Agency builds automated law office

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission is wielding technology in the fight against fraud. Created in 1974 as an independent agency of the federal government, The commission generates and receives 1 million documents annually, which investigators use to protect the public from illegal futures trading.

But without any central clearinghouse, officials said, the volumes of paper would hamper commission investigators' ability to effectively perform their tasks.

"We do not have the ability to gather information, to search information," said Muriel Slaughter, associate director for the commission's Division of Enforcement, whose 110 attorneys investigate and prosecute alleged violations of the Commodity Exchange Act. "We are just so far behind in being automated because of so many little databases people have created on their own."

About six years ago, commission officials conceived Project eLaw as a way to provide staff with electronic tools that would enable them to perform "more efficiently and effectively, both in the office and in the courtroom facing opposing counsel," according to the current strategic plan. The goal, Slaughter said, is to be completely automated.

But change was slow. Not until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which wiped out the agency's New York regional office, did the program take off.

"We lost everything, every piece of paper, every file," said Joseph Vargyas, a senior trial attorney for the division. "It was absolutely vital that we basically arm ourselves."

Commission officials decided that Project eLaw should be implemented in three phases, and they brought in experts from Aspen Systems Corp., an information technology consulting firm specializing in the collection, analysis and dissemination of information.

The first phase, launched in 2003 and largely completed by November 2004, involved some litigation tools. Commercial software packages were used because "we wanted to hit the road running," said Jim Shorten, the project manager within the agency's Office of Information Resource Management.

The main applications currently available are LiveNote Inc.'s LiveNote and CaseSoft's CaseMap. The former allows attorneys to receive and review depositions in real time via the Internet or a serial connection. CaseMap, aimed at improving organization, ties Project eLaw's various systems together by putting main information in one database.

Using LiveNote, now only one attorney has to travel to a deposition. "The rest of the team can see it in real time," Slaughter said.

Each employee also received a laptop computer to act as a mobile station. Another "one of the problems [with] travel: It was hard accessing information, which was usually here" in Washington, D.C., she said.

The second phase, which is still in the planning stages, is slated for implementation next month. The goal is to achieve better management of the agency's vast amount of paper. To that end, agency officials will use Dataflight Software's Concordance database management system to manage Microsoft Word files, e-mail messages and paper documents.

The final phase, which officials hope to get under way in October, will incorporate RealLegal's Practice Manager case management software, which can keep statistics and track all of the commission's matters — the preliminary inquiry that leads to investigation. Users can search matters by subject, party and date, for example, if they previously investigated a person.

Project eLaw "seems like the logical direction for the implementation of e-government," said Alan Balutis, president and chief executive officer of market research firm Input's Government Strategies unit. "They're not up at the forefront ...but it is certainly in step with what others are doing."

Balutis added that using commercial software, instead of developing new systems as many agencies did in e-government's early days, makes the transition "a lot simpler and more straightforward."

Lisagor is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

Project eLaw benefits

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission launched Project eLaw in 2003 to create an automated law office. Officials completed the first part of the three-phase program in November 2004.

According to the agency's strategic plan, the program will enable employees to:

* Search and retrieve information about investigations and litigation.

* Develop documents in an online environment.

* Better manage investigation leads and trial schedules.

Source: Commodity Futures Trading Commission

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