File Naming Conventions for Court Documents

Introduction

Summer is coming, and I’ve embarked on a research project concerning documents from the U.S. District Courts. As I was consolidating my work this morning, I grew frustrated with the naming conventions (or lack thereof) I’d been using while saving PDFs to drive. And since I have been rather, er, interested in filenames recently, it seemed as good a time as any to collect my thoughts. I will begin with the caveat that while I am a librarian and professor of legal research, and a successful applicant to the N.C. bar, I have never worked on a case as an attorney, so I am hoping to solicit some feedback in the comments below. I plan to keep this post updated with new information as it becomes available. So, let’s begin!

Federal Courts

U.S. District Courts & Bankruptcy Courts

An Example

The first federal district court document I found was a complaint from the Middle District of North Carolina, filed in 2016 and assigned the docket number 1:16-cv-00988. Here are two examples of how I would name this file:

NCMD_1-16-CV-00988_0001.pdf
or
NCMD_1-16-CV-00988_0001_Complaint.pdf

Explanation

Because the 94 federal district courts all use the same docket numbering pattern, it is essential to start the file name with an abbreviation for the court. I chose the abbreviation that the U.S. Courts uses for its websites — i.e., http://www.ncmd.uscourts.gov/ — which I like because it should always make it easy to sort by state alphabetically. Then, an underscore, followed by the docket number divided all by single dashes at the appropriate points. (Incidentally, this piece of the citation is considered “valid” by Bloomberg Law’s docket search feature, which is an added bonus.) Finally, the docket number, which should always be four characters, and prepended with as many leading zeros as is necessary to achieve this. If it’s important for you to be able to tell, at a glance, what the document is — i.e., an order, a memorandum in support of a motion, etc., etc., you should develop some kind of vocabulary for naming the document and add that after the docket number.

This naming scheme will allow you to easily parse your filenames and get them into a structured data format like a .csv file or Excel spreadsheet, if you’re going to be doing any analysis; greater structure will also help if you use a citation management system while writing. Of course, you can simply sort your directories by filename alphabetically and likely get a good picture of what you’ve got.

Creating Directories

For cases in the federal district courts, I’d also recommend creating directories for each case or matter that is being studied, but only if that case is particularly significant to your research or you have collected a lot of documents related to the case. I’d recommend using party names and eschewing the lowercase directory naming convention. For the document I’ve been using as an example, the directory would be Calloway-v-Moore and you would place documents from subsequent appeals or docketings, and presumably would also be useful if the case had been removed from state to federal court or if it had been transferred.

Bankruptcy Courts

My solution for documents from Article I U.S. Bankruptcy Courts follows the exact structure as above, using the url abbreviation from the federal court system website. A case from the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina would begin with NCEB. I will try to compile a simple chart of all the abbreviations used in federal court urls.

U.S. Court of Appeals

An Example

There are thirteen courts that make up the circuit courts of the U.S. Court of Appeals. Eleven are numbered geographic circuits, which leaves the DC Circuit and the Federal Circuit. I find it considerably easier to name files from these courts, however, there is a wrinkle concerning the case citation. Here are two examples of opinions I have collected:

04CA_1956_239-F2d-502.pdf
and
05CA_2016_15-50559_Crose-v-Humana.pdf

Explanation

The first component is rather self-explanatory — a two digit designation for the numerical circuit followed by CA. For the DC Circuit, I recommend DCCA and for the Federal Circuit, FCCA because, well, I am allowed to be arbitrary and there doesn’t seem to be a likelihood that either abbreviation will conflict with other abbreviations used in the legal field. Also, each is four characters — consistency! [Though Rachel Gurvich, a colleague and legal writing professor at UNC, pointed out that she uses CTAF, which is the four-character abbreviation used by Westlaw for Federal Circuit cases. Just pick one and stick with it!]

Next, we have a four-digit year notation for the date the opinion was filed. Following that is the case number or case citation, which will depend on what is available and perhaps on your own intellectual bent. Opinions from the U.S. Court of Appeals are published in West Publishing Federal Reporter, but, more recently, have been published directly by the court on its website or collocated and served from a site like govinfo.gov. If you have a document from the Federal Reporter (now in its third series, so F, F2d, and F3d will be appropriate abbreviations), I recommend following the Volume-Reporter-FirstPage model of citation. If you have any other federal appellate opinion, I recommend using the case number followed by an underscore and the case name format discussed above. Of course, appending the case name might be helpful in the case of an opinion in the Federal Reporter.

Again, the idea here is not to make your filename look like a Bluebook citation, it is to make it easier for you to draw meaningful information from the filename alone and to facilitate parsing of the data you’ve collected for any number of important purposes.

U.S. Supreme Court

Naming a case from the U.S. Supreme Court is rather straightforward — US followed by the four-digit year of decision, the case number, and some kind of descriptive phase about the case. These two names, representing recent cases in my collection, serve as examples: US_2014_13–354_Burwell-v-HobbyLobby.pdf and US_2016_15-108_PR-Sovereignty.pdf

State Courts

North Carolina

There is more on this to come in a subsequent post, but in the meantime, check out some data that was pretty easily parsed out from the information provided by the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts concerning N.C. Court of Appeals opinions.

I will only discuss naming files from state appellate courts here, and will use North Carolina as an example. For state trial court documents, I’m afraid we will need another extremely long and boring blog post.

Intermediate Appellate Courts

Here is an example of a filename for a document from a state appellate court:

NC_CA_2017_16-899_AttyFeeDispute.pdf

This case, from the North Carolina Court of Appeals, was interesting to me because it involved a quantum meruit claim for an attorney’s services. It’s the only 2017 case in my collection about an attorney fee dispute, and the party names weren’t significant to me, so I used a descriptive phrase. Pretty straightforward. If your state has multiple intermediate appellate courts, I recommend coming up with a two-character abbreviation. Please leave it in the comments below! For those of you regularly practicing in the nine states lacking intermediate appellate courts, I have just wasted a minute of your time.

Courts of Final Resort

I recommend using SC as the abbreviation for North Carolina’s Supreme Court, rendering a file name as such: NC_SC_1980_299-NC-360_Ragland-v-Moore.pdf

Here, we have an opinion from 1980 — but, because of the nature of the publication of state court opinions, we have a complication. Most states have both an official reporter for decisions and have decisions published in West’s National Reporter System. I suggest that, when possible, you use either the case number or the official reporter to use in your filename. The reason is that both citations are more rich in data at a glance than the regional reporter citation. There’s a lot to say about medium-neutral citation here, but my purpose isn’t to give a lesson in that whole mess, but rather to suggest an efficient and useful method of naming files so you can find them easily and analyze what you have.

A Note About Case Management Systems

Professor Gurvich also suggested, rightly, that a given firm or organization’s case management system will add information, likely a client ID and/or a matter number, to most documents. One thing that is great about case management systems is that they obscure the small details of document metadata and make things easier or more intuitive to find. In many ways, this is the point of software and information design — to make the user’s experience more fluid (and to prevent inconsistencies in data entry) so she need not worry about, say, following a complex system of filing naming perfectly.

The file-naming system described above is suggested for those without access to such a system, or those, like scholars, who use court documents in a way different from lawyers or judges. I’d suggest having a directory or file for each client, and a sub-directory for each matter, and then place named files inside, to roughly recreate the strength of a good automated document management system.

That said, I still think there is plenty of value in organizing one’s files according to a consistent scheme. This one is built with the idea of being both human and machine readable — that is, providing information to a user both at a glance and after some kind of software manipulation. Likewise, file names are indexed by all modern operating systems, meaning that using your computer’s search function will be faster, especially if you append descriptive phrases, such as party or document names, at the end of your file name.

And here, for your viewing pleasure, is a list of files of case documents:

Case Naming Conventions

Yes, but how do I Shepardize?

What is a citator good for?

Citators have been a part of the American legal research landscape for about as long as any type of product. First appearing in the early 1820s, citators showed up around the same time as the first case law digests (and naturally, after the first reporters and treatises). Why lawyers wanted them was fairly straightforward — they sought to avoid the type of “Oh, sh*t” moment I wrote about last week in my post about false negatives and false positives. But in an era featuring a veritable buffet of case law authority for attorneys to find and choose from, combined with new technological tools to access and query that authority, one wonders how relevant the traditional “updating” function of case law citators really is.

Beyond the Terms

Let’s say you don’t subscribe to one of the three major services (Westlaw, Lexis, or Bloomberg Law) with an editorial citator (KeyCite, Shepard’s, or BCite) — how do you update your case law? That is, in the parlance of only two or three decades ago, when many lawyers were educated, how do you Shepardize? There is a vocabulary problem here, of course, when an action has been subsumed by a product name. Hasn’t the function of “doing citation analysis” or “finding out what cases cite my case” been locked in to Shepard’s promised backstopping model? (“Shepardize” is a trademarked term, naturally. I’ll leave dilution or “genericide” analysis to you.)

My point is that by asking “how do I Shepardize?” you are asking the wrong question. The question really should be “how do I situate the legal doctrine I’m relying upon within the context of the cases that follow it?” Once you make the leap beyond equating all citators with the way you have used Shepard’s, KeyCite, etc., in the past, it’s possible to think of other ways of verifying the authority you’ve found. Why, for instance, should Shepardizing come at the end of the research process and not closer to the beginning? (Certainly citators are more powerful than serving as the means by which to check boxes at the end of a demanding intellectual task.) This step is essential for lawyers demanding real choices from their legal information vendors in the citator space and, frankly, for conducting more thoughtful legal analysis.

Further Reading:

The excellent article by Patti Ogden, “‘Mastering the Lawless Science of Our Law’: A Story of Legal Citation Indexes,” 85 Law Libr. J. 1, 39 (1993), for a fascinating history.

Of course, you can also read my paper, Yellow Flag Fever, 108 Law Libr. J. 77 (2016) here.

A Green Flag for Gratitude

As you probably know, I am quite new to law librarianship and the legal information field. I was fortunate enough to have my paper on citators and descriptions of negative precedent published, and while my name will fill the “Creator” field, there are many many people without whom my project could not have happened. So, let me take some time to say thanks. Of course, the familiar caveat applies — any errors or omissions in the paper are entirely my responsibility. Any insights, however, are purely coincidental and likely attributable to the after-mentioned.

First to two very special people who played very different roles: Ed Walters, CEO of Fastcase, let me join his team for a summer to work his brilliant ideas about citation analysis. His thinking (and some of his data) form the backbone of my paper. Thank you for taking me under your wing, Ed! And to Sara Sampson, who taught two classes I took the same semester of graduate school and who was and is an incredible mentor to many. Sara, thanks so much for encouraging me to speak up and also for showing me how to Shepardize with the print volumes!

And now, let me also say thanks:

To other members of the Fastcase team who were amazing: Christina Steinbrecker Jack, “Other Deb” Deborah Letz, Ryan Semmler, Chris Jamros, the entire dev team, and Jennifer Owens, not to mention Phil Rosenthal, who probably has no idea that my meeting him is how I got introduced to Fastcase. You were all so welcoming and helpful, and I apologize for eating too many subs at my desk.

To my colleagues and mentors at Carolina Law who talked with me all throughout my time in graduate school and took the chance of hiring me full-time right after I graduated: Anne Klinefelter steered me away from many errors and gave very helpful feedback, Leslie Street has been an excellent supervisor (two times over!), and Julie Kimbrough, who prevented me from writing about “metadicta,” whatever the hell I thought that was. (OK, I know what it is and I might still write about it someday!) And to Stacey Byrd, who got me my first job as a circulation assistant in the law library!

To my master’s paper advisor, Ryan Shaw, whose comments and guidance strengthened my work, and to Lara Bailey, who is awesome. To James Duggan, editor of LLJ, who cite-checked and line edited my work. Now I get one of those “LLJ Author” ribbons, right? To Susan Nevelow-Mart, whose work was extremely helpful in exploring this area of study and who invited me to workshop an earlier paper at the Boulder Conference. And to Brett Currier, for being my fellow traveler through the world of graduate school, and for tolerating my linguistic prescriptivism.

To my parents, Paul and Hannah Kirschenfeld, for supporting me since birth and helping me attend the schools I wanted to (and mostly leaving me alone while I was there!) and who endured many tough times raising a stubborn, argumentative young man. I love you both very much.

To my wife, Debbie, who read many versions of the paper and did a bunch of editing, and who also married me. I knew from the moment I met you that we’d spend the rest of our lives together – I love you.

And to four very special cats: Mitch, Sherman, and William, you guys are the absolute worst-best pets and you are very cute, and to Maddox, whom I miss dearly, and who is surely best friends with all the other pets over the rainbow bridge – love you, yogurt-friend.

There are so many others who deserve recognition that I didn’t have time or the proper memory to name – my thank you to you all as well!