re going back to having a live conference this year?

SCREECHFIELD: Fingers crossed. We’re scheduled for October in Vegas.

AMBROGI: Looking ahead, do you have any plans for how this organization continues to evolve or move forward from this point?

OLENICH: The vision that we have for now is stay with the status quo, keep working on establishing more of our webinars and educational opportunities and training opportunities for our members. And then we are expanding by adding additional local chapters. We’re talking about possibly adding a Minneapolis chapter, we’re discussing the possibility of making a chapter somewhere in the Northwest. So through those local chapters, the growth and the exposure will definitely be there.

Careers in Docketing

AMBROGI: What’s the career trajectory for somebody coming into this field? How do they typically get into it? How do they start and develop and grow?

OLENICH: That’s a very interesting question. We’ve been working for quite some time on trying to establish national standards, at least as far as the titles are concerned. If you look across the board, the titles are anywhere between starting from just a docket clerk or a docket assistant to a docket administrator, and anything in between.

Usually, people start out in a lower position, an entry level position, like a clerk or an assistant, and then they work their way up into becoming a specialist and maybe expanding the area of their practice and expertise. Like me, for example, I can handle both – I can handle litigation and the IP side of docketing. So just through the years of experience, the person moves up in their roles. After the specialist, they will become a senior specialist or a senior docketer, then the possibility of being a supervisor or a coordinator. And then become what Elaine and JoAnn and myself have become, you become directors or administrators.

BUSS: I do know somebody who has the title of chief docketing officer.

SCREECHFIELD: When I started at MoFo, the woman I trained alongside, she used to be a receptionist. And my boss had come from another firm. He had done docketing and this was a move up for him to be a supervisor. We’ve hired all different kinds of people. I’ve hired people from attorney services. I’ve hired people from the mail room. I’ve hired people who were legal secretaries. I’ve hired people who were paralegals, all different kinds of people.

In bigger firms, you have established departments where you can hire, and where people know what that job trajectory is. There’s usually some kind of path to move up in a supervisor role or trainer role. But in smaller firms, you could be hired as a paralegal, and docketing is your job. The job trajectory is going to be so different in a big firm versus a small one where you could be doing everything, and you don’t have the docketing title, you’re a secretary or paralegal.

BUSS: I started at a 12-person law firm when I was 17 years old. They hired me for the file room, and I progressed into the law clerk position there, which was running the documents to the court. The one difference between somebody who’s going to succeed in this job and who maybe just sees it as a paycheck is you have to have the passion to go after the knowledge to be able to do the job correctly.

I started reading the rule books, on my own, to learn what the practice was, and then it just built from there. And then I went to a bigger law firm. So, for people who want to do this job, they have to be curious, they have to be willing to go outside their comfort zone sometimes. When you have to call a court and ask questions of a clerk, that can be pretty intimidating the first couple of times you have to do it. There’s just like a certain mindset.

AMBROGI: And it sounds like you’re saying you have to be a self-starter, at least to get ahead of it.

OLENICH: Absolutely. You have to have a love for knowledge, for reading, to be able to just go out there and find the information. I’ve taken great pride in being able to find information on my own and being able to apply that information to my day-to-day, and also then to be able to share it, not only with my team, but also with the group at large. The biggest misconception about docket – and this is something that we’ve been working on and trying to change people’s opinion – is that, unfortunately, everyone seems to think that all we do is data entry. That’s only a small piece.

SCREECHFIELD: I find my least successful hires were the ones who just really didn’t have an interest in the law. You have to really be interested to be able to read the minutia – to do that and then to have to be able to present that to an attorney and say, ‘This is what I’m talking about. Here’s the code cite.’ But then he’ll say, ‘What do you think?’ And then I insert my expertise. You have to be able to like the law.

MCGRANE: You’re concerned as much about the people as the process, right. That’s the thing that I think is really telling about what you guys do, because you have the outreach and the credibility, not only within in the firm, but you’re also talking to the courts. At the end of the day, we’ve all had run documents to the courts, right, and needed to know, how did this judge like it filed. To me, that’s one of the beauties of the system you guys have created. This knowledge should be shared, and it’s not being shared all the time for the courts. Right? Judge A likes it this way. Judge B likes it that way. You guys are sharing that knowledge externally.

SCREECHFIELD: Yep. Got to be a good communicator. Those attorneys, they want to hear what they want to hear. You’ve got to be succinct, you’ve got to be clear, you’ve got to support yourself. The evidence you find, you’ve got to be able to support whatever position you have. It’s the hardest thing to train someone in – they’re afraid to call the court or go to go court to push, ‘What do you mean you rejected my document?’ You’ve got to ask questions. You’ve got to report back. You’ve got to push the box. When you respond to someone, you have to be able to defend your answer. Don’t give them some bull that you found somewhere that you’re just glossing over with legal speak. You have to be able to defend, because they’re going to come back with a question, and they’re going to say, ‘Well, what about this? Well, where did you find that?’ You have to be rock solid airtight in supporting what you’re communicating to them.

Docketing’s Place within a Firm

AMBROGI: What’s the interplay like with other departments in a firm? What’s the understanding of other departments in the firm of what your role is and how you can support or benefit each other?

SCREECHFIELD: We’re the mystery department.

OLENICH: I can tell you, Bob, at least from my experience doing this for 25 years, nobody really wants to talk to us unless they need something.

SCREECHFIELD: Exactly.

OLENICH: Going back to what Elaine said, I have yet to come across a partner or an attorney who will not appreciate and respect your answer, as long as you’re able to deliver it in the proper way and substantiate it with the evidence that you have to support your opinion.

BUSS: The other challenge that we have is that we’ve got to deal with the other side – we’ve got to deal with the courts – and there is a certain finesse that you have to have with those courts, because they don’t care that you’re a big law firm, you’re just another one of their customers. You want to make sure that when they think of your law firm, that they are going to have nothing but wonderful things to say about how polite your clerks are, how great your lawyers are, how timely they are in getting things over to the courthouse. You don’t realize how much that means.

AMBROGI: Not asking to breach any kind of confidences, but are there any specific examples you can give me of an instance where you really, I don’t know, helped save an attorney’s butt?

SCREECHFIELD: All the time. From filings, to deadlines, sometimes they get things wrong. And they’re like, ‘Well, how come it’s not due on this day?’ And you’re like, ‘Well, because you’re citing the wrong rule and you’re counting it wrong.’

It happens all the time. It’s part of the job. I just tell myself it’s like flying in an airplane, just don’t think about it. Just don’t think about what it takes to get that big old piece of metal up in the sky and flying correctly and without incident – just don’t think about it, it happens all the time.

Because if we think about the risk that’s associated with some of these deadlines that we calendar, or some of the missed opportunities, or some of the communications between the lawyers that we weren’t there to intercept and help with, you just can’t think about it in those terms, because it’ll just be too much. The risk is there all the time, all the time. For some people, it is too much, they can’t handle a job like that.

We’ve got to put it in perspective – we did what we needed to do. As long as we did what we needed to do, then we’re good, but it can be very scary when you know the enormity of some of these cases.

AMBROGI: I’ve been asking you a bunch of questions, but I wonder what else would you want to say about the organization or about roles?

SCREECHFIELD: I just think we’ve provided such a networking service. I think that’s what people love. They know they’re going to get the education, they’ll get the conferences, they’ll get the resources on the website, and all that kind of thing. But it’s really all the people they’ve met across the country that do what they do. And because what we do is not set in stone – we all have very different firms, very different cultural set ups in our firms, how we approach things, how we execute projects, how we get approval for these projects. All of those things are so different, and that’s where we need to talk to each other about what works and what doesn’t, and to provide support to each other in what had been a historically underrepresented profession.

OLENICH: It’s networking with people and knowing that you’re not the only one. Before, for the longest period of time, I would sit there and I would think, ‘Am I the only one who thinks this way? Am I the only one who is doing it this way?’ To come across and meet and find all these amazing people and to be like, finally, ‘Aha, I am not the one who is an idiot, I actually know other people who are doing it the same way I do, so I must be doing it right.’

AMBROGI: This was really interesting. I really appreciate everybody’s time and thoughts. Congratulations on everything you’ve done, and I look forward to everything you continue to do.